Canberra planners are calling for more transparency, consistency and integrity in the assessment of development applications, urging significant decisions be made fully public and the decision-maker be separate from the officer assessing a project.
The Planning Institute of Australia’s ACT Division in its submission on the government’s draft planning bill also opposes the government’s proposal to scrap the pre-DA consultation period and says planning staff need to be skilled enough to make decisions on major projects.
It says the DA decision-maker, particularly for significant development, should have the same qualifications as the Chief Planner and be eligible to be registered with a representative body such as PIA ACT.
PIA ACT proposes several changes to the way DAs are assessed and decisions are announced so that the process is more open and interactive.
“The Draft Bill misses an excellent opportunity to improve community trust in the DA approval process as it does not address transparency in the assessment and decision-making process,” the PIA submission says.
For major proposals with community objections or at least for a significant development where there is high public interest, decision-makers should be separate from the assessment officer and allow in-person submissions before making the decision in a public forum.
Ideally the decision-maker would be a panel of, possibly three, suitably qualified Environment, Planning and Sustainable Directorate officers, the submission says.
The assessment report should also be a publicly available document, without the need for a Freedom of Information request, or an ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal appeal.
Applicant and objectors should be able to view the assessment report before a final decision is made.
“Public availability of the DA assessment report would allow objectors to see how the issues that they raised in their submissions had been addressed by the assessment officer,” the submission says.
“PIA does not consider that the current Notice of Decision (NOD) adequately achieves this.”
The PIA also wants to see “continuity of care”, with one assessment officer to be responsible for a development application, from its acceptance through to assessment reporting.
But it says officers need to be skilled enough to make decisions that will have good planning outcomes.
“The ‘outcomes focus’ of the Draft Bill places emphasis on the skills and qualifications of the decision maker in their ability to make value judgments about what a good planning outcome is, rather than reliance on numerical rules [but] the Draft Bill does not adequately ensure that a DA decision-maker will have such skills,” the submission says.
The submission says amendments should not be treated as new applications because the subsequent new approval process and timeline deters proponents from making changes to projects.
It opposes the carryover into the bill of provisions limiting new waste facilities in Fyshwick, saying it was up to the Territory Plan to control land use.
“The Territory Plan should be the statutory document that identifies permitted and prohibited land uses … The need to introduce special legislative clauses for one form of development suggests that the Territory Plan does not exhibit the statutory strength in controlling land uses that is necessary,” the submission says.
Similarly, light rail does not need to be included in the bill as a Territory Priority Project.
“The Light Rail Project should follow the same process as any other project to be declared as a Territory Priority Project,” the submission says.
PIA believes the pre-DA consultation process should be be retained and implemented before any referral to the Design Review Panel.
It says a summary of community issues should be included in the documents the Panel reviews so members understand the broader community implications of a development proposal.
PIA ACT President Trevor Fitzpatrick said there were lots to like in the draft bill but there were some areas where existing procedures should remain in place and new proposals be refined.
“This Bill is a move in the right direction for ACT planning and will be improved by strong processes that support efficient, transparent and consultative decision-making,” he said.
The full submission can be found on the PIA website.