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Queanbeyan Today 15°/19° | Tuesday, March 5, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Way too much power sits in planning bureaucracy 

“The Draft Planning Bill… “increases the powers and discretionary authority of the chief planning executive.”

Former senior planner RICHARD JOHNSTON has misgivings about the ACT government’s “independent review” into the governance of the new planning system. 

THE ACT government has commissioned an “independent review” into the governance of the ACT’s new planning system.

Richard Johnston.

It’s to be completed by Peg Consulting, from Adelaide. Peg’s website claims that: “Their expertise draws on a deep understanding of how government works, blended with a laser focus on delivery results and value for money.” 

That may be, but do they have any “deep understanding” of how planning systems work in Australia?

The contract is to be completed by March 28. The “core deliverables” will be “subject to review and approval by the ACT chief minister”. 

The “required services” include finalisation of the terms of reference, which “must at a minimum include” (some) nominated recommendations from the Planning, Transport and City Services (PTCS) Committee Inquiry on the draft Planning Bill and the way various government bodies “interact with the planning system”. 

Under “Stakeholder/ Officeholder Consultation” there is no mention of any “stakeholders” external to the ACT government. 

This seems to be an extraordinarily introverted and limited approach to a review of the new planning system that, of course, has many “stakeholders” including the development industry, the community and the Legislative Assembly.

The ACT is a unique jurisdiction in Australia in that there is effectively only one level of government. In town planning matters, the Commonwealth has some involvement in “areas of special national concern”, but for the most part the ACT planning authority sets the rules (subject to agreement by the Assembly in some respects) and makes the decisions on development applications.  

It can also reconsider its own decisions, if requested by the development proponent. 

The conflicts of interest inherent in these arrangements are obvious and the “reforms” will only exacerbate these conflicts by giving the planning authority more discretion and removing much of the current Assembly oversight of planning policy, as well as further reducing community involvement.  

Khalid Ahmed, adjunct professor, Institute of Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra and commentator for “CityNews”, gave me the following advice:

“The Draft Planning Bill incorporates significant changes to the governance of the planning system in the territory. In particular, it:

  • “Degrades the role and powers of the Legislative Assembly for oversight and input to key planning instruments;
  • “Provides unspecified discretionary powers to the minister to make planning instruments and directives, and to make rules for community input;
  • “Increases the powers and discretionary authority of the chief planning executive; and 
  • “Diminishes the role of the community in planning decisions.”

These concerns reflect the results of the government’s own consultation on the early stages of this project. The “ACT Planning Review and Reform Working Series Listening Report ” of December 17 identified three “key feedback themes”, which were said to be “consistently prominent” across the four “stakeholder” meetings:

  • “Confidence, certainty and clarity” – “important to both community and industry… clear rules and processes are preferred”. 
  • “Trust and transparency” – “building trust in the planning system should be a priority”. 
  • “Consultation” – “community consultation is an important aspect of restoring trust in planning system” 

These matters have been largely ignored in the new planning system. The PTCS Committee Inquiry made some relevant recommendations regarding governance, but left the main issues for the promised later governance review.

To me, the fundamental governance problems, to some extent present in the former system but substantially exacerbated in the “reforms”, are:

  • far too much power and discretion invested in one government agency, particularly the so-called “independent” planning authority, which is contained in and headed by the director-general of one of the large directorates of the ACT government, ie. no adequate separation of powers and roles;
  • reduction in the ability of the Legislative Assembly to exercise oversight of planning policy, because many planning controls are taken out of the Territory Plan and relegated to “supporting material”, which can be changed at will by the minister and/or planning authority;
  • limited opportunities for community input to planning policy and decision-making;
  • minimal transparency and accountability for the planning authority’s decisions;

At the very least there is an obvious need for truly independent and transparent decision-making on significant development applications through a body, such as an expert planning panel of the kind now operating in NSW and SA.  

Critical planning controls also need to be put back into the Territory Plan rather than outsourced to “supporting material”.

Richard Johnston is a life fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia and a former senior executive of the ACT Planning & Land Authority. More recently, he’s been active in representing community interests in planning matters.


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