The embattled Iemma Government, already in open conflict with the NSW Labor Party and the trade unions over its controversial plan to privatise electricity, has provoked a major fight on a second front: with local government.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning Planning Minister Frank Sartor rammed through controversial legislation that gives greater planning power to Government-appointed bodies over councils.
In characteristic barnstorming fashion, Sartor swept into the Legislative Assembly just hours after Treasurer Michael Costa delivered his 2008 budget on Tuesday, sought the suspension of standing orders and presented his draconian Environmental Planning and Assessment Bill as well as two non-contentious Bills on building professionals and strata management.
MPs were then obliged to sit until after 2:00am on Wednesday morning as the Bills were railroaded through the Lower House before being dispatched to the Upper House where they face a much rougher ride.
There are two contradictory issues in the bitter NSW planning debate: first, everyone agrees that the present system is out of date and needs urgent reform and, second, most of the stakeholders, with the notable exception of the developers, oppose the legislative changes presented by Sartor.
The result? An inevitable collision between the two tiers of government – State and local. The Iemma Government will cop the consequences of any political damage when council elections are held in just three and a half months time.
Previous Labor planning ministers, like Andrew Refshauge or Craig Knowles, would never have attempted such root-and-branch reform without a lengthy period of consultation, building a broad consensus and initiating a community education program. But that’s not Sartor’s way. Like his bitter Cabinet rival Michael Costa, Sartor is a crash or crash-through kind of guy.
More than 320 country mayors, deputy mayors and councillors, as well as the Greens, the National Trust, the Total Environment Centre, the Environmental Defender’s Office, Local Government Managers Australia, the Development and Environmental Professionals Association and the Nature Conservation Council, are demanding an Upper House Inquiry into Sartor’s power grab.
NSW Local Government Association president Genia McCaffery, who is also mayor of North Sydney, told newmatilda.com that she believes a review of planning laws is "desperately needed" but she has deep reservations about Sartor’s bulldozer approach.
"There is no doubt that the NSW planning system is complex and in need of reform but the planning changes proposed by the minister aren’t the right ones. They have more holes than a rusty bucket," she said.
What particularly incenses McCaffery and her supporters is the constant refrain by Sartor that his critics have not put forward a workable alternative.
In fact, the Local Government and Shires Association retained the services of expert town planner John Mant "at considerable expense" to submit a counter-plan which was simpler, more democratic and transparent. Sartor simply brushed it aside.
"What we are talking about here are the biggest changes to planning in this State in almost 30 years, and the impacts for councils and their communities will be extreme," she said.
Her principal concern is the introduction of professional privately employed certifiers to take the place of council planning departments to approve development applications.
"Private companies – certifiers, paid by the developer – will be able to approve major extensions and renovations which could take away your view, affect the character of your street, or mean the difference between living next door to a one or two storey house – without you knowing," she said. "You will literally find out when the bulldozer arrives."
Her fears were countered in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald on 4 June by a private certifier Stephen Watson who wrote: "My colleagues in local government who are actively involved in building regulation, as opposed to the political figures whose profiles rely on being quoted in the press, do not raise concerns about the quality of privately certified buildings.
"Rather, they are interested in working with all the relevant parties to develop a better system for everyone. It is disingenuous to present the private certification system as some type of weird experiment by the NSW Government, when it is simply a mirror of the systems operating successfully elsewhere in Australia and overseas."
Another Sartor opponent, National Trust (NSW) conservation director Graham Quint, said the real aim of the legislation was "to fast-track development".
"The proposed legislation is focused on facilitating development rather than environmental planning," Quint said. "Any building that is not heritage listed or protected by a conservation zone will be able to be demolished without community or local council consultation. This legislation constrains and limits community rights, which is undemocratic."
Sydney Independent MP and Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore tore into the legislation during its second reading stage saying:
"The Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment Bill 2008 is pushing private interest over public interest, with its unresolved failings and potential to destroy amenity, degrade our environment and extend the climate of corruption in NSW.
"It virtually wipes out the progressive and environmentally responsible Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 with its public involvement focus. A previous Labor Government proudly introduced the legislation in response to community anger over development excesses during the Askin years. This Bill is the worst legislation I have seen in 20 years in this place. I am amazed that it has been allowed to progress so far."
Moore objected to the marginalising of the community in planning decisions and said the Bill transferred decision-making "from elected representatives to bodies predominantly hand-picked by the Minister, or by developers."
"The Bill removes processes that are in place to protect environment, heritage and neighbourhood and community amenity and reduces the role of the independent Land and Environment Court," she said. "People and communities will be excluded. If this Bill is enacted, our planning system will be more conducive to corruption, not less."
One of the Bill’s most contentious issues – reform of local developer contributions (part 5B) – has seen a raft of disinformation muddying the debate, with some mayors saying the new legislation would see the Government seizing donations which were previously spent by councils on local facilities.
Labor MP for Camden Geoff Corrigan, the city’s former mayor, laid these fears to rest during the parliamentary debate when he said: "While the majority of councils take a sensible approach to contributions, some of them are rorting the system. They are approaching levying as an uncapped backdoor tax. It has to stop.
"Some councils are using contributions to fund things such as council administration buildings, cat and dog pounds, and computer upgrades.
"I understand that many councils also are retaining funds and not spending an increased amount of levied money – that is, not delivering facilities to the community.
"This Bill sets out for the first time key considerations for determining, collecting and then spending contributions. About time!"
Nevertheless, councils remain worried that the Minister has stepped in on behalf of the developers who bitterly resent having to contribute to councils which then use their money to fund projects like libraries, art galleries, swimming pools and the like.
Councillors can’t help feeling that, in future, developer contributions will be harder to obtain and more difficult to spend on much-needed local facilities, and that the central government will amass the donations for its own use. Only time will tell.
For Labor, the political problem is the public perception that Sartor is a mini-dictator who is contemptuous of local government. He appeared to confirm this view on the day after he presented his legislation by telling the annual conference of the NSW Shires Association that its sister body, the Local Government Association, was slow and dumb. Few were amused and lots were very annoyed: they recalled one of his previous outbursts when he contemptuously called the local government "pissants".
ALP backbenchers are appalled by the graceless way he presents himself and they are being bombarded with protests about the way he is riding roughshod over local democracy. They hope that he will be removed from the Planning portfolio before 13 September when local government elections will be held, otherwise voters will thrash Labor candidates in what will amount to a plebiscite on "Cranky Frankie".
But urban and rural council areas are in such a rage that even a change of minister is unlikely to stem the bloodbath. The problems for Premier Morris Iemma just seem to get worse.
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