When NSW Labor was swept from power 18 months ago, no issue symbolised the community’s frustration more than a notorious law known as Part 3A.
Part 3A gave the state government the power to remove decision-making on "significant" proposals from local councils and hand it to the minister, who could either make a decision or appoint an expert panels. Around NSW, community groups found that controversial developments were removed from their local councils.
Not everyone hated Part 3A. Aaron Gadiel, then CEO of the developer’s lobby Urban Taskforce, said in 2011 that Part 3A was the only part of a dysfunctional NSW planning system that worked. "Part 3A makes the development application process work better by overriding 12 other acts of Parliament," he was quoted as saying. In February 2011, Gadiel welcomed O’Farrell’s broad development vision for NSW. "O’Farrell spot on with state’s future" heralded the Western and Northern suburbs media, quoting Gadiel as CEO of Urban Taskforce.
For those who follow NSW politics, Gadiel’s comments were a straw in the wind. Gadiel began in Young Labor and after a stint as an industrial officer joined the staff of right wing Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid, then a minister in the NSW government. Obeid has been frequently investigated by the Sydney Morning Herald for his role in property developments that benefitted Labor mates. His office was a good launching pad for Gadiel’s later role in the Urban Taskforce.
As it waited in the wings, the Coalition government promised a major overhaul of the planning laws. But as New Matilda reported at the time, O’Farrell’s policies were vague. Greens planning spokesperson David Shoebridge was a lone critical parliamentary voice:
"Mr O’Farrell, either he can’t, or won’t, say what he intends to replace (Part 3A) with .. If he can’t come up with concrete alternatives to unpopular and dysfunctional policies like Part 3A, the voters of NSW will be stumbling blind to the election".
Others warned that previous NSW Coalition governments had strong ties with property developers.
After their landslide victory, the Liberal government took their time. They approved many of the Part 3A projects including large scale residential developments on the sensitive coastal stretch of Catherine Hill Bay, which had been the subject of a long anti-development campaign. Meanwhile, the Urban Taskforce was complaining that the pace was too slow.
Eventually, the NSW Minister for Planning Brad Hazzard appointed Tim Moore — an ex-minister for planning in a former Liberal government and former judge of the Land and Environment Court — and lawyer Ron Dyer to conduct a review.
Their review was expected to be the basis for a green paper, which was subsequently published in June. After a further consultation period, a white paper and draft legislation will be released later this year. When passed, this bill is expected to become the new planning legal framework, replacing the 1979 act, which was passed after the Green Ban period but has been constantly amended since.
The Moore/Dyer review found the key objective of planning reform should be to "provide an ecologically, economically and socially sustainable framework". But when the green paper appeared, this and many other recommendations had disappeared. Now the first objective was "economic development and competitiveness". The underlying philosophy was now pro-growth and pro-developer.
Community groups which had welcomed the solid consultation process of the review now found that the paper proposed less rights for community consultation than now exist. Under the new regime, communites would be engaged in forming broad regional plans, but once guidelines were in place they would not be consulted on developments in their local neighbourhoods.
Developers, on the other hand, could apply for rezonings, even if these did not fit with regional guidelines. If council decisions went against developers they could appeal to non-elected Regional Planning Boards that may include developer representatives. There would also be more opportunity in the new system for checking off proposals against a list of criteria, using certificates supplied by developer consultants.
But while the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, environmental and resident groups throughout NSW were appalled, the Urban Taskforce were happy. According to their green submission, they put forward 10 key points for consideration and were satisfied when these were all reflected in the final green paper. One of a small list of people thanked at the beginning of the paper was Aaron Gadiel.
By now, Gadiel had left the Urban Taskforce and joined pro-development law firm Gadens. Gadiel’s experience in the NSW government was featured in his introduction to the firm. His link to Obeid, an important part of that experience, was not. Gadiel was able to provide a useful summary of the paper from the perspective of his developer clients. He acknowledged his own contribution to the Green Paper.
After a slow start, the O’Farrell government now began to work more quickly. There was only a three-month consultation period, but nevertheless a large number of submissions were lodged, most of which were critical of the green paper.
While working on submissions, community and environmental groups mobilised to form the Better Planning Network in August. With more than 50 affiliates the network is already the biggest community coalition formed around planning issues since the days of the Green Bans movement, when resident action groups across Sydney backed the Builders Labourers Federation to oppose developments that would have demolished the heritage buildings and low rise suburbs in inner Sydney as well as the pockets of remaining bushland and open space on the North Shore.
From the Wolli Creek Preservation Society which has been campaigning since 1998 to protect a pocket of bushland in the Inner West, to Friends of Koalas, which is dedicated to protecting Koalas in NSW’s Far North, to REDwatch in Redfern, the Better Planning Network represents a massive political campaigning resource — but it faces off against a government with a large majority and a developer lobby poised for victory.
The convenor of Better Planning Network, Corinne Fisher, is president of one of the oldest groups in the network: the Lane Cove Bushland and Conservation Society on Sydney’s North Shore. Fisher’s says the network’s key concerns are the "fundamental unfairness" of residents losing their say about developments in their neighbourhoods at the application stage, and that specific environmental and heritage controls have disappeared from the green paper. In the past these have included specific requirements to consider coastal protection, the protection of Sydney’s water supply, sustainable aquaculture and affordable housing.
The network is not opposed to regional planning in principle, but Fisher says that it should entail a different, more thorough approach to involving the community than the recent three-month consultation period allowed for the green paper. She agrees that it is possible to set broad regional limits on development but this should not remove the right of communities to oppose particular aspects of developments which are often difficult to predict in advance.
She is particularly concerned that after the regional plans are formed "a developer can decide there is a whole lot of money to be made and make a spot rezoning which would undermine the original community engagement process".
The Better Planning Network is completely opposed to what the Green Paper refers to as "Enterprise Zones", which would have few development controls. "We will not compromise on that," Fisher says. This is one aspect of the plan that concerns the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which stated in their submission on the green paper that this flexibility "will create a corruption risk, especially when combined with the potential for proponents to obtain huge windfall profits through obtaining an approval".
The Minister for Planning Brad Hazzard further eroded the community groups’ goodwill when he only included 9 per cent of representatives of community groups in a one day workshop last week on the planning reform process attended by 400 people. Although Hazzard acknowledged the importance of community engagement and his excitement about the planning process, representatives who attended were disappointed that the day was tightly managed with little opportunity to have an impact on direction of the reform.
While the Better Planning Network plans to visit every MP before the white paper is published, the Urban Taskforce will be working behind the scenes to strengthen O’Farrell and Hazzard’s backbone. They will lobby for a temporary planning policy to "kick-start the industry", similar to the Queensland government’s, which aims to speed up development.
The first electoral test of the O’Farrell government’s planning approach will come in the seat of Sydney by-election on Saturday week. The electorate stretches from heritage areas in Woollahra and Paddington to the high-rises of Ultimo and Pyrmont.
Much of what low-rise survives in between — in Darlinghurst, Kings Cross, Woolloomooloo and the CBD — would have been swept away in the 1970s if not for the Green Bans, a victory some current residents know nothing about. Due to relatively low media coverage, residents not already involved in community groups are only now becoming aware of the drastic changes.
Candiates will present their views at a Better Planning Forum this Tuesday. Greens candidate Chris Harris, an ex Sydney City Councillor, has made his views clear. Independent candidate and marriage equality campaigner Alex Greenwich also says he will support community involvement in planning laws. The Liberal candidate Shane Mallard, who has strong financial and political backing from the NSW Liberal Party, is campaigning to be a "voice for Sydney" in the heart of government, although as a junior MP, his voice would be a small one. New Matilda could find no mention the planning reforms on his website.
Wendy Bacon was involved in the Green Ban movement and is a member of Friends of Erskineville, which supports the Better Planning Network.