Local councils across Sydney and Wollongong will lose the power to consider development applications worth $5 million or more under new rules mandating Independent Hearing and Planning Panels (IHAPs).
It is reported that the move to implement compulsory IHAPs is intended to stamp out corruption, as the process of assessment and determination for high value, corruption risk, sensitivity or strategic importance development applications becomes “transparent and accountable”.
Panels will follow a standard model comprising of three independent expert members – selected by councils from a pool established by the Department of Planning and Environment and approved by the Minister for Planning – as well as one community member appointed by their council.
NSW Minister for Planning Anthony Roberts said that while it will be mandatory for panels to consider development applications between $5 million and $30 million, those above that amount will be transferred to regional Sydney Planning Panels whose threshold currently sits at $20 million.
Mr Roberts expressed that the Government’s primary concern has been “inappropriate” relationships between councils and developers, leading to the implementation of IHAPs.
The Minister told Parliament: “It is essential the Government has a transparent and accountable process in place when assessing [development applications] of significant value, when there is a conflict of interest for the council or developer, or when they are of a sensitive nature.
“By making IHAPs mandatory, local councils will be able to focus on providing community services, strategic plans and development controls for their local area.”
NSW deputy executive director Cheryl Thomas agreed with Minister Roberts’ sentiments, heralding the announcement as “good news for both the community and for industry because it means the politics will be taken out of planning – experts will make the decisions on development, not local politicians”.
However, the decision has been met with resistance from within the corners of some communities. The president of Local Government NSW, Keith Rhoades, lambasted the move, saying that IHAPs have the potential to “reduce the accountability and transparency” of planning decisions.
Mr Rhoades was also critical of the fact that councillors cannot serve on IHAPs, saying: “Councils are accountable to the community where panels are not. There is no accountability like the ballot box.”
Members of many communities have also pointed out that favouritism and collusion could still be rife under the new system given the minister would appoint the most “powerful” chair of the four member panels, who must have worked in law or Government.
“This could conceivably include a former member of the Government of the day – hardly the transparent, independent and conflict-free expert promoted in the Government’s media release announcement,” Rhoades noted on the matter.
The success of the legislation will be measured soon, with the panels already being used by Wollongong council and 15 Sydney metropolitan councils on a voluntary basis.