I support and welcome the Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment (Part 3A Repeal) Bill 2011, which is a step in the right direction towards much-needed reform to the planning system after years of emasculation of what was once landmark legislation. The Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 was a response to the ravages of the Askin Government, which saw development excesses and appalling and rapid loss of heritage, particularly in the inner city. At that time people had no say in the form and future of their cities, towns and environments. It was a free-for-all between governments and developers.
The Environmental Planning and Assessment Act was proudly introduced by a former Labor government and it enshrined community rights to be informed and involved in planning and development processes, particularly for development that affected communities. But the achievements of the 1979 Act were progressively reversed under successive legislative changes by the former Government over the last decade. Heritage protections were gutted, and the built environment and neighbourhood amenity were put in the hands of people the community had not elected and who did not live locally. I opposed those changes every step of the way in this House.
In 2005 when then Planning Minister Knowles introduced part 3A, I told the House the bill "could be a recipe for environmental degradation, urban chaos and social dysfunction". Part 3A gave the Minister extraordinary discretion over environmental assessment and final development approval at the expense of community input and checks and balances in order to fast track development. It created a new process for major projects and critical infrastructure that reduced accountability and transparency, took away people's right to be involved in development in their neighbourhoods and, worse, took development assessment out of the public arena to behind closed doors, creating an environment conducive to corruption. I called for a division to oppose that legislation and only five Independents voted with me.
In 2006 there were further changes proposed which I again opposed. These changes allowed the State to override development control plans formulated with community input. It enabled the Government to spend development contributions away from communities impacted by a development, and to appoint administrators or panels to perform the functions of councils. Also in 2006 I opposed changes that allowed the Minister to ignore environmental assessments that prohibit development approvals. Again, in 2008, I opposed changes that transferred planning decisions from elected councillors to unelected panels and bodies hired and fired by the Minister or the developer. Bit by bit the people of New South Wales have had their hard-won rights to be involved in the future of their neighbourhood wound back and environmental and heritage protection diminished.
The Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment (Part 3A Repeal) Bill creates an interim planning process for major development and critical infrastructure, and returns some types of development to elected representatives, where they will be assessed openly and transparently. The Planning and Assessment Commission will determine State significant development, such as major developments like mines and hospitals, as well as urban renewal sites. The planning Minister will continue to approve State significant infrastructure, which includes roads, railways and pipelines. I acknowledge that the Minister says the bill is an interim measure while a comprehensive review of the New South Wales planning system is carried out; however, I do have some concerns with proposals in the bill.
The Minister retains a call-in power for State significant development. This process could deteriorate and create perceptions of and opportunities for a conflict of interest. Developers are likely to lobby to have their developments called in to avoid rigorous processes required by councils. They will use the need for jobs and housing as justification. The ability to call in prohibited development is a particular concern, which could encourage approvals of inappropriate development. A preferred approach would be to require a public and accountable process to look at amending planning controls on their merit and with input from the community.
I welcome provisions that allow for legal challenges against State significant development approvals. I am concerned that planning decisions will continue to be made by the Planning Assessment Commission, which is made up of unelected members. I acknowledge the Minister's comments that commission determinations will involve more opportunities for public comment. However, it remains another decision-making body in what is an over-governed State. The Minister should also commit to seeking and considering public submissions, including from councils, communities and stakeholders, on the matters proposed in the new State environmental planning policy. The Government's review should aim to achieve a twenty-first century version of the 1979 Act, which encouraged the best social and environmental outcomes in planning. I look forward to working with the Government to achieve that.
To read full debate go to NSW Parliament website, HERE.