Planning Panels to Improve Transparency
The NSW Government recently announced the establishment of Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPs) to guard against corruption and improve accountability.
The Government’s announcement of IHAPs for all Great Sydney councils as well as Wollongong follows a number of Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigations of planning decisions said to have been influenced by inappropriate relationships between council staff and developers.
It is anticipated that the introduction of the panels will provide more transparency and better local planning outcomes for communities.
The panels will consist of four members with legal, planning and/or public administration expertise such as lawyers, architects and engineers. Members will be approved by the Minister for Planning to ensure their qualification and independence and will be subject to statutory rules such as a compulsory code of conduct and operational procedures for the panels.
Councils will choose two experts to sit on the panel, another expert will be chosen by the Minister to chair the panel and the fourth member will be a community representative.
For obvious reasons, councillors and mayors will not be able to sit on panels within their own local government areas. However they will still be involved in the strategic planning and the setting of development controls for their local areas.
The types of development to be assessed by the new panels will be determined against set criteria such as their value, any conflicts of interest, high risk or contentious development or those with strategic importance. The majority of development applications, such as for the erection of dwellings and alterations to dwellings, will continue to be assessed by councils' town planning staff, as is currently the case.
The Property Council deputy executive director Cheryl Thomas said the announcement was "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".
Wollongong, as well as many other Sydney councils, has been using independent assessment panels on a voluntary basis for some time.
The announcement has been received by many as a move in the right direction in assuring greater certainty and culpability in the development assessment process.