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Reform Options

5.1 Deconflict the role of councillors and the role of planning authorities

The Board has heard that the role of councillors “to represent the community” often conflicts with the role of planning authorities to objectively apply the provisions of a planning scheme regardless of the views of the community. Councillors found it difficult to participate in important public debates about major developments in their municipality for fear of ‘pre-judging’ development applications or being accused of bias in the assessment process.

5.1a Refer complex planning development applications to independent assessment panels appointed by the Tasmanian Government

The assessment of complex development applications depends on access to technical expertise, robust data, efficient administrative systems, sound decision-support systems, and strong communications support.

Independent panels appointed by the State Government would have access to a diverse range of specialists and establish robust administrative and technical support systems, allowing a consistent standard of decision making state-wide.

Clear criteria would be established to define which developments must be referred. These could include:

  • high value developments;
  • developments in which the council or councillors have a direct interest, including developments on council land;
  • developments in sensitive locations;
  • developments of particular industry types; and
  • developments with particular types of impacts.

Freed from the constraints of acting as a planning authority, councils would be able to represent their community and its views in submissions on complex developments as they are being assessed. Councils would continue to assess and determine other development applications and retain overall land-use planning responsibilities.

  • This reform would only apply to a small proportion of applications, with the majority of development applications continuing to be determined by councils and their delegated council staff.
  • Costs involved should not fall back on the councils it was designed to assist. Rather a proponent user-pays model would be appropriate. Panels should comprise a range of relevant skills and knowledge and must include a person with knowledge of the local context of the particular development, including community and council priorities.

NSW has five Sydney planning panels and four regional planning panels introduced in 2009 to enhance decision making on regionally significant development applications (generally having a capital investment value of over $30 million). The panels are each independent bodies, not subject to the direction of the Minister of Planning and Public Spaces.

5.1b Remove councillors’ responsibility for determining development applications

This option is similar to option 5.1a but elected representatives would be removed from the process of determining development applications entirely. Applications would routinely be assessed by planning staff in councils and, if required, escalated to independent panels appointed by the State Government.

Councillors would still have responsibility for all the strategic elements of the planning system, including strategic land use planning and recommending Local Provision Schedules.

Council would also be able to make representations to independent planning panels on discretionary elements of development applications (in addition to officer level advice as currently provided to councils).

  • Community planning and environment groups strongly support maintaining councillors’ role in determining significant local development determinations.
  • Development interests are seeking a development approval system that is consistent and predictable. They did not find that this is always the case when development determinations were made by councillors.

This option has parallels with the introduction of Local Planning Panels in some areas of New South Wales. Under this system, a local planning panel is made up of a chair (appointed by the Minister), expert members (appointed by the council from a list approved by the Minister) and a community member (appointed by the council).

5.1c Develop guidelines for the consistent delegation of development applications to council staff

While most development applications are determined by council officers under delegation, a small proportion are considered by councillors (or independent panels as proposed in 5.1a) acting as a planning authority. An absence of clear guidance on options to delegate planning processes to council staff can frustrate and lengthen the planning assessment processes.

Planning decisions must be based on professional, technical assessments against criteria under the planning scheme. However, councillors are often under community pressure to make decisions that reflect popular opinion based on considerations outside their formal statutory role as a planning authority. This can unduly divert council resources and undermine community confidence in the council and in the planning system.

Guidelines would help councils to determine which decisions should be made by councillors, and which should be made by the council’s planning staff under delegation. The criteria in such a policy could be based on the nature of the development (e.g., capital value, location, activity proposed), the nature of the proponent (private individual, business, government agency, council, councillor) and/or the number of representations received.

This would provide clarity to proponents and the community and reduce the potential for the development application process to be be unduly influenced by local political pressures. It may also lead to more efficient decision-making, as proponents, council staff, councillors and the broader community would be clearer on who will be making key decisions, and on what basis.

  • There were a range of views on whether all councils need to take a consistent approach to this issue, or whether some discretion is acceptable and desirable.
  • While few thought the problem was bad enough to warrant a mandatory approach to delegation, there was some support for councils being offered guidelines they could choose to adopt.

While there do not appear to be any precedents for such a policy, the variety of approaches councils currently apply to this issue suggest there would be some benefit from clearer/improved guidance.

5.2 Greater transparency and consistency of councils’ resourcing and implementation of regulatory functions

Councils’ performance of their regulatory functions varies widely, with many falling well below risk-based benchmarks. Where there is underperformance of regulatory functions, there is an increased risk to public health and safety.

This option would include measures of regulatory resourcing and implementation in a new public-facing performance reporting, monitoring and management framework (see option 3.2). This would help communities to understand how well their councils are exercising their regulatory responsibilities, and help councils to ‘level up’ to the standard of other similar councils.

  • The most common explanation councils have offered for failing to exercise all regulatory responsibilities is a lack of access to skilled staff.
  • Other explanations offered include poor awareness of regulatory requirements by applicants, and a lack of resources for smaller councils to undertake statutory functions.

The Victorian Government’s Know Your Council website reports councils’ performance of a range of regulatory functions, and allows these to be compared between councils.

For example, for food safety, councils report:

  • time taken to action food complaints;
  • percentage of required food safety assessments undertaken;
  • cost of food safety service per premises; and
  • percentage of critical and major non-compliance outcome notifications followed up by council.

5.3 Increase support for the implementation of regulatory processes, including support provided by the State Government

Council regulators have some discretion when applying the State Government’s statutory regulations to their local circumstances, but they must treat all applicants fairly and equitably. Councils have told us they need more support and resources to be able to strike this balance. This option aims to make regulation simpler and more efficient through streamlining the collective understanding and expectations concerning regulatory frameworks, ensuring transparency around agreed guidelines and decision-making support tools, training, regulatory support hotlines, and data collection and usage.

Current approaches assume that regulatory requirements, such as for building approvals or environmental protection, can be written as objective ‘rules’ and ‘tests’ which are clearly linked to stated policy intentions. For development applications, for example, the Tasmanian Planning Reforms should broaden the availability of ‘acceptable solutions’ and limit discretion to where it is absolutely necessary. Where such rules and tests are not possible, specific policy objectives and decision-making guidelines would need to be understood.

A program of improving transparency and consistency could also target particular council and development industry priorities like, for example, ‘no permit’ pathways for low-impact urban infill.

There was strong support in our engagement for this option, with greater collaboration and support from the State Government seen as critical.

If designed in a collaborative way between State Government and councils, a comprehensive package covering all elements of regulatory implementation would increase both council capability and the challenge of balancing local and State objectives.

The Tasmanian Planning Reforms are heading in this direction, which was seen as positive. This option would complement those reforms, both within planning and in other regulatory areas such as building, public health and pollution control. There was agreement that there are currently considerable cultural and structural barriers to local governments accessing State Government knowledge and clear guidance about applying and interpreting policy which sometimes results in unnecessary complexity and conflict.

Planning reform has been advocated by a range of national and state commentators and is being pursued in most jurisdictions.

The Tasmanian Government is undertaking a number of initiatives to address housing affordability. It has committed to delivering 10,000 social and affordable homes by 2032 and is finalising a 20-Year Housing Strategy which will guide the types of homes to be built, and when and where they will be built.

5.4 Strengthen connections between councils’ strategic planning and strategic land-use planning by working with State and Commonwealth Governments

Strategic land-use plans that have the support of all spheres of government would help to align Commonwealth, state, and local priorities in residential development, industrial development, infrastructure investment, and green space protection. The review of the regional land use planning framework underway through the Tasmanian Planning Reforms is a good opportunity to advance this option.

Without strategic land-use plans, councils:

  • risk making land-use planning, infrastructure, and investment decisions that fail to account for known demographic and other future trends;
  • may fail to make the necessary regional trade-offs for effective and efficient resource allocation; • may fail to manage future risks; and
  • risk costly and ineffective public investment and missed opportunities for meeting social, economic, and environmental objectives.
  • There was general support for this option, although it was acknowledged previous attempts have not been realised to their full potential, with participants feeling greater State Government buy-in would be needed. It was noted strategic land-use planning had in general been poorly resourced and implemented across Australia.
  • While a long-term common vision was important for community and investment, plans need to allow flexibility for changed circumstances and contexts and should include measurables and accountability mechanisms. Communities need to be able to see evidence of implementation in the short-term.
  • Such plans require clarity around purpose and importance, a high-level framework and specific implementation strategies, investment, accountability, and should be contextually dependent.
  • ‘City Deals’ were said to be good for those ‘in the tent’ but most of Tasmania was outside of these areas, and this form of collaboration was clearly not appropriate for rural areas.

This option would see the occurrence of more collaborative strategic land-use planning, such as the 30-year Greater Hobart Plan and the Hobart City Deal.

This option may be less beneficial if the structural reform of moving to fewer, larger councils is undertaken. Larger councils would have responsibility for larger areas, which would simplify decision making on land-use planning in that area. They would also have larger populations to equitably share the costs and benefits of infrastructure investment.

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