Councils wary of proposed new powers for WAPC

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One of the McGowan Government’s proposed planning reforms aims to speed up development approval to help kick start the economy but local government has been left feeling it is being sidelined. File picture

SPEEDING up developmental approval of some significant projects to provide jobs for construction industry workers is one of the McGowan Government’s immediate aims with the proposed planning reforms it is trying to push through Parliament.

To do this the government wants the Western Australian Planning Commission (WAPC) for an 18-month period to decide on developments costing $30 million or more, residential developments of 100 or more dwellings, commercial developments of 20,000sqm or regional or tourism projects that may not meet the criteria but are considered important to assist in the Covid-19 recovery.

The government has argued this would ensure big and complex developments received a state coordinated approach with referral agencies and streamlined assessment processes to ensure job creating projects could start as soon as possible.

When Planning Minister Rita Saffioti introduced the proposed Planning and Development Bill 2020 into the Lower House of Parliament last month both the Opposition and the Nationals raised some concerns with some of the proposed reforms while welcoming others.

Nationals deputy leader Shane Love said local government was very concerned with the powers being granted to the WAPC.

“There has been a history of some level of conflict between government desires to see infill and other things happening in certain suburbs, maybe redevelopments on certain beachfronts or other iconic areas, that do not always seem to be in accord with what the local government wants,’’ he said.

“If this level of power is to be granted to the planning commission, there needs to be a lot of consideration of how it can still take into account community concerns and ensure that communities are not overridden, either by the planning commission sitting in this 18-month period or by special development assessment panels that will be its offspring, if you like, in 18-months time.’’

But Mr Love said the state was facing an unprecedented economic crisis.

“For instance, the number of housing starts forecast by the industry to be on the books is half what was expected a year ago.

“We also know that development and construction are very, very substantial employers in Western Australia.

“This is a crisis that needs to be addressed.

“That is really the only reason why the Nationals are prepared at this point to override the Western Australian Local Government Association’s concern.’’

Zak Kirkup – the Opposition lead speaker representing Opposition planning spokesman Tjorn Simba in the Lower House – questioned what consultation had been undertaken with WALGA given the proposed sections 274, 275 and 276 granted the WAPC “almost unfettered powers to make up the rules as it goes along”.

“They reserve for it the right to override all existing planning instruments, including local planning instruments, on the basis of a generalised economic basis,’’ Mr Kirkup said.

“It could make nonsense of a local planning scheme and the role of the local government in that development.

“We have seen in the past that those planning schemes have a high degree of community involvement.

“It is important, particularly for significant developments, that there be high levels of community engagement and local government is one facilitator of that from time to time.’’

Earlier Ms Saffioti had said the proposed legislation would enhance consultation – something in her opinion the community thought was silenced when the Barnett government introduced development assessment panels.

Mr Kirkup also raised concerns about referral powers the proposed reforms would give the Planning Minister and the Premier and the risk a development in a marginal seat was politicised.

Ms Saffioti said politicisation already happened in some councils.

“There’re divisions and factions in a lot of local councils (now), which are basically really impacting how projects are being assessed and determined,’’ she said.

WA Local Government Association president Tracey Roberts, who is also the mayor of the City of  Wanneroo, said many local governments supported planning reform and the proposed planning reform was well intentioned.

But Mrs Roberts said it would be a tragedy if the legacy of the pandemic response was ill-considered or problematic developments that adversely affected communities for the long term.

She said not enough consideration had been given to the potential effects on residents and communities and suggested an expedited process of reviewing the potentially unforeseen effects of the legislation could be achieved within one month.

“Rushing through such important legislation without the proper consideration by all affected parties, especially residents and the community, is a high risk,’’ she said.

“The unintended consequences on the community could be projects that are not required to give consideration to issues such as, traffic, heritage, or appropriate building heights to reduce overlooking and overshadowing of private property.’’

Ms Saffioti said the temporary change in approval authority would enable the government to prioritise developments and projects that had investment certainty, were well designed and were ready for construction to start to create jobs at a time when the state needed them the most.

After the 18-month period of the WAPC being the decision maker the government plans to create a new special matters development assessment panel based on a similar model.

On May 27 the City of Wanneroo said under the government’s proposed planning reform package, local governments would no longer be involved in some major planning and development proposals.

Mayor Tracey Roberts said the proposed reforms would centralise decision-making and remove local council representatives from the determination.

The legislation still has to pass the Upper House.