Greens say reforms will give too much power to Planning Minister

The proposed planning Bill leaves out some key elements of good governance such as transparency, consultation and appropriate checks and balances, according to The Greens. File picture

PLANNING reforms going through the Upper House could enable planning ministers to have an unwarranted amount of influence over the decision-making process and give unrestrained powers to the WAPC, according to The Greens.

The proposed Planning and Development Amendment Bill 2020 was rushed into the Lower House last month as the McGowan Government attempts to streamline assessment processes for big and complex developments to ensure job creating projects can start as soon as possible.

Planning Minister Rita Saffioti has said in the short-term, the Western Australian Planning Commission would be the decision-maker for such projects, with plans to create a new special matters development assessment panel after 18 months based on a similar model.

The Greens WA North Metropolitan MLC Alison Xamon, the party’s Integrity of Government spokeswoman, said the government wanted the Bill to create a streamlined process, but what was actually in the Bill was blanket permission to over-ride all other legislation.

“Part 2 of the Bill basically sets aside established planning processes and grants unfettered powers to the WAPC and enables the (Planning) Minister to have an unreasonable amount of influence over the decision-making process,’’ she said.

“For example, three sections of the Bill give the Minister the power to direct other government agencies to act in ways that would ordinarily be unlawful.

“I will be moving amendments to have those powers struck from the Bill.”

Ms Xamon said there were 48 amendments on the notice paper, including some moved by the government, to ameliorate the very worst parts of the Bill and to bring back public consultation as a requirement.

“I continue to hold grave concerns about the appropriateness of this level of transfer of power away from the community and to the Minister, especially as some of the key elements of good governance such as transparency, consultation and appropriate checks and balances have been left out.”

The Greens WA Planning spokesman Tim Clifford said the Bill could facilitate corruption as there was little transparency around access to ministers in WA.

“Under the guise of COVID-19 recovery, this plan gives unchecked powers to both the Minister and the commission with limited transparency and accountability.

“Well-designed planning is vital in ensuring healthy, liveable spaces – and while the rest of the Bill introduces some well needed reforms to the state’s planning systems, we must ensure that this hard work by the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage isn’t undone by rushed planning decisions.

“The Greens will be fighting hard in Parliament (this) week to ensure that this Bill supports good planning outcomes that are designed to serve the community, not developers.”

The Opposition, Western Australia Party MLC Charles Smith and One Nation WA as well as the WA Local Government Association (WALGA) have also raised concerns about the proposed Bill.

In the Lower House the Nationals also said they were very concerned about the powers that would be given to the WAPC but they were at that stage prepared put aside the concerns of WALGA as the state faced an unprecedented economic crisis.

But Nationals deputy leader Shane Love said if such a high level of power was given to the planning commission it would be necessary to ensure communities and their concerns were not disregarded by either the WAPC in the next 18 months or by the new special development assessment panel proposed to follow it.

On May 20 Ms Saffioti told Parliament that the reforms also proposed an additional pathway in which Premier Mark McGowan, on recommendation of the Planning Minister could refer any proposal deemed to be of state or regional significance to the “significant project” pathway.

“This is important to allow for consideration of regional and tourism projects and initiatives that may not meet the criteria but are considered important to assist in Covid-19 recovery,’’ she said.

“Significant developments by their very nature are complex and require input from myriad technical experts and authorities as part of the assessment process.

“Enhancing the approval powers of the (WAPC) will enable the strategic assessment of a broad range of matters to ensure the state is seeing projects get off the ground that are in the best interests of the public and deliver broad economic, social and environmental benefits for the state.

“Consultation with local government and the wider community will be at the very heart of this assessment process, with due regard given to any submission received.

“The commission must also engage the Environmental Protection Authority on all significant development proposals.’’

In the Lower House on May 27 Ms Saffioti reminded parliamentarians that planning powers rested with the state and were delegated to local governments.

“It is not the reverse; planning powers do not rest with local governments and they are not delegated upwards,’’ she said.

“If people really think that the political bickering between councils and councillors and some of the dysfunctional relationships out there are advancing good planning in WA, I think they are severely misguided.’’

Property Council WA executive director Sandra Brewer said the government’s decision to streamline Covid-19 recovery plans for the property sector would get more Western Australians back to work quicker.

Ms Brewer said the WAPC was made up of representatives across government, including planning, water, environmental regulation, energy and transport, bringing key decision-makers together.

“This provides a structure for effective decision-making, especially if there’s conflicting advice, because differences that used to lead to long delays can be resolved quickly,” she said.