As the state of New South Wales looks forward to a change of government on March 26, one question on the lips of those working in the development sector is what the incumbents plan to do about Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979.Introduced in 2005 by former planning minister Craig Knowles, Part 3A applies to projects deemed of economic, environmental or social significance to the state. It enables decisions on major projects to be made by the state planning minister, thereby taking them out of the hands of traditional local government decision-makers and their communities.
In the government’s words (PDF): “The aim is to facilitate major project and infrastructure delivery and encourage economic development, while strengthening environmental safeguards and community participation.”
An opposing view, expounded by the Environmental Defender’s Office in their paper on the issue, entitled Technocratic Decision-Making and the Loss of Community Participation Rights:
“Increasingly, however, the NSW Government is moving away from the recognition that local communities have relevant expertise and interests in planning outcomes; that decision-makers sometimes get it wrong; and that preservation of the environment sometimes outweighs the importance of economic growth. The introduction of Part 3A by the Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment (Infrastructure and Other Planning Reform) Act 2005 reflects the philosophy that “Government knows best” and the idea that planning decisions are technical matters that do not gain from substantial community involvement.”
There is a balance to be sought in relation to major infrastructure development. Few will deny the powerful force of NIMBYISM (Not-In-My-Backyard-ism) in hampering critical development, and the associated imbalance between development outcomes which are beneficial to the few, rather than in the wider public interest. Conversely, communities feel threatened by a mechanism which appears to bypass local democratic interests.
In support of Part 3A, there are clear benefits in providing for development to be determined by a single higher authority in the case of major schemes that often cut across a number of local government areas, each with their own political agenda and localised interests. Major successful regeneration schemes in Sydney, such as in Darling Harbour and Ultimo-Pyrmont, could not have been achieved through traditional local planning channels. In those cases, development authorities were specifically created for the task.
It is unlikely that the incumbent government will give up a mechanism which provides it with the power to achieve significant scale development without getting bogged down in local politics.
The solution is likely to be a fresh mechanism for major development. The Urban Development Institute of Australia, through its Let’s Build a Better NSW election campaign, is lobbying for a mechanism which allows for state significant development to be determined at the state government level, but through the Planning and Assessment Commission, rather than by the minister.
The stigma around the current system raises important questions about the level of influence local communities have in decision-making around major infrastructure and other projects. Local democratic processes are fundamental to our society. Yet ultimately, we elect our state governments to act in the wider public interest, sometimes at the expense of localised community interests.