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An expert planning panel has proposed a total re-write of South Australian planning laws which would strip politicians of administrative powers and give residents a much greater say in the look and feel of their local communities.

The Expert Panel on Planning Reform delivered its interim report to the State Government this morning, acknowledging some of its proposals will cause controversy.

“I can imagine the Government won’t be too happy about releasing some of its control [over the planning system],” said panel chair Brian Hayes QC.

“I’d be disappointed if it’s non-controversial.”

The panel’s interim report, Our Ideas for Reform, proposes a huge overhaul of planning aimed at quarantining political power to policy and strategic decisions.

Other suggested reforms include introducing a “charter of citizen participation”, speeding up the development approval process for residents who consult first with their neighbours, and changing zoning rules so that different types of development can happen in the same area.

Taking the politics out of planning

“The Minister today has a very great role in the minutiae of planning administration and that shouldn’t be the case,” Hayes told InDaily.

“He should be distanced from that.”

The expert panel has proposed the establishment of a state planning commission and several regional boards to put the development assessment process in the hands of accredited planning professionals.

“To ensure integrity in the assessment process, political considerations should have limited influence over individual decisions.”
– South Australia’s Expert Panel on Planning Reform, Our Ideas for Reform

The state planning commission would also advise Cabinet on planning policy via the Planning Minister, who would retain overall responsibility for the system and its direction.

A number of regional authorities would be formed to help local councils implement consistent, state-wide planning policy.

“Instead of having 68 different councils, looking at 68 different plans, we will have probably about 14 regions, which combine all those councils,” said Hayes.

“But their task at that regional level is to implement the state directions via the commission at a special level for their local communities.

“The planning commission will supervise these boards, instead of the minister administering local councils’ implementation of the strategies.”

President of the Local Government Association David O’Loughlin expressed concern about the model.

“Councils have always been best placed to consider the local elements of planning policy and we would not want local experience, knowledge and expectations to be lost in a regional planning model,” he said.

“The LGA’s key objectives for planning reform are an accessible, integrated and accountable planning system, which values local involvement.”

The planning commission would also be able to intervene in ‘non-performing’ local councils and regional boards. Neither what constitutes non-performance nor the consequences of it have been made clear.

“Such thresholds and their implications would need to be carefully considered, if this reform idea received in-principle support,” said Hayes.

“The panel welcomes critical examination of proposals to help build confidence in the directions of reforms proposed.”

A state planning code would also be drawn up so that a residential zone, for example, means the same thing in any suburb where it applies.

“It’s very frustrating to builders who want to do something in Burnside [for example], they go through all that and then they go somewhere else and then they’ve got to go through a whole different process,” said Hayes.

He said the changes would require an entirely new Development Act.

The panel is asking for comments on how many regions the state should be divided into, and where their boundaries should be.

Charter of citizen participation

Citizens deserve more than a small notice in the local paper if a new development is about to happen in their area, the report says.

A charter of citizen participation would be written into law, encouraging the use of innovative engagement techniques, including consultation online.

Hayes said that most people first come into contact with the planning system too late in the process for real consultation to be done.

Too often current statutory consultation processes focus on individual developments and ask for feedback on ‘finished ideas’ at the end processes.
– South Australia’s Expert Panel on Planning Reform, Our Ideas for Reform

“The moment where they come into conflict is usually when you want to build a building next door to your house … that’s the first time they get involved, and then all hell breaks loose,” said Hayes.

The charter would ensure that consultation with residents on zoning is done well before new developments are proposed.

“They’ve had a chance to object to it then and they might have lost the battle at that stage, but they’re not going to re-run it because the rules have been set.”

The charter would be drawn up by the planning commission, which would consult with the community on any changes to it.

Getting on with the neighbours

People who consult with their neighbours before making development applications should be rewarded with a quicker process, says the panel.

In addition, signage should be placed on properties to let nearby residents know that a new development is about to occur.

Currently, finding out which development rules apply to a particular piece of land is an extremely complex process. The panel wants to help fix this using a website, which would be set up to publish all development and zoning information.

“The whole of the current planning system is very much based on a no-technology, hard-copy environment,” said panel member Stephen Hains.

“The community needs to be able to access these rules online and to be confident when it’s actually looking for a site to know what all the rules are that apply to that site.”

Prioritising design, reviving the corner shop

A state planning code should link design and zoning to make the state’s streets more beautiful and facilitate economic benefits, the report says.

According to Hains, traditional zoning rules have stood in the way of investment and hampered good design.

He said the current zoning regime makes life hard for people who wanted to set up home businesses or small shops.

“It’s been conducive to the loss of the corner shop and all that sort of convenience,” he said.

“We think it’s time to sort of provide tools for upgrading that.”

Hains was the CEO of Salsbury Council between 1991 and 2001, during which the suburb of Mawson Lakes was constructed.

“Mawson Lakes was an area that didn’t have any definitive zoning,” he said.

“If we had sat down in 1994 when it started and zoned it, we wouldn’t have had a clue what it would have finally looked like. It would have actually looked very awkward.

“What’s now occurred is a very successful development.”

Boosting investment

According to Hayes, the level of detail required in development proposals, before councils will even consider them, is a major barrier to investment in South Australia.

He said developers should be able to acquire in-principle support for a development on a particular piece of land before having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars planning its details.

“That developer will be able to take that to the bank and get funding for the next stage,” he said.

Rewarding heritage owners

According to the panel, owners of heritage properties should get discounts on stamp duty or council rates to make up for the increased costs associated with maintaining them.

In addition, the panel suggests the entire state heritage list should be audited and carefully described, so that owners know exactly what is considered to be of heritage value in their property.

According to the panel, “with a few notable exceptions South Australia’s heritage frameworks, which once led the nation, are outdated and out of step with contemporary national practice”.

Often, state heritage sites are simply listed by address, meaning property owners have to go through a lengthy and confusing process if they decide to renovate.

To address this, it suggests that all state heritage listings – including Aboriginal heritage and shipwrecks – should come under a single piece of legislation.

Have your say

The panel will deliver its final report to the government in December. That report will detail its final recommendations.

It will also detail costs and savings implied in the current proposals, and the feedback the panel receives between now and then.

The full Our Ideas for Reform report is available here.

The panel is asking for feedback. You can provide it here.

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