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Kill off councils, pour money into planning tech: Property Council

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The June State Budget should contain a three-year commitment – likely to be worth around $20 million – to the rollout of an electronic planning system and detail plans to reduce the number of council areas in South Australia, the state’s Property Council argues in its annual wishlist.

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The lobby group’s budget submission calls on the Weatherill Government to “fully fund the proposed e-planning system”, which executive director Daniel Gannon says should be ready to roll within three years.

It’s understood departmental insiders have suggested such a rollout would cost in the order of $20 million.

Gannon said if that was the case, “then the State Government could use the next three budget periods to allocate funding as we progress”.

He said the funding commitment should be made no matter how the Government’s planning reform bill ends up in parliament, with Planning Minister John Rau set to try and force through key changes, including banning councillors from Development Assessment Panels.

The Upper House recently voted on a compromise that will see a maximum of one elected local government representative on the panels.

“What we want to be able to do in three years time, once the regulations have been built, is to flick on the switch for the planning system,” Gannon told InDaily.

“And that includes electronic planning capabilities. If we’re not able to have the whole system up and running, there will be a drag on the state’s planning system.”

He said “professionals on the ground shouldn’t have to use an analogue planning” framework, and believes the Government has privately acknowledged the merits of the initiative.

“The State Government recognises the importance that an e-planning system could play, not just in the property sector but from a broader economic perspective,” he said.

The submission, given to Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis’s office last week, demands “a firm commitment to this reform in the upcoming budget, so that there is industry confidence in the Government’s commitment to modernise what is presently a lethargic local government-based planning system”.

“Users increasingly expect Government services to be accessible online,” it says.

“An online planning system is the next logical step for our planning system to remain current, valuable and reliable.”

The Property Council, frequently at loggerheads with the state’s Local Government Association, also argues that “the need to reduce the number of councils in SA is clear”.

“South Australia has 68 Councils – 19 in metropolitan Adelaide alone. The average population of metropolitan councils is just 63,000. Rate revenue as a proportion of the general revenue base of local Government is at 68 per cent, which is higher than other Australian states [and] continues to grow,” the submission states.

It also highlights a “wide discrepancy in metropolitan council population size”, with Walkerville managing a population of 7000 “compared to Onkaparinga, which services 165,000 people”.

“South Australia’s local governments service on average half the population of councils in Victoria, Queensland or New South Wales… there is still much more that could be done to harness economies of scale and improve efficiencies in local government,” the Property Council argues.

It wants a review of councils’ rate setting and valuation principles “to ensure transparency and taxation integrity for ratepayers” and calls on the State Government to “pursue council amalgamations to create economies of scale, efficiency and to act as an incentive for councils to improve their performance”.

InDaily revealed last month that the state’s LGA was pushing for legislative reform to give a new independent umpire the power to change council boundaries, including overseeing amalgamations.

While long rejecting forced amalgamations, the LGA is developing a “boundary adjustment process” that would see straightforward changes to boundaries negotiated by neighbouring councils, broader changes overseen by an independent body and the Local Government Minister removed from the process altogether – thus safeguarding councils from any political push for amalgamations.

LGA chief Matt Pinnegar told InDaily today the Property Council “has no credibility when it comes to any commentary around local government”.

“We all know if the Property Council had its way another 9000 local government employees would be out of a job,” he said.

“They have an intractable hatred of the local government sector.”

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