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What is SCAP? Inside Adelaide's powerful planning body

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Inside a glass-walled office tower on Flinders Street, a group of six planners, lawyers and architects meets every second Wednesday. Stephanie Richards talks to the people behind the powerful panel which rules on the biggest and most controversial projects changing the city skyline.

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SCAP.

The word, the acronym, consistently pops up in reports about Adelaide’s major planning decisions or approvals; some controversial and decried by defenders of the city’s built heritage, but praised by others for driving investment and jobs.

Recent examples include the Adelaide Oval Hotel, Lot Fourteen at the old Royal Adelaide Hospital site, the Fletcher’s Slip housing development at the site of Port Adelaide’s now-demolished Shed 26, and the Hyatt Regency Adelaide Hotel at the site of the former Bank of South Australia building.

With power comes questions. What is SCAP? Who is on it? How does it arrive at decisions? Is it just an arms-length agency set up by the State Government as a major development rubber-stamp?

Certainly, SCAP – the State Commission Assessment Panel – admits to, and defends, rejecting only two per cent, or a mere 18, of the 1340 proposals that have come before it since being formed in 2017.

But it says the issue is more complex than merely green-lighting projects that change long-familiar streetscapes.

“People often expect that we judge a development application based on whether it’s going to be a good thing or a bad thing – that it’s just a matter of personal taste,” South Australia’s Planning Commission chair Michael Lennon says.

“There has to be established rules and order and predictability in how determinations are made.

“The real question is does it meet the test of the policy or not? That’s the role that the panel has to play.”

Shaping the city’s skyline

InDaily meets Lennon and SCAP presiding member Rebecca Thomas in the ground-floor meeting room of 50 Flinders Street, where the panel meets fortnightly to discuss, debate and sign-off on all the big-ticket development proposals across the state.

Tucked towards the back of the building, the room comprises a U-shaped table and projection screen, but there is no public gallery like other government decision-making chambers.

The role the SCAP has to play in public life, however, should not to be downplayed.

“Anything of any level of significance automatically comes to the SCAP panel for consideration,” says Thomas, a former local government planning consultant and current senior associate at Ekistics Planning and Design.

“Land uses and developments that are notable in the skyline are going to be typically assessed and determined by the SCAP, so in that context the panel does have a significant impact.”

Works at Lot Fourteen, the former Royal Adelaide Hospital site. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The SCAP was formed by the Weatherill Labor Government in August 2017 to independently assess certain kinds of proposals, including applications valued above $10 million in the CBD, those deemed to have significant regional impact and developments in key areas of the state such as the park lands and Crown land.

At the time of its announcement, which coincided with the launch of the Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act 2016, former Planning Minister John Rau said the panel would ensure that “a high benchmark in both public integrity and contemporary land use planning in Australia is achieved”.

Its members are appointed through an expressions of interest process and include a natural resources management consultant, an architect, two planning lawyers and a commercial property advisor.

They are each paid just over $30,000 a year to spend about two days a week reading agenda papers, visiting sites and sitting through what can often be day-long meetings to discuss whether building proposals comply with upwards of 100 planning policies.

All up, the six-person panel has assessed 1340 building proposals since 2017, but of those, less than two per cent – 18 – have been knocked back.

Adelaide Oval Hotel. Photo: David Mariuz/AAP

“It looks like the proportion of approvals is obviously higher based on the stats, but that might be misinterpreted,” Thomas says.

“The alternative means the system’s not working and people are pushing through proposals that don’t meet the policy.

“If a proponent clearly doesn’t have the support of the state agencies or the planning officer we won’t even see it, so it just stops well before we get the opportunity to make a determination.

“No one sees that side of it.”

Lennon is equally defensive of the SCAP’s high approval rate, saying it would be “extremely disappointing” if the panel had a reputation of knocking back the majority of proposals.

Development applications are the end of the road and by that stage it’s largely too late

South Australia’s planning system – currently in the process of major reform – is notoriously convoluted, with the SCAP’s determination the last in a very long line of assessment hurdles over which developers must jump before they can turn the first sod.

Even if the panel does approve a proposal, only about half make it to construction.

“People can spend an awful lot of money getting to this point,” Lennon says.

“I think if proponents were putting a lot of money up and spending all the time and effort getting it wrong with the basics then they’d be entitled to be saying ‘I’ve paid all this money’, or ‘you’re the Government and you’re supposed to be telling me what I can and can’t do’ and they’d be entitled to be cross if it was the other way.”

Moving on from the past

Not all approvals are welcomed by the public.

Two recent examples are the proposed multi-storey hotels at Pirie and Wright Streets, which were controversially approved by the SCAP despite both projects involving the total or partial demolition of heritage-listed properties.

Thomas was just three months on the job as SCAP presiding member when she was confronted with criticism over her panel’s decision to approve the 27-storey Hyatt Regency Adelaide Hotel on Pirie Street, which involves the total demolition of the local heritage-listed former Bank of South Australia building.

The former Bank of SA building will be demolished to make way for the Hyatt Regency hotel. Photo: Stephanie Richards/InDaily

Despite admitting members were divided on the vote, she is adamant the panel made the right call, claiming the heritage listing of the former bank building is “questionable”.

“The former SCAP had resolved and there was an existing approval effectively for demolition replacement of that site with a hotel,” she says.

“The remaining heritage fabric that’s there has been so compromised and modified that the original elements of it are lost.

“It’s only the front six-metres of building that’s actually listed and in this case the building has been significantly compromised over a number of years, predominately in the 1980s when there was a significant redevelopment.

“In the view of the majority of the members that considered that, the view that was formed was that the built form that remained had such diminished integrity that it didn’t warrant retention.”

A render of the Hyatt Regency Adelaide Hotel, which will replace the former Bank of South Australia building. Image: CEL Development

Asked about the 17-storey Wright Street hotel, which will retain the front façade of a heritage-listed workman’s cottage, Wright says she “maybe naively saw that as a really positive outcome for that site”.

“In this case, the whole streetscape or townscape of that collective row of workers cottages is still going to be able to be read from the street, clearly distinguishable,” she says.

“The tower to the rear is clearly a different form to that – there’s no attempt to make it a faux heritage addition – but it’s a site in the capital city zone and it anticipates built form of a significant scale.

“I can understand in a purist form people might wish for those cottages to remain just as they are, but they’ve remained vacant for years and if we want to ensure the retention of this fabric we have to enable it to be conserved and most importantly readapted to new uses that are going to relate to the way we live.”

A render of the Wright Street hotel. Image: Starfish Developments

According to Thomas, “simply because a building was built of a certain era doesn’t necessarily justify its listing” and a review of the state’s local heritage registers is necessary to confirm whether some properties still need to be afforded protection.

There are 1850 local heritage buildings in the city and North Adelaide alone.

“It’s one point in time, one person’s opinion when they’re listed and things evolve and change and what was originally there is no longer there,” she says.

Lennon adds that it is only state heritage-listed properties that are afforded protection from demolition and the public “shouldn’t be surprised” if owners wish to modify or demolish local-listed properties.

“Some people think that a local heritage is that’s something that can’t be altered, but that’s never worked that way,” he says.

“It has always been the case since 1996 when local heritage items were introduced that heritage items could be altered and/or demolished subject to a whole lot of criteria.

“You can expect that as listings go up, and also the condition of buildings change over time, you will get circumstances where owners of properties want to do something else with them.

“We shouldn’t be surprised by that”.

Don’t blame the assessment, blame the policy

Despite the SCAP’s role to assess development applications on behalf of the Government, Lennon says for certain complying developments, including the Adelaide Oval Hotel, it is the Planning Minister who grants approval, with the SCAP bound by legislative obligation to sign-off on the plans.

“We can go back as far as you’d like and look at other jurisdictions and governments will reserve the right to make decisions on certain categories and they essentially become in the end political decisions of the government of the day,” he says.

“In those circumstances it’s a question of their accountability that’s provided over the system.

“However, in other circumstances clearly the system currently delineates the separation between the role of elected members in policy versus the role of elected members in making assessment decisions.

“The assessment body – whether it’s a panel at the local government level or SCAP – can only make determinations against the policy.”

People who are unhappy with SCAP decisions should seek policy change, Lennon says. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Lennon says those who feel aggrieved by SCAP decisions should redirect their criticism towards policy-makers, who have the power to change laws to allow for better planning protection.

“In terms of public input the greatest public input that you can make is getting the policy right,” he says.

“Development applications are the end of the road and by that stage it’s largely too late.”

Taking the mystery out of SCAP

In 2018, the Planning Commission undertook a review of the SCAP to find out how effective it was as an independent assessment body.

It found there was a strong desire among the media and public to make its decision-making more transparent, and that improving public access to information should be made a priority.

“In response to public request all agendas are now made public in advance, all meetings are able to be attended by the public, so we’ve been monitoring those things and that has worked well,” Lennon says.

“It’s taken a lot of the mystery around this away.”

But Lennon says the Commission rejected requests to allow the public to watch the SCAP make planning determinations.

“The whole idea of the assessment is to balance and think through a variety of different perspectives,” he says.

“This is a highly legalistic process and if you allow the open debate of members and the exploratory nature of discussions to form part of the public process it would almost certainly restrain the debate because people would become very formal and secondly it would open additional avenues for appeal and for legal processing.”

Thomas says “there is no reason why SCAP should feel mysterious” and the public are invited to attend meetings or provide submissions on applications when it is suitable do so.

“I appreciate not everyone is working in the industry and is aware of that but in normal circumstances – non-COVID circumstances – for at least the last year and a half, I think, the meetings are open to the public,” she says.

“Maybe we need to make that more evident to people.”

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