Greater Sydney Commission bill passes upper house

The Labor Party has joined with the NSW Government, Christian Democrats and Shooters and Fishers Party to pass the Greater Sydney Commission bill. The Greens NSW strongly opposed it.

Community input into planning decisions has been rejected.  Decisions of the new Commission will be binding on local government.  Local Environment Plans will have to be amended in line with whatever the Commission decides.

Dr Mehreen Faruqi, Greens MP “highlighted the undemocratic and top down nature of the Greater Sydney Commission:

On behalf of The Greens I will make a contribution to the Greater Sydney Commission Bill 2015, which would constitute and confer functions on the Greater Sydney Commission; provide for the constitution of planning panels for the Greater Sydney region; and amend the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 to make provision in relation to strategic planning and for other purposes.

My colleague Mr David Shoebridge has already outlined the main thrust and arguments as to why The Greens oppose this bill, and I will add to that with a brief contribution. The bill seeks to establish the Greater Sydney Commission as a government agency with primary responsibility for Sydney’s metropolitan strategy and local environmental plans. However, as the Environmental Defender’s Office says, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Greater Sydney Commission Bill 2015 that is currently before this House is just about the Greater Sydney Commission and the Greater Sydney area. It is not.

The bill contains a power to make regulations that authorises the commission to make strategic plans and strategic planning decisions in other districts and regions as declared by the Minister, not just around Sydney but all over New South Wales. The Greens operate in accordance with the principle that planning should be in the hands of local communities. We can argue about the details until the cows come home, but the principle remains the same: planning should be in the hands of local communities. That is what has guided Greens councillors in local government over many years, just as it guides The Greens decisions in this Parliament.

Ultimately, it is the people of a given area who should have the say over what goes on, what is approved, what is built and where they live—not the property developers, not the Minister and certainly not an undemocratic body like the Greater Sydney Commission. But the Greater Sydney Commission Bill will establish a system whereby that principle is completely rejected.

About half an hour ago I spoke to the planning Minister who, knowing my passion for and my expertise in ecologically sustainable development, highlighted to me that one of the principal objectives of the commission is to integrate social, economic and environmentally consideration with regard to ecologically sustainable development principles. That is all fine and good, but public participation is key, crucial and an indispensable requirement if we want to meet these ecologically sustainable development principles.

The commission will be undemocratic and made up completely of people selected by the Government—namely, by the planning Minister. It is unclear how the district commissioners and Greater Sydney Commissioners appointed by the Minister will be accountable to anyone. In fact, once appointed, the district commissioners will have no responsibility at all to engage with local communities or councils. It seems that local councils will be brought into the decision-making process by being allowed to give advice to the Minister on the selection of their local commissioner, but the Minister does not have to listen. He can simply ignore it.

The Greater Sydney Commission has the power to put together and give effect to district plans for the entirety of Greater Sydney. These will be binding on local government; indeed local government will be required to amend local environmental plans to accord with what the commission has prepared. The district commissioners will form new planning panels to take on what joint regional planning panels [JRPP] currently deliver. While the JRPPs were certainly not perfect, they at least had some local government representation. These new panels will be completely dominated by State government-imposed bureaucrats or whoever else the Minister chooses.

The Better Planning Network has said that the commission has “no community representation” and “instead uses a top down approach for planning in NSW”. I am particularly concerned about the power this bill gives to the commission to make local environment plans and strategic planning decisions in districts and regions declared by the Minister. This can happen anywhere across the State. This means, for instance, that if the Greater Sydney Commission wants to impose new strategic plans in another region—such as my second home of the mid North Coast—it can basically do what it wants without the local community really having any say in the process. I fail to understand why the Greater Sydney Commission should have this power in regional areas outside of Sydney. Planning should involve a democratic joint organisation of local councils, who should lead regional planning for their communities and they should comprise councillors from each council to provide accountability to residents.

Joint organisations of councils would be able to deal with regional planning in a far more accountable way than the proposed Greater Sydney Commission. Planning powers are not being returned to communities in this bill. Sadly, the momentum is going in the opposite direction, with more autocracy and less accountability. This Government has the attitude that opening up decision-making to the community will somehow jeopardise the decision-making when, in fact, the opposite is the case. When there is authentic and genuine engagement with the community, the outcomes are inevitably for the broader public good and in addition, sharing local knowledge and resources leads to innovative solutions, while also helping legitimise decisions and helping implementation. But this Government fears public participation.

If this bill is passed, it will lead us even further down the path of undemocratic and unrepresentative planning in our State. The Greater Sydney Commission fails the test of democratic accountability. In fact, it operates on a model of democratic deficit and will have no democratic legitimacy. The Greens oppose the bill.

Dr Mehreen Faruqi

Greens NSW MP

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