PAUL LARIS. SA’s Planning Code – Consistency, democracy, or centralised chaos?

 The SA government’s attempts to streamline and centralise urban planning are shaping up as an electoral liability and may also fail to address the problems of urban infill development.

South Australia has embarked on major changes to planning regulation that have the potential to radically alter the evolution of the built environment. The rhetoric embraces principles of efficiency, certainty and environmental enhancement and the aim of unlocking development potential. The process however, has become embroiled in confusion, delay and unease about its reliance on unproven e-planning software. Community groups are dismayed at what they see as a rushed and ineffective public consultation process.

John Rau, Attorney General and Planning Minister in the Weatherill Labor government was largely responsible for a new Planning Development and Infrastructure Act in 2016 which established the State Planning Commission and paved the way for planning reforms announced by him in April 2017. The Act and the role of the Commission marked a move away from local government management of development plans and zones towards a more centralised and hopefully, more consistent approach. At the time, these moves had the support of the development industry via such organisations as the SA Property Council with their vision for planning as a system that is user friendly, acts as a development enabler and has a world-class reputation. Consistent with this, in the lead up to the 2018 state election they campaigned for more local government mergers to reduce the number of local councils.

However, before the planning changes had gained much traction the state election came in March 2018. The Weatherill government was struggling with the ‘it’s time’ factor after 16 years of continuous Labor rule and was tainted with the scandal of neglect and abuse of elderly disabled patients at the Oakden facility. Disquiet amongst community groups and local government at what were seen as potentially undemocratic changes to the planning system didn’t help Labor’s cause either, but were probably a relatively minor issue.

The new Liberal state government under Steven Marshall appointed Stephan Knoll as Minister for Planning as well as Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Local Government. The Marshall government embraced the Rau model with alacrity. The combination of portfolios was particularly strategic given that centralisation of power to the state government and away from local councils is core to the reforms. All 72 South Australian Development Plans are to be replaced with a single state-wide planning rule book, the Planning and Design Code. The Code is to be administered by the State Planning Commission. On 1 October 2019, the State Planning Commission released the draft Planning and Design Code for public consultation until 28 February 2020. Minister Knoll has released a Community Engagement Charter, which essentially undertakes to do extensive community consultation before the Code is implemented, but with no scope for subsequent community input or modification.

The Planning and Design Code will have wide ranging ramifications including changes to zonings, to the public notification of development applications and includes removal of the right of appeal for residents against development applications on a neighbouring site. At some 3000 pages the Code has proved very challenging for community groups and other stakeholders to engage with. Its language is arcane and inconsistent with some sections apparently contradicting others. Its implementation relies heavily on the online portal, but this too is still burdened by bugs, gaps and inconsistencies.

One common and consistent call arising from residents associations such as the peak Community Alliance, those concerned with the protection of built heritage including the National Trust and those concerned at environmental impacts such as the Conservation Council, has been to slow down the process and to break up the Code into stages that will enable meaningful community engagement. Even the developers have been raising concerns about the risks of hastily adopting a flawed system. Until recently the government has been resistant to these calls, but over the last few months cracks have begun to appear in the Planning Commission with key staff including the State Planning Reform Director and most of the leadership of the e-Planning rollout resigning unexpectedly in early February. Following a push by Greens MLC Mark Parnell and perhaps making a virtue out of a necessity, the government has delayed the implementation by 3 months to September 30, but crucially, this is without extending the public consultation period.

The rhetoric of the Planning Commissioner, Michael Lennon acknowledges the importance of addressing the social and environmental impacts of the current wave of suburban infill development. Typically free standing older houses on ¼ acre blocks are bulldozed to make way for 4 or more two-story town houses. Mature trees are lost, garden areas paved over, traffic loads on local streets increased and urban heat island effects exacerbated. Without public green space and public transport reform it is difficult to see how these losses can be offset. Yet the Code appears to do little to address these wider social and environmental issues, though it must be acknowledged that it is so complex and inconsistent it is hard to make a definitive judgement.

The major risk for the Marshall government is that they are binding themselves to a process that needs to be satisfactorily completed before the next election due in 2 years’ time. While that time frame may have been a driver in pushing for a rollout within the next few months, the problems now becoming apparent are in part due to that very haste. A further concern for the government is that community anxiety around the heritage issue is strongest in those better-off inner suburban electorates it needs to retain to hold government. Meanwhile the Local Government Association and individual local councils are voicing increasingly strident opposition to the Code. The still unresolved fiasco of the SA Health electronic patient data system, EPAS, should also serve as a warning to a government prepared to rely on an untried hastily developed IT system as underpinning an area so contentious as urban planning. It’s hard to see this issue being resolved soon and the longer it lingers the more dangerous it will becomes for the Marshall government.

Paul Laris is a semi-retired health and human services policy tragic, health care users advocate, medical regulator, community activist, gardener and sailor.

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