It’s time to put NSW planning & development under the microscope

The Minister for Planning’s recent revelations about plans for developing some parts of Newcastle’s rail corridor – despite her predecessor’s December 2013 commitment and repeated assurances by government representatives at public forums as recently as March this year – not only demonstrates that there is one plan for public consumption and another for ‘insiders’, but is also indicative of a continuing trend of business being done with a total lack of transparency and without proper scrutiny.

Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) revelations about Newcastle to date have been sobering.  Members of Parliament assisted by developer slush funds, a lobby group whose board -or a majority of them – claim no knowledge of a substantial developer donation despite Election Funding Authority disclosure laws and their clear legal duties and responsibilities as board members of a non-profit organisation, and the naming of prominent business people within our community.

Apparently more is to come and, of course, the allegations must be put to those involved and tested. What is of concern is that what has emerged has come out in a piecemeal fashion incidentally to another inquiry; one wonders what an inquiry specifically focused on development in Newcastle might reveal.

Save Our Rail and other community groups have long been demonised by some as conspiracy theorists and “anti-progress” for erring on the side of scepticism and caution, but the ICAC revelations certainly seem to justify their critical approach.

Perhaps the true conspiracy is the one whereby the community is not provided with comprehensive, timely and factual information about proposed developments, where vocal proponents of proposed developments don’t publicly declare their interests but stand to derive a direct or indirect advantage from the decisions being made and where profit, by calculated political alliances, wins over the wishes and desires of the local community.

Of course ICAC is concerned with corrupt conduct rather than the opaque decision making processes that frustrate citizens who want to understand what the Government is doing to the places they live in and exactly why it is doing it.

Even the Hunter Infrastructure & Investment Board (HIIF), for example, is shrouded in secrecy.  Established by the O’Farrell Government in 2011, it was allocated $350 million – half of which had already been committed to projects – to advise the Government on potential Hunter projects and to develop a 20 Year Hunter Infrastructure Plan for the region. Its purpose clearly has merit and many worthwhile projects have received much needed funding. But why are the Board’s processes and management not open to scrutiny, and decisions made at the Board’s and Minister’s “absolute discretion”?  Who ends up financially benefitting from these decisions? Why are annual reports and minutes of monthly board meetings not available on HIIF’s website for public examination? Even assuming there is no impropriety in HIIF’s operations – and I’m not suggesting there is – is this structural lack of transparency and accountability any way to encourage public confidence in the allocation of large sums of public money?

Concerns like these aren’t new. But hopefully what ICAC has unearthed – and hopefully will unearth – may provide the impetus for the Government to do something about it.

In 2009 anti-corruption fighter John Hatton AO presciently said “there is a wealth of information that would support the establishment of a Royal Commission in NSW [into New South Wales planning and development] to investigate: corruption of process; improper influence of some major developers; failure of public officials to keep adequate records; the relationship between senior public servants, politicians and property developers and so on.” His comments have been vindicated by what ICAC has uncovered so far.

Although ICAC may not yet have hit its straps, the NSW Opposition leader’s call for Newcastle’s “revitalisation project” to be put on hold in light of the evidence at the corruption inquiry into illegal political donations makes sense.  But it does not go far enough to address what has been a systemic problem in New South Wales planning and development for decades: skewed, secretive decision making which has been condoned and facilitated by successive governments,  the results of which have been window dressed with nominal alternative “options” and illusory public consultations, with a fait accompli then served up to the people of New South Wales as ‘world’s best practice’.

Copyright Kellie Tranter 2014


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