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New look panels to combat lobbying risk


Independent planning panels that make decisions on development applications and provide advice on rezoning proposals will be bolstered under new rules to reduce corruption risks and improve decision-making.

The Department of Planning and Environment’s Executive Director of Local and Regional Planning Malcolm McDonald said a suite of changes will be made to how the 36 Local Planning Panels and nine Sydney District and Regional Planning Panels operate.

“Planning Panels have been operating successfully for more than a decade, with their remit expanded four years ago to cover local issues, and we’re looking to strengthen them once again,” Mr McDonald said.

“They’ve proven to be a great success as a transparency and probity measure for the planning system, with independent experts providing invaluable guidance and decision-making on thousands of development applications and planning proposals.

“We’re strengthening them to ensure there’s less certainty about who will be on a panel. This will make it harder to predict who will make decisions on projects, stamping out the potential for influence and lobbying even further.

“We’re doing this by expanding the size of the pools, increasing the minimum number of experts and community representatives that councils can select from, requiring these members to rotate regularly, and beefing up the induction and monitoring process.”

Changes to the way Sydney District and Regional Planning Panels operate come into effect immediately, while changes to Local Planning Panels come into effect on 24 April 2023 to give councils time to recruit additional panelists.

These changes include:

  • Mandating a minimum number of 15 experts and four community representatives in the pools each Local Planning Panel chooses from;
  • Appointing a minimum number of 60 experts in the pool Sydney District and Regional Planning Panels choose from, and a minimum of four alternate council members instead of two;
  • Requiring members to rotate regularly to ensure randomisation;
  • Enhancing the monitoring process;
  • Requiring probity checks, including police checks, and a statutory declaration for council nominated members and community representatives to sign, ensuring they are not property developers;
  • Strengthening a framework to induct members; and
  • Clarifying that applicants can request to formally meet with panels to brief them on any project in a structured and minuted setting, reducing the incentive to lobby panel members outside of the panel forum.

Mr McDonald said these panels of independent experts and council or community representatives are essential safeguards against corruption.

“They increase transparency and accountability in decision-making and give communities greater certainty about planning decisions. To see their independence strengthened can only be a plus,” he said.

Sydney District and Regional Planning Panels were introduced in 2009 and make decisions on regionally significant development worth more than $30 million, and council or Crown interest DAs worth more than $5 million. They also provide advice on rezoning reviews.

Local Planning Panels were established in 2018 to determine contentious, complex, or sensitive local development applications.

Together, the panels approved 1,283 local and regionally significant development applications last financial year worth $13.33 billion, paving the way for 17,340 new homes and 54,663 jobs.