While the NSW Government has announced that new planning panels will now assess development applications in Ku-ring-gai and Hornsby, the first panel meetings are already causing issues.
The decisions of the second Hornsby IHAP meeting were made behind closed doors, angering both residents and Councillors.
Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPS) were set up to free up councillors to work on more pressing Council business and broader visions for their area, as well as giving the whole DA application process a greater depth of experience through the expertise of panel members.
Under new planning legislation, there are three levels of approval based on the estimated cost of the development: under $5 million, under $30 million and over $30 million.
The lowest level will cover the majority of house related developments and will be determined by Council staff. The second level of under $30 million will be determined by IHAPs, as well as DAs where the Council is the Proponent or where there are more than 10 objections. Large residential developments over $30 million like seniors housing, will be determined by the Sydney North Planning Panel.
But at the first Hornsby meeting in March, after residents had spoken, Chair Garry Fielding closed the meeting for decision-making.
“It’s another reason why decisions on contentious DAs should be made by elected councillors accountable to the community,” said Councillor Emma Heyde who attended the meeting.
“It shows IHAPs’ decisions will not be done democratically and they’re not accountable. They’re being used to fast track developments without the usual checks and balances.”
Hornsby Council has written to Mr Fielding to complain about the closed nature of the decision making.
“There’s already considerable unease within the community about development applications being taken out of the hands of the locally elected council,” Hornsby Mayor Philip Ruddock added. “It’s in the interests of all parties to make the process as transparent as possible.”
Prior to the Panel convening, it conducts a site visit of each of the DAs it is considering on the day of the meeting to assess DA validity, and hear from Proponents and objectors.
At the time of going to press no letter had been received by Mr Fielding, but when contacted by the Monthly Chronicle, Mr Fielding said that “the deliberations would be compromised if they were before an audience.
“At a council meeting it is adversarial with debates before Councillors reach a decision, while in a Panel it is more of an inquisitorial nature.”
While the public may not be able to hear the decision making process for both Councils, reasons for the final decision and how people voted are published on a Council website within 48 hours of the meeting. It’s in the Operational Directions that the Panel may sit in public or private for its final deliberations.
The Hornsby IHAP is set to cost ratepayers $110,000 a year, or $330,0000 the Panels have been mandated to initially operate for. Ku-ring-gai is unable to ascertain a cost for its IHAP as yet.
Ku-ring-gai’s IHAP meetings will be held at 12.30 on the third Monday of each month, at the Council Chambers in Gordon. Details of the IHAP and forthcoming meeting agendas are on the Council's website at www.kmc.nsw. gov.au/ihap. The next one is on May 21.
Hornsby’s IHAP meetings are on the fourth Wednesday of the month at 6.30pm. The agenda will be made available seven days prior to the meeting. Members of the public can address IHAP meetings with a time limit of three minutes speaking time. To register to speak visit www.kmc. nsw.gov.au/ihap by 3pm on the Friday before the meeting.