THE NSW Government last week said local communities are a step closer to benefiting from the newly legislated Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPs), with Chairs now allocated to each Council and the expert talent pool established.
Planning and Housing Minister Anthony Roberts said the statewide recruitment campaign attracted 490 applications for the panels, which will begin operating at all Sydney Metropolitan Councils and Wollongong City Council from 1 March 2018.
"The ratepayers of those councils are set to benefit from the expert panels that will bring transparency, integrity and a high degree of probity to the development application assessment process," Mr Roberts said.
"Councils have also in recent weeks, one by one, been endorsing their selections for community representation in time for next week's commencement."
An advisory panel of senior practitioners was formed to review the applications and recommended 41 Chairs and 218 members to make up the pool of experts that each council in Sydney and Wollongong will draw upon.
"The calibre of experts that have been appointed has exceeded expectation and we look forward to seeing clear and strong results once IHAPs come into operation," Mr Roberts said.
"Most councils have been making their expert member appointments at council meetings throughout February to ensure they are in place by 1 March. The remaining panels will be in place in time for the commencement."
The IHAPs will maintain a standard model comprising a Chair, two independent expert members and a local community representative. The members and Chairs are a mix of experts in planning, architecture, heritage, the environment, urban design, economics, traffic and transport, law, engineering, tourism, or government and public administration.
IHAPs will be responsible for making decisions on a range of development applications, including those with 10 or more objections, those where a conflict of interest exists and other high-risk and sensitive development types.
Following the announcement, Local Government NSW called on the NSW Government to rethink the mandatory imposition of the new panels due to their cost and potential to reduce democracy, accountability and transparency.
"Planning Minister Anthony Roberts has claimed the IHAPs are all about probity, but the local government sector says they actually erode the community's democratic right to help determine what happens in their neighbourhood," said LGNSW President Linda Scott.
"IHAPs have the potential to actually reduce the accountability and transparency of planning decisions. Councillors are elected by and accountable to the community, while panels are not," Cr Scott said.
"And to make matters worse, ratepayers will have to foot the bill for this new layer of bureaucracy being introduced from next month for Sydney and Wollongong.
"The legislation requires councils to bear the full cost of these panels - about $100,000 each, according to estimates by the Department of Planning and Environment.
"Democratically-elected councils should be able to determine whether the panel option is the right choice for their area and whether there are real benefits to the community," Cr Scott concluded.