Cut the spin and secrecy in planning processes

Dr Robert Crocker, InDaily  12 September 2012 –

Despite the State Government’s assurances, and recent sweeping changes to the planning and development regime, the underlying legal and administrative process shaping the present development assessment system remains unchanged.

It is, in many respects, secretive, lacking in transparency and accountability, legalistic and adversarial. It involves processes that effectively shut out the voices of the communities most affected.

A couple of standout examples are the large, poorly designed “urban regeneration” project at Port Adelaide, which nearly lost the Labor government its safest seat; a “land swap” deal in Woodville where a century-old park and local landmark was turned over, virtually overnight, for a new housing estate, again without any appropriate consultation process; and a large tract of prime agricultural land at Mt Barker being “re-zoned” to make way for a substantial housing estate, again without credible consultation or explanation.

I could fill up this whole article with similar woeful stories, many of which will continue to affect the local communities.

The pattern these stories reveal is a consistent one of poor process; seemingly affected by politics; secretive, sometimes unaccountable decision-making; potential conflicts of interest; and a record of less than meaningful consultation, where the people most affected are called on afterwards to largely “rubber-stamp” what has been decided. When they oppose these disasters, they are labelled “anti-development” – a term that obscures the real and often justifiable reasons for their anger and frustration with the current system.

One problem is that all power in the current system resides with the State Government, the one branch of government none of us has consciously chosen to manage our development needs. Simply giving the Government power to make these often complex decisions, at its discretion, is bad policy and bad law.

Under this regime, if a council’s expert planning and development committee rejects a proposal on reasonable grounds, the developer can appeal to the Environmental Resources Development Court, the Planning Minister, or to an alternative but overriding state government panel of experts (the Development Assessment Commission). Unlike the council, these bodies can make their decisions without engaging the community most affected.

The resulting lack of transparency and accountability, and the difficulty of making any genuine objections heard, has left those involved feeling they are caught in a closed, legalistic and adversarial process.

Secondly, the current system works in a way which is designed for the consultants and lawyers, rather than the broader community it is supposed to serve. It provides no early opportunity to engage the community on the proposed development; instead, preliminary consultation, restricted by some extremely narrow categories, occurs well after the developer has committed large sums on consultants and “locked in” a design, however overblown this might be.

This means many people hear about a large new development in their neighbourhood through the local press. It also means that any “negotiation” that occurs over the design happens in a legalistic setting behind closed doors, with much of the technical information on the decisions made kept secret from the community for pseudo-legal reasons.

Bad decisions, once made, can be appealed only in a setting that guarantees a high cost, a scary courtroom appearance, and an almost inevitable failure for the little guy. This generates a lot of anger and frustration, and a deep cynicism about the process itself.

Thirdly, the “consultation” processes now used are seen as mostly window-dressing for decisions already made. So in Port Adelaide, Woodville, Cheltenham and Mt Barker, the public view is that “consultation” occurred after the decision to go ahead had been made “in camera”.

In none of these cases was the reason for the decision adequately explained, naturally giving rise to suspicions of political factors coming into play. Even state parliament, it seems, cannot extract the full reasons for these decisions from the Minister. Instead, those who make the effort to attend consultation meetings are left feeling they have been given “spin” about each development’s future benefits. It is not surprising most residents treated in this way will not trust the process.

The idea that such a process – lacking the desired levels of transparency, accountability or community engagement – can somehow deliver “sustainability” for South Australia is laughable.

To regain public trust in development, we need more than glossy brochures and spin. While the idea of bringing in a panel of expert designers to look over an initial plan might be very sensible, even good design cannot be sold without due process – that is, without proper transparency, accountability and community engagement.

Dr Robert Crocker is an executive member of Community Alliance SA, a new umbrella group of residents’ associations dedicated to changing the development and planning regime in South Australia. He is also a senior lecturer in the School of Art, Architecture and Design at the UniSA.