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PLANNING REFORM – where does the BLAME LIE?

In 2019, IBAC launched an investigation (Operation Sandon) into alleged developer influence in council planning decisions in Casey. It held public hearings (see notes for scope).

The Casey council was subsequently sacked. Sadly, one former Councillor under the weight of allegations, committed suicide, despite no findings against them.

Despite the findings being stalled in an extensive legal battle, IBAC will soon release its final report.

According to the Age, it is highly likely that the recommendation will be to remove planning decisions from local councillors. That would mean councils still do the planning work but do not allow Councillors to make public decisions on planning matters.

Instead, the decisions will likely be made by a faceless state panel, that gives little consideration to the local community and their impact by any proposed development.

Local councils continually claim to be the closest level of government to the people.

I have followed this and all planning matters for years, observing and pushing back on the removal of local decisions and local rights of objection.

It goes without saying that local decisions enable local voices to be heard.

We are at a crossroads, but I don’t wholly blame the state government for likely taking the easy way out, I actually blame all of Victoria’s 620+ Councillors who have sat on their hands for 2 years (with a few minor exceptions).

One of the easiest ways Councillors could have improved governance and transparency was to mandate a developer contact register as soon as IBAC recommended it.

Some councillors ran in 2020 on the basis that they would do this and have done nothing about it.

More disastrous is that Council CEOs & Executive Officers have completely FAILED to develop policy to bring this to the forefront and actively manage issues that have been raised already.

In WA, one such Council that has implemented this in 2015, is the City of Vincent.


In my research I have established the following publicly documented attempts by Councillors or staff to introduce some form of policy or register:


  • 2019-2020 – Port Phillip Council officers produced a report to discuss the issue of a developer register, but it was not adopted by Councillors. No action taken since.

  • 2023 – Whitehorse Council has developed a DRAFT policy for interactions with developers

  • 2019 & 2022 – Monash Councillor Josh Fergeus attempted twice to gain support for a register, but the motion failed both times.

I am aware some councillors choose to disclose any meetings they have conducted and have them tabled in meeting notes; however, this is sporadic and there is no system across councils for this for the public to easily access.


There is little doubt that all Victorian CEOs, Councillors and Planning Staff KNOW about Operation Sandon and are awaiting the final report.

Councils can be a very busy place, for Councillors there is a never-ending stream of reports and information to digest.

All councils have the ability for Councillors to propose a motion, easily and regularly.

We have seen many motions hit the papers and media for their ideological stances on issues that stray well outside the remit of local councils.

It seems we have plenty of time to debate and push the most bizarre things these days!

But we don’t have a collective group of Councillors with the guts to force this into the public realm.

Where are the MAV, LGPRO, and The Local Government Minister in all of this?

Pathetically silent.

Silence is enabling the Developer to ultimately get their way – excluding councils so they can make more profits, at the expense of communities.

I urge Councillors across the state, to stand up, implement contact registers, and ensure planning remains in local hands as much as possible.

You’ve been silent for 2 years and failed to act!

I’ve even drafted a simple motion to help you get started.

Over to you!


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DEVELOPER CONTACT REGISTER – DRAFT MOTION


PURPOSE

To ensure that all Contact between developers, councillors, and staff is recorded, tracked, and published to maintain the highest level of transparency to our community.


BACKGROUND

Strong lobbying by both proponents as well as opponents of planning and development initiatives is a well-known occurrence and has seen increasing media attention both within Victoria and elsewhere in Australia.

A best-practice model of a developer contact register would give greater confidence in the public domain of perceptions of bias or undue influence being avoided in the decision-making process.

Planning decisions have the power to change our communities, they are not made lightly. We must ensure that all interactions with developers are publicly disclosed to ensure the community can have the highest confidence in the integrity of council decision-making processes.

DISCUSSION

There has been much media and community discussion around the issue of developers allegedly influencing councillors and decision-making across the state. We are no strangers to this issue in the City of XXXXXXXX. Our residents told us that they wanted more transparency around this issue, so as a council, we have decided to develop a contact register to track and disclose all contact with developers.


POLICY IMPLICATIONS

The City of XXXXXXXX deals with developers on a daily basis. This policy would require staff and councillors to update a central register of all contact (phone, email, text, messaging applications) with developers in relation to any development or issue in the City of XXXXXXXXXXXX.


FINANCIAL AND RESOURCES IMPLICATIONS

The implementation would require a few policy updates within the organisation but would not incur any additional resources or costs, this would be implemented by staff in current budgetary approvals.




MOTION

1. That Council resolves to implement a “Developer Contact Register” from 1/7/2023. The register will enable all council staff, executives, and councillors to list all contact (phone, email, text, messaging applications) with developers within the City of XXXXXXXXXXXX

2. That the register, whilst not compulsory for Councillors, is highly encouraged to be used.

3. That the register be updated and integrated within all planning departments and staff conduct policies to make recording of contact compulsory for staff.

4. That council update and publish the contact register on the Council Website under the XXXXXXXXXX page (insert link) monthly/quarterly.

5. The register is to be in the format as per Attachment from the City of Vincent WA.









OPERATION SANDON

IBAC Public hearings

The hearings focused on:

  • the transparency and integrity of planning and property development decision-making within Victoria, including but not limited to, the provision of donations and in-kind assistance to candidates at State and local government elections that may give rise to actual or perceived corruption.

  • whether public officers involved in planning and property development decision-making have been improperly influenced through donations, gifts, pro bono services or other hospitality.

  • the circumstances surrounding any actual or potential financial benefits obtained by any public officer, their families, or their associates, resulting from, or otherwise in connection with, planning and property development decision-making within Victoria.

  • whether the use of professional lobbyists or planning consultants to lobby State and local government has resulted in undue influence over planning and property development decision-making within Victoria

  • the systems and controls in place within public bodies concerning planning, with particular focus on the existence and adequacy of systems and controls for ensuring the integrity of the planning process, including by detecting instances of public officers obtaining corrupt benefits or being unduly influenced by individuals lobbying on behalf of vested interests.

  • if the investigation of the above matters identifies serious corrupt conduct on the part of one or more current or former public officers, the extent to which (if at all) organisational culture and practices have fostered that conduct or hindered opportunities or attempts to detect and eliminate that conduct.



References:




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3 Comments


Unknown member
2 days ago

Applying to be an owner builder one used to fill in a form at council and hand over the money. Now our young, who have lost money leaving deposits on a house and land packages, can't become owner builders and contract out. The process is a nightmare. The VBA demand an e learning certificate, then one can apply and do all sorts of on line studies just to get an owner builder certificate!!! Not that they intend to do any of the work. They contract out to builders mostly. The only benefit appears to be the insurance one is forced to pay for the build. But then years ago the building insurers went broke. And the state govt took ove…

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Unknown member
2 days ago
Replying to

Over governed? Over legislated?

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Unknown member
May 21, 2023

I have much sympathy for some smaller developers. They pay huge fees to council for approval of 2 lot subdivisions. The planning process costs a fortune. Then they pay a percentage of the cost of the build to council. Then they pay for storm water drains when often permeable paving and water gardens should be all that is needed to preserve our water tableland. Then they have contribution fees to all utility providers. Now banks have changed and when they borrow money to do the development the banks want repayments when there is no income until the property has an occupancy certificate. Formerly principle and interest were paid on completion. These costs are huge. Then there is insurance paid …

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