Strict timeframes ranging from between five and twelve weeks will apply to major project assessment in New South Wales as the government in that state outlines new accountability benchmarks to ensure greater timeliness and transparency in decision making for state significant developments.

Planning and Public Spaces Minister Rob Stokes has issued his Statement of Expectations to the state’s Independent Planning Commission which is responsible for assessing developments which are of state significance.

In cases where projects do not require either a public meeting or a public hearing, the Commission will now be expected to provide a determination within five weeks of the project being referred to it by the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.

Where projects require a public meeting or a full public hearing, these timeframes will be extended to eight and twelve weeks respectively.

Where the Commission provides advice for gateway and rezoning reviews, this will need to be given to the Planning Secretary within five weeks of being referred to the IPC.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) has also been signed between the Department and the IPC to eliminate duplication of roles in the assessment process, and align with the Minister’s Statement of Expectations.

The MoU includes probity commitments to maintain independence, guidelines for the provision of additional information required in determinations and clarity on the implementation of policy guidelines. Established under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, the IPC is responsible for assessing and determining ‘state significant applications’ where specific criteria apply in respect to public opposition, political donations or local council opposition.

Examples of current projects before the Commission include

  • the Narrabri Gas Project in Northern New South Wales which proponent Santos says could provide up to half of the state’s natural gas requirements for homes and businesses
  • an expansion of the Whitehaven’s Vickery Coal Mine involving construction of a new open-cut mine and associated on on-site infrastructure (new coal processing plant and rail spur) about 25 kilometres to the north of Gunnedah
  • the McPhillamys Gold Project  in the Blayney – Kings Plain district of Central West New South Wales; and
  • a proposal to increase maximum building heights and floor space ratios on land within the eastern portion of Cabramatta Town Centre to enable greater multi-storey development.

Whilst there has always been an independent body since the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 first come into force in 1980, the current Independent Planning Commission came into operation in 2018 under amendments to the Act which were introduced to the legislation in 2017.

The new benchmarks come amid concern about a blowout in decision making timeframes which followed the 2017 amendments.

This has seen IPC’s average decision making timeframes blow out from 38 days in 2017/18 to 73 days in 2018/19.

The new expectations also form part of broader changes which follow a Productivity Commission review of the IPC.

That review found that the existence of the IPC had strengthened the planning system by minimising the risk of corruption or undue political influence but that there was confusion of its role and operations and a number of factors inhibiting its efficiency.

That report made twelve recommendations which contained 41 points of action – all of which the NSW Government has accepted.