The body responsible for assessing and approving projects of state significance in New South Wales will be transformed after the government in that state accepted all recommendations of a review into its operations.

In a statement, New South Wales Planning Minister Rob Stokes says the government had accepted all recommendations of a Productivity Commission review into the state’s Independent Planning Commission (IPC).

Under the changes:

  • The IPC’s independence will be enhanced by establishing the body as a separate agency under the Government Sector Employment Act 2013.
  • IPC governance arrangements will be enhanced through the clear establishment of the chairperson as head of the independent agency who will be accountable to the Minister for Planning and Public spaces for the agency’s performance.
  • The role and purpose of the agency will be clarified through the minister formally issuing directions on agreed outcomes and performance measures against which the IPC will report.
  • Bureaucratic double handling will be eliminated with the introduction of a single-stage public hearing process.
  • The number of community objections above which matters must be assessed by the IPC will be raised from 25 objections to 50 objections which must be unique objections; and
  • Accountability benchmarks for decision-making timeframes will be introduced.

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.

These amendments removed reviews from the list of the Commission’s functions and granted it consenting and decision making authority in its own right for ‘state significant developments’ in respect of which there is considerable opposition from the community.

In its report, the Productivity Commission found that the existence of the IPC had strengthened the planning system by minimising the risk of corruption or undue political influence.

It found that the public and open processes of the IPC – which not only allows all parties to have their say but includes recording and transcribing meetings and adopting a more consistent approach to publishing documents – help build confidence and trust in the planning system even though individuals may disagree with specific outcomes.

Nevertheless, it found that there are several areas where improvements could be made.

Whilst the EP&A Act provided that the IPC was a NSW Government Agency, it was not listed in Schedule 1 of the Government Sector Employment Act 2013 (GSE Act), where other similar bodies are listed and under which agencies are classified as either departments, executive agencies or  separate agencies.

This promoted confusion over its independence and Government intentions over its role and operations, particularly in light of its reliance upon other parts of government for funding, staff and other services.

There was also confusion about the roles of the IPC’s role and governance arrangements.

Finally, the Productivity Commission found that several factors potentially impacted the efficiency and effectiveness of the agency’s operations and the timeframes of decision making.

On the latter point, the Productivity Commission noted average decision making timeframes had blown out from 38 days in 2017/18 to 73 days in 2018/19 following the legislative amendments in 2017 and the establishment of the current Commission in 2018.

In response, it recommended 41 points of action which fall under twelve recommendations.

Stokes says he is “pleased the review has reaffirmed the value of independent decision-making for the State’s most complex and contentious projects’, but added that the amendments would further improve the agency’s operations.

“The IPC will undergo a significant transformation with new performance benchmarks, streamlined processes, greater accountability, and new Commissioners, to ensure the system works better for everyone,” Stokes said.

“An effective planning system is vital to the health of the NSW economy and the recommendations of the Productivity Commission will increase certainty and confidence in the way planning decisions are made.”