Elected councilors in South Australia will not be entirely removed from development assessment panels under new planning laws passed in both houses of parliament despite other changes which building industry lobby groups say will dramatically improve the state’s planning system.

Billed by the government as one of the biggest reforms in  several decades, the South Australian Planning, Development and Infrastructure Bill  has been passed by both houses of parliament and establishes a new State Planning Commission, slashes the number of planning zones and requires the establishment of a community engagement charter and online planning portal and database.

But the government has pulled back on moves to completely remove elected members from development assessment boards, instead limiting the number of elected councilors able to sit on the boards to one.

State Planning Minister John Rau said the government would have preferred not to have any elected councilors on boards but said it was better to accept the more modest changes in this area in order to get the legislation through parliament.

“Whilst the Government was steadfast in its belief that assessment panels should not be dominated by the vagaries of local politics, it has decided on balance to accept the amendment made in the Legislative Council for now to allow the benefits of these significant reforms to be realised sooner,” Rau said.

“I remain concerned about some amendments of the Bill passed in the Legislative Council but, that is not a sufficient reason to delay progress.”

Long a complaint of key development lobby groups, the presence of elected councilors on development assessment boards was seen to politicise development assessment processes.

Master Builders SA Chief Executive Officer Ian Markos said restricting the number of elected councilors to one was a significant improvement on the previous which development assessment panels made up of a combination of experts and elected councilors, but said the decision to not completely remove development assessment panels was disappointing.

“The presence of elected members in the assessment process has generated uncertainty, delays and additional costs for those prepared to invest,” Markos said. “Investors and householders wanting to invest base their decision on planning rules – but these are often interpreted by elected members as to what they think their electorate wants. It’s an activism that risks or delays investment. Even beyond each individual assessment, conflicting approaches taken by elected members to the same planning rules can create conflicting precedents and cement uncertainty in the planning process.

“Retaining elected officials in the assessment process therefore risks increasing costs for businesses and people wanting to invest in their homes, creating delays and a loss of productivity.”

Nevertheless, Master Builders and other industry lobby groups welcome a number of other aspects of the plan, which they say will create a more straightforward system with simpler assessment processes.

Under these changes:

  • A new State Planning Commission will replace the Development Assessment Commissioner and the Development Policy Advisory Body
  • Arounc 2,500 combinations of zones and rules to control land use will, over several years, be consolidates into around 40 zones
  • A new online planning portal and database will provide a centralised hub for decisions, rules and information
  • A new category of development will facilitate a ‘tick and flick’ approach and eliminate the need for formal assessment with regard to smaller developments.

Property Council of Australia SA Executive Director David Gannon said the bill was a mixed blessing but delivered on a number of import big picture objectives.

“The high-level objective of the Planning Bill was to make South Australia a more attractive place for investment and to make life easier for both residents and businesses wanting to build or develop,” Gannon said.

“Overall, the passage of the Bill will significantly improve the state’s property sector – a sector that for too long has been held back by a lethargic local government-based planning system.”