Last week saw the introduction of the Greater Sydney Commission Bill 2015 in the NSW Legislative Assembly. The Bill is the first public glimpse of the proposed makeup and functions of the Greater Sydney Commission (Commission), a body whose existence has been mooted since June 2014, and which is a key part of the NSW Government’s A Plan for Growing Sydney, released in December 2014.

The geographical ambit of the Commission’s powers will be the Greater Sydney Region, which will extend from the Hawkesbury in the north, to the Blue Mountains in the west and to Wollondilly in the south.

The Commission is designed to target a number of perceived weaknesses in Sydney’s current planning arrangements, including:

  • the split of planning decisions between the two Sydney Joint Regional Planning Panels (JRPP); and
  • the disconnect between spatial planning and infrastructure planning.

While the Commission will not immediately affect the allocation of powers as between local councils and the NSW Government, it represents a major centralisation of the powers currently exercised at State level by the two Sydney JRPPs and the Minister.

WHAT WILL THE COMMISSION’S POWERS AND FUNCTIONS BE?

The Commission will have a role in both strategic planning and development assessment within the Greater Sydney Region.

Strategic planning

At the strategic planning level, the Commission’s functions and powers will include:

  • providing advice and making recommendations to the Minister on matters relating to planning and development in the Greater Sydney Region;
  • providing advice to the Minister on the application of development funds under section 129 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (EPA Act);
  • replacing the Minister as a maker of local environmental plans within the Greater Sydney Region;
  • preparing draft ‘regional plans’ for the Greater Sydney Region for approval by the Minister; and
  • making ‘district plans’ for districts created within the Greater Sydney Region.

Regional and district plans are the two new kinds of strategic plans to be introduced in a new Part 3B of the EPA Act. Under Part 3B, these strategic plans must be given effect in the local environmental plans and planning proposals within the area to which the strategic plans apply. On commencement of the Greater Sydney Commission Act, the strategic plan for the Greater Sydney Region will be A Plan for Growing Sydney. There is no timeframe otherwise given for the introduction of other regional and district plans, which, to be effective, need to be implemented reasonably promptly following the introduction of the legislation . They must also be quite specific in proposed land use planning outcomes and infrastructure delivery to facilitate the timely approval of development applications that give effect to the objectives of these new strategic plans.

It is to be hoped that the proposed new regime of strategic plans will resolve some of the uncertainties that presently exist as to the precedence of competing State-level plans.

Development assessment

The Bill also provides for the establishment by the Commission of a Sydney Planning Panel, which will have the powers of a JRPP, and replace any currently existing JRPPs within its area (currently the Sydney East and Sydney West JRPPs). This will enable the Sydney Planning Panel to act as a consent authority where an environmental planning instrument provides for it to do so, as the current Sydney JRPPs do.

A further and interesting provision is that paragraph (b) of the definition of ‘consent authority’ in the EPA Act will be amended to include the Commission. This means that the Commission will be able to grant development consent if a provision of the EPA Act, the regulations, or an environmental planning instrument specifies the Commission as having the function of determining the application. At present, nothing in the Bill gives the Commission this function, nor is there anything in the Planning Minister’s introductory speech, or the explanatory memorandum to the Bill, that explains the decision to include the Commission in the definition of ‘consent authority’. As such, it remains to be seen to what extent the Commission will be granted a role in conducting development assessments. In theory, the Commission could be granted this power by a simple amendment of a local environmental plan – something the Commission itself will have the power to do.

WHO WILL MAKE UP THE COMMISSION AND HOW WILL IT BE STRUCTURED?

Commissioners and staff

The Commission will be composed of:

  1. Four Greater Sydney Commissioners appointed by the Minister. Each Greater Sydney Commissioner will have expertise in one of a number of areas relating to planning and the environment (such as ‘strategic planning’, ‘architecture’, ‘urban design’ and ‘traffic and transport’).
  2. Six District Commissioners. One District Commissioner will be appointed by the Minister to represent each district created with the Greater Sydney Region. Each District Commissioner must have experience in one of a number of areas such as ‘planning’, ‘heritage’, ‘the environment’ and ‘tourism’. The Minister must seek the advice of each local council covered by a District before appointing its District Commissioner.
  3. Three ex-officio members, being the Secretaries of:
  1. the Department of Planning and Environment;
  2. the Department of Transport; and
  3. the Treasury.

One of the four Greater Sydney Commissioners will be the Chief Commissioner of the Commission. Of the other three, one will have responsibility for environmental matters, another for social matters, and the third for economic matters.

The Commission will also comprise a chief executive officer and a full-time staff.

Committees

At the commencement of the Greater Sydney Commission Act, three committees will be created:

  1. the Finance and Governance Committee, comprising the Greater Sydney Commissioners;
  2. the Strategic Planning Committee, comprising the Greater Sydney Commissioners and the District Commissioners; and
  3. the Infrastructure Delivery Committee, comprising the Greater Sydney Commissioners and the ex-officio members, as well as a District Commissioner if appointed by the Chief Commissioner.

The Commission may also create further committees and subcommittees.

WHAT DOES THE GREATER SYDNEY COMMISSION BILL 2015 MEAN FOR PLANNING IN SYDNEY?

The vision for the Commission represented in the Greater Sydney Commission Bill 2015 is overwhelmingly a positive one. The creation of a body comprising members of the Department of Planning and the Environment, the Department of Transport and the Treasury should help to ensure the greater coordination of spatial planning with the provision of transport and other infrastructure. The proposed legislation should also ensure the greater centralisation of strategic planning decisions, both through the exercise of the Commission’s own powers to make and amend local environmental plans, and through the limits placed on local councils’ plan-making powers by the requirement for conformance with the new regional and district plans. However, the extent to which Cabinet will influence the strategic planning decisions of the Commission is not clear, nor is it presently clear how the Commission’s appointment will change the role of the Department of Planning and Environment.  

The Greater Sydney Commission has a very important role to play in seeking to resolve historical failures to coordinate investment in infrastructure to facilitate appropriate social and economic outcomes (including housing affordability, jobs creation, accessibility via road and public transport) in land use decisions affecting the Greater Sydney Region. The establishment of the Commission is an opportunity for real reform to improve the planning and environment outcomes for Greater Sydney. As limited information is available about the role of the Commission as a ‘consent authority’ and when this power will be exercised, another important element of the success of the Commission will be how active the Commission is in facilitating the determination of development applications said to be consistent with the new proposed regional and district plans.