The proposed reform of the existing planning regime is intended to result in a change in culture and approach to environmental assessment.

On 16 April 2013, the NSW Government released its White Paper and Exposure Draft Bills in relation to the proposed reform of the NSW planning system. The reform's objective is to establish a new planning system with an emphasis on evidence-based strategic planning in the preparation of plans, community and stakeholder engagement and decision-making. Submissions on the White Paper and Draft Bills are open until 28 June 2013.

The Planning Bill 2003 and the Planning Administration Bill 2003, however, in many respects, represent a rewrite of the existing Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act). Indeed, the framework of the EP&A Act and its provisions in relation to plan making (Part 3), environmental assessment (Part 4), infrastructure (Part 5) and those parts concerning certification and enforcement will look very familiar.

So what has changed? Essentially the proposed reform of the existing planning regime is intended to result in a change in culture and approach to environmental assessment; from combative to collaborative, and from a system based on prescriptive development assessment to one focused on strategic planning. This takes more than just changes to the black letter of the law.

The changes to the planning system in NSW focus on five key areas:

Each of these is the subject of a separate article. We also discuss some additional important amendments here.

The White Paper and Exposure Draft Bills reflect an indirect approach to planning reform in NSW. Many of the processes and procedures currently enshrined in the EP&A Act will continue to apply under the new Planning Bill. Essential reform will be delivered through the overhaul of planning policies, with local plans taking on a significantly greater burden in delivering not only local outcomes but also regional and indeed State objectives. Further, to overcome widespread public apathy and antipathy to the planning process in NSW, the Government intends to place significant focus and resources in earlier strategic consultation.

The success or otherwise of the proposed reforms to the NSW planning system will therefore very much depend on the Government's ability to reform strategic plan-making and engage the community at a much earlier stage of the planning process. This requires as much a cultural and attitude change as it does reform of the EP&A Act.