An Opinion piece by Councillor Bruce Lancashire, Mayor of the City of Brimbank
As a qualified town planner and civil engineer, and current Mayor of the City of Brimbank, I’ve been watching with great interest discussions coming out of IBAC’s Operation Sandon Report into corrupt conduct involving councillors and property developers in the City of Casey.
I wholeheartedly agree that the behaviour described in the Sandon Report is absolutely unacceptable. Equally, I assert this behaviour should not be seen as a reflection of the conduct of elected representatives as a whole.
Brimbank, like many other Local Governments, has robust and transparent processes in place to minimise the risk of inappropriate conduct, while remaining open to new ways to do even better.
I take my role as Mayor and Councillor very seriously, and have dedicated the last seven years of my life to representing my community, and understanding their needs and wants in the interest of making important decisions on their behalf. This includes planning matters.
Sandon makes a number of findings and recommendations, but the recommendations relating to planning matters are of particular interest to me as a former town planner with about 35 years of experience, including in Local Government and consultancy.
Of the 34 recommendations made in the report, 11 are focused on the planning system. Some of these recommendations seek to remove Councillors from determining planning permits by establishing a planning panel who would perform this role.
The report recommends Councillors are removed from the decision-making process in determining planning permits – a responsibility that has been entrusted upon us by the communities who have elected us to represent them.
The report recommends the implementation of an independent decision-making panel for defined planning permit applications. Details of the criteria to clarify what matters are ‘defined’ is not yet known.
If supported by the State Government, councils would be required to comply with this approach for all defined decisions of a Responsible Authority. This is also proposed to apply to the Minister for Planning. For Local Government, the consequence is that council officers would process applications as normal; would have delegations for most applications; and use an independent panel for defined decisions.
In reality this will likely mean delays to the decision-making process affecting the efficient administration of statutory planning functions. As for VCAT – it’s unclear what role VCAT would play as a review body. It’s also unclear how the independent panel would be funded and if there would be additional costs to the applicant and councils.
The Sandon Report states: ‘Nor can it (corruption risk) be resolved by transferring responsibility from elected councillors to a minister; it would be a travesty for the Andrews Government to use the findings to centralise planning powers within the backrooms of Spring Street.’
However, in a press release following the release of the report, Premier Daniel Andrews said: ‘The IBAC report’s 34 recommendations will be given appropriate consideration, but it is the clear position of the Government that the role of local councils in significant planning decisions should be reduced and we will have more to say on this matter.’
As the level of government closest to the people, we are best placed to understand the needs of the communities we serve.
Brimbank strongly opposes any attempts to use IBAC’s findings of one council’s conduct to water down the role of all 79 councils in planning processes. Greater local government involvement in major planning decisions remains in the best interest of local communities.