Council leaders in St George and Sutherland Shire have differing views on new legislation that will see independent panels determine most development applications (DAs).
John Rayner, the administrator of Georges River Council and former long-time general manager of Sutherland Shire Council, strongly supported the move.
However, Sutherland Shire mayor Carmelo Pesce questioned how councillors would be able to represent their constituents on contentious DAs.
Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPs) will determine DAs with a value of between more than $5 million but less than $30 million.
Applications for projects over $30 million will be decided by regional planning panels.
IHAPS will become mandatory, and existing panels will be revamped to comprise three independent experts and a community member.
Mr Rayner said Georges River Council established its own IHAP immediately after its proclamation in May 2016.
The model announced by the government this week “closely resembles Georges River’s best practice panel’, he said.
“Our expert panel has already determined more than 42 DAs with a value of more than $100 million.
“The panel visits sites, allows the applicant and objectors to put forward their point of view, and determines an application totally on merit.
“Panel members are highly qualified and a community representative adds a local perspective.
“The independent panel also decides on planning and development matters where council has a financial interest and this overcomes perceptions that councils give approvals to suit their own purposes.”
Mr Rayner said, while there was a cost in paying panel members, it was insignificant compared with the reduction in legal expenses a council could face in defending decisions in the Land and Environment Court.
“In fact, Georges River Council’s legal expenses for 2016/17 were the lowest in the past three years,” he said.
“We expect these panels to give communities and ratepayers greater certainty about planning decisions and will improve the probity standards and reputation of local councils.”
Sutherland Shire Council established an IHAP while Mr Rayner was the general manager.
Mayor Pesce said the changes were expected because the council had received a briefing some time ago from general manager Scott Phillips on the government’s intentions.
“What I want to know is how does a councillor now represent constituents? he said.
“They have taken decisions out of council hands.”
Cr Pesce said he thought the present system for determining DAs in Sutherland Shire was working “quite well”.
It involves council staff determining most DAs under $20 million, and contentious applications being referred to IHAP for a recommendation before a final decision at a council meeting.
Cr Pesce said he believed both Liberal and Labor councillors were making final decisions on merit after taking into consideration the recommendation of council staff and the IHAP.
“Only two per cent of DAs come to the council floor,” he said.