Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE [11.36 a.m.]: This Government will soon have the opportunity to prove that it is serious about cleaning up planning in New South Wales by making a crucial decision on James Packer’s casino. The question is: Will the new planning Minister take the path of her predecessors and meddle in the approval process to exclude any right of review in the Land and Environment Court, or will she stand back and let the limited due process that remains in the planning system take its course? If Minister Goward chooses to jump in and save Packer from the indignity of public scrutiny in the courts, it will be the final proof that three years and two Premiers on this Liberal Government has done nothing to seriously change planning in New South Wales.
The problem with Packer’s casino is that it does not fit into the approved concept plan for Barangaroo. Between the Labor Government and the Liberal Government the critically acclaimed 2007 Hills Thallis design for Barangaroo has been thrown out and handed over to just one politically well-connected developer—Lend Lease. It has since almost doubled the floor space and seen changes to the law to allow a casino to operate on the site. But even with all that, the sheer bulk of the proposed casino still sticks out; and it sticks out a lot. At 270 metres high, the casino is vastly higher than its surrounding development and would be a seriously jarring architectural element on the harbour.
This out-of-scale spike on the western edge of the central business district cuts across decades of planning that aimed to produce a tapering north-south spine for the development of Sydney. For decades now the overall plan has been to focus the highest buildings in the centre of the central business district and open up the edges of the harbour to lower-scale development. Development is meant to reach a peak in the mid-city and then drop away at either end. This is one reason why, almost two decades ago, there was such strong opposition to the “toaster” development at east Circular Quay—another development that just did not fit. It was put forward for a political fix by a well-connected developer and was approved despite public outcry.
At just under 70 metres high it cuts off the Opera House in the city and blocks out the view of the botanic gardens along Bennelong Point. It still does not fit but, now that it is built, it will never go away. No-one wants in Sydney another toaster, let alone a toaster that is four times as high with a casino in it—no-one, that is, except James Packer and his supporters in this rotten Government.
So what does the New South Wales Government do when planning laws and pernickety courts threaten to get in the way of a mate’s development? The answer is simple: It changes the law. In the case of Packer’s casino this requires a sleight of hand from the planning Minister to change how the development application is assessed.
In late 2011 planning Minister Brad Hazzard signed a general delegation giving the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) the power to decide all State significant development applications, including the largest and most controversial developments. In these cases the PAC holds a public meeting to allow those for and against the development to have a say. It then makes a final decision largely on the basis of a report from the planning department. For almost all major projects considered by the PAC there is a right of appeal to the Land and Environment Court if the community does not like the decision made by the PAC. This is the review right that saw the court overturn an approval by the PAC for an extension of a Hunter Valley coalmine that would literally have engulfed the small town of Bulga.
After the Bulga appeal the former planning Minister increasingly interfered in the planning process to protect developers and miners and remove community appeal rights by using Labor’s discredited planning laws to direct the PAC to hold what is called a public hearing, not a public meeting. A public hearing is no different to a public meeting. At both, the community has no right to formally present evidence, engage experts or cross-examine witnesses. However, under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act once a public hearing is held, all merit appeal rights to the court are removed.
This leaves the decision entirely with the PAC rather than the court. This benefits developers and the department, with the PAC approving 95 per cent of all development applications that it considers and agreeing with the department an extraordinary 97 per cent of the time. With these figures there is no greater favour that the current planning Minister can do for Mr Packer than send his casino development to the PAC and simultaneously prevent an appeal to the court. Former planning Minister Hazzard repeatedly used this power to shield a series of developments from public scrutiny. It was used on the T4 coal terminal at Newcastle and a raft of environmentally damaging coalmines, including a fresh application at Bulga.
The question now is: Will new planning Minister Pru Goward do the same? I hope things have changed and we finally have a planning Minister who puts public interest before private profits. However, history suggests that our city, our harbour and the finances of this State will again be signed away to another generation of spivs, gamblers and developers. Ultimately, what stands in the casino’s way are not good laws. It almost certainly is not this Parliament. It is an engaged and watchful community. It is time to watch this space.