Imagine for a moment you had to design a planning system for the State’s second largest city. How would you go about it? Would you design a system that gave decision-making on development near the harbour to one body, development in the suburbs that surround the city to another, and development in the heart of the city to a third player?

Perhaps if you weren’t satisfied with this muddle you could stir the pot a bit and hand over large chunks of public land to another government agency and get them to go into partnership with a large property trust to progress a separate profit-driven agenda of their own.

No one, at least no one who cared about a coherent planning outcome and protecting the public interest, would come up with that planning “system”. But that is precisely the system that Newcastle has been saddled with. That’s the system that has seen the rail line cut and excessive heights proposed for buildings in the historic heart of the city. That’s the system that needs to be reformed, root and branch.

So what can be done to restore integrity and public confidence in the planning and decision-making process in Newcastle? And how can we avoid making the same mistakes across the state? To start with, we need to address how Newcastle found itself in the muddled mess of multiple planning and consent authorities.

Newcastle is awash with competing authorities. There is the Hunter Development Corporation (HDC), UrbanGrowth, Planning NSW, the Joint regional Planning Panel, the Planning Assessment Commission and finally, for the crumbs that fall its way, Newcastle City Council.  All have competing roles in the redevelopment of Newcastle. No one body has responsibility for delivering a coherent overall plan for the city. You could add to this mess the Ministry for Transport, which seems to play the role of an outside lobbyist that is routinely ignored by the higher powers in Planning NSW.

To make matters worse, UrbanGrowth and the HDC, publicly owned property developers, are both overseen by the Planning Minister. That Minister then has to balance the competing roles of developer and planning authority. The balancing task becomes all the more difficult when UrbanGrowth enters into a joint venture with GPT, a $16.7 billion publicly listed property trust, and urges the Minister to increase the development yield on a jointly owned city office site to improve its commercial gains. This devil’s brew of competing interests is a recipe for disaster.

If this unholy mess was only happening in Newcastle that would be bad enough, but Newcastle is not unique and many of these same planning problems also exist in Sydney. Sydney has the state government dominated Central Sydney Planning Committee to decide the biggest developments in the CBD. Then there is the Barangaroo Development Authority and the Minister for Planning deciding what goes on in 22 hectares of public land to the west of the CBD. Meanwhile UrbanGrowth takes on the role of developer and land owner for large swathes of public foreshore land from Balmain to Circular Quay and the entire Eveleigh Railway corridor from Central to Macdonaldtown.

The democratically elected Sydney City Council then has to do the best it can with the rest of the city. There is no one body with the powers to deliver a cohesive and rational plan that will make the overall city work.

What’s the answer to this muddle? As the NSW Greens Planning Spokesperson I think the answer is pretty obvious. In each of these wonderful cities there is a democratically elected council, though from time to time we all might question the quality and wisdom of the councillors (just as we do for State MPs). For all their faults though, councilors are elected by the people, responsible to the people, and can be thrown out by the local people. Councils are the bodies who have the democratic legitimacy and local knowledge to make the crucial long term decisions for their communities.

For well over two decades both Labor and Coalition state governments have engaged in a one-sided struggle with local councils to remove their planning powers and essentially deliver for the large end of town. After two decades of failed planning there is surely a lesson to learn. It’s not more complexity or more centralisation. It’s about supporting councils, resourcing them properly and handing back powers. For both Newcastle and Sydney this would empower a single democratic body that can deliver a coherent long term plan for each of the State’s two biggest cities.

David will be speaking on the Newcastle Planning Inquiry at a public meeting on Monday, March 16, at Newcastle City Hall, 7pm, organised by Save Our Rail and Hunter Concerned Citizens. 

An edited version of this piece was published in the Newcastle Herald.