KU-RING-GAI COUNCIL DEVELOPMENT APPLICATIONS
Mr BARRY O'FARRELL
(Ku-ring-gai—Deputy Leader of the Opposition) [5.11 p.m.]: I again raise the State Government's planning policies, the dealings of the Department of Planning with Ku-ring-gai Council, and the impact the ongoing impasse has for current and future Ku-ring-gai residents. I will not rehash the complete history of this affair. However, a few facts are important in understanding this matter. Labor introduced State environmental planning policy [SEPP] 53 to force councils to deal with Sydney's growing population. Under this planning instrument, local communities, through councils, lost control over dual occupancy developments. Councils that developed housing strategies providing for medium-density developments were granted exemptions from SEPP 53.
Ku-ring-gai has a sorry history of trying to develop a housing strategy. Earlier councils simply thought that by ignoring the issue it would go away; it did not. The last council, until electoral reality kicked in during the last year under the mayoralty of Ian Cross, engaged in antics that eroded any goodwill left amongst the State's planning bureaucrats and saw the planning Minister take direct control over six sites across Ku-ring-gai—sites where now up to eight-storey unit blocks are growing. Not surprisingly, the electors of Ku-ring-gai elected a new council at the last local government elections. Seven out of 10 councillors are new. The new council is determined to get on with the job, stop the procrastination, obstruction and deferments, and try to get the best possible deal for residents.
As a sign of its good faith, changes were effected and progress was made. Council's development application backlog was halved and its escalating legal bills reined in and cut by 25 per cent. Two months after the new council was elected in May 2004 former planning Minister Beamer rejected council's housing strategy and imposed her own. Despite the fact every other Sydney council was granted a SEPP 53 exemption immediately following a housing strategy being settled, Ku-ring-gai has been denied one. As a result, in Ku-ring-gai dual occupancies can occur on blocks as small as 225 square metres. Given that the average local housing block is 900 square metres the inappropriateness of the existing arrangements can be understood. Ku-ring-gai Council wants dual occupancies restricted to blocks of at least 600 square metres, but without a SEPP 53 exemption council is powerless to stop the current spread across Ku-ring-gai of these inappropriate developments.
In February this year former Minister Beamer told Ku-ring-gai Mayor Adrienne Ryan and Deputy Mayor Nick Ebbeck that an exemption would be granted. She publicly repeated this commitment in April. Council and residents are still waiting for the commitment to be honoured. In fact, the only effect of the Minister's repeated, unfulfilled commitments, has been a quadrupling—that is, a fourfold increase—in the number of dual occupancy applications being lodged with council. Dual occupancies have also significantly added to council's legal costs, an area of concern to residents and councillors alike. Last year council spent almost a million dollars—$900,000—trying to fight inappropriate dual occupancy developments.
Ku-ring-gai is being treated harshly and unfairly in all of this. It is being punished even though it has done what has been asked of it. This was highlighted in July when a State Government planning bureaucrat spoke to an officer of council. The Department of Planning officer said the SEPP 53 exemption would not be granted unless council acquiesced to the department's view on a completely unrelated matter. In other words, there was an attempt to use the exemption to leverage or force a favourable decision out of council on a separate and unrelated issue. At the very least, this attempt was, in my view, an inappropriate use of power. Others have described it as blackmail. It has been referred to the ICAC and it deserves vigorous investigation. However, I regret that in light of the ICAC squibbing an earlier complaint by residents relating to conflicts of interest during the planning stage overseen by the Department of Planning, I am not optimistic about the commission's vigour or attention to these matters.
To rub salt into Ku-ring-gai's wound, the Department of Planning now claims that the exemption is being held up by the ICAC investigation. Six weeks ago Frank Sartor was appointed as the new planning Minister. No-one bemoaned the move of Diane Blunder from the Assistant Planning portfolio. Regrettably, by failing to meet her private and public commitment on the SEPP 53 exemption, she exposed herself as less than honourable. Her other pronouncements on Ku-ring-gai developments also suggested she was more generally out of touch with reality.
I welcome Frank Sartor's appointment. His strong local government background, his understanding of the planning processes—and distaste for the Land and Environment Court—and general pragmatism should bring some much-needed commonsense to Ku-ring-gai and the State's planning imbroglio. Despite his behaviour over the past 24 hours, I maintain that hope. I have written to the new Minister inviting him to visit Ku-ring-gai and see for himself the impact of the planning decisions made to date. I want Minister Sartor to see the problems created by the lack of SEPP 53 exemptions. I want him to see the appalling impact that the absence of an effective interface policy is having upon neighbours adjoining multistorey developments. I want him to see the consequences of Labor's failure to match infrastructure and services to the new population densities the State Government is imposing. I await with interest Minister Sartor's response.
However, I note that two weeks ago he wrote to council in response to a letter from former mayor, Councillor Ryan. Minister Sartor asked council to supply in seven days details to support the claims of improvements and progress in council's operations so that he can determine the exemption matter. I make just two points about the letter. First, his departmental officers are well aware of these matters; they have been all over council and its dealings on development for the past three years. Second, it completely ignores the prior private and public commitments given by his predecessor to grant an exemption and it ignores the previous practice applying to all other councils—that is, once a housing strategy was settled, an exemption was granted.
Nevertheless, I am prepared to take the new Minister at his word: he wants to see the evidence before making a decision. At this stage as a new Minister he deserves the benefit of the doubt. However, I strongly urge Minister Sartor to grant the exemption as a matter of urgency. A stage one housing strategy providing for 9,000 new dwellings has been approved for Ku-ring-gai. A stage two strategy is underway. An exemption is warranted—indeed, an exemption is vital to prevent the spread of 225-square metre dual occupancies across the municipality.
The other matter of urgency I commend is the interface issue. Council put forward a sensible proposal; it has been rejected. Heritage homes and neighbours are being adversely affected. I congratulate Councillor Malicki on her election. However, I send a message to other councillors that any attempt to revert to past antics of procrastination, obstruction and deferral on these matters will see Ku-ring-gai residents punished further. I know the mayor understands this, but I am not sure her behind-the-scene supporters understand the damage they have previously done to residents or the consequences that a repeat is likely to have. [Time expired