17/09/2009 - 00:00

Planning reform sets good example

17/09/2009 - 00:00


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Planning reforms announced last week set a constructive example the state government should follow with vigour.

Planning reform sets good example

PLANNING Minister John Day did something unusual last week. He released a discussion paper that had specific and tangible reform proposals, and then followed up by clearly stating his preferred option.

Looking back over the state government's initial 12 months in office, there aren't many other ministers who can put up their hand and make the same claim.

There have been plenty of reviews established. Many policies are being carefully scrutinised, but there aren't many cases of ministers coming through the other side with a defined policy position.

To some degree, this is no surprise. Colin Barnett won office unexpectedly, and had to negotiate a complicated alliance with the Nationals to form an effective government.

He and his ministers have established some high-powered reviews, which have raised some interesting reform ideas. But the buck stops with the minister, who has to take a stand.

Mr Day did that with planning reform, and hats off to him. The proposal he has put forward involves the establishment of expert panels that would approve developments worth more than $2 million, or $1 million in rural areas.

His proposal addresses the long-running frustration among land developers and property developers, who are often stymied by slow and unpredictable decision-making in local councils.

The underlying causes of that problem are multiple: decisions are taken by elected councilors who often are captive of vocal minorities; and advice is often provided by council staff with limited expertise, in part because the experienced staff have been recruited by the private sector.

That raises a whole raft of issues associated with reform of the local government sector; a task that John Castrilli has botched through his clumsy attempt to force amalgamations, and that the sector itself is pursuing with the speed of a sloth.

Local councils predictably have criticised Mr Day's reform proposal, which takes away a significant aspect of their decision-making.

The fact that the expert panels will include local government representatives, filling two out of five positions, does not seem to have ameliorated the concern.

Local councils could have headed off these changes if they had taken action of their own volition.

In a handful of cases, they have already established expert panels. A prime example was the Town of Victoria Park, which recognised that it needed specialist support to deal with the planning issues associated with the high-rise apartments currently being developed at Burswood.

The result was a model of effective decision-making, but not many others followed its enlightened lead.

Mr Day has looked past the complaints and focused instead on the big opportunity to push through a reform agenda that should deliver big efficiency gains.

The Property Council of WA praised his plans as the most important reform to the state's planning approvals process in many decades.

The test for the minister is to implement the new regime in a timely and effective manner.

That is a test for all state government ministers, who will face acute pressure across a range of portfolios as the state's economic growth picks up.

Writing in this week's edition, Chamber of Minerals & Energy Western Australia chief executive Reg Howard-Smith has highlighted some of the emerging pressure points.

His proposals include gearing up education and training and forming a state migration taskforce to deal with anticipated growth in demand for skilled labour, developing a coordinated state energy strategy, establishing a dedicated land development authority for the Pilbara, and improving resources project approvals.

Mr Howard-Smith acknowledged progress on several fronts, such as the establishment of a department of training and workforce development to enhance the focus on that area.

However, as discussed in this column two weeks ago, a new department is a very small start. It's the follow-up that really counts.

In that regard, I was bemused to see advertisements last weekend promoting the state government's training blueprint.

Like Training Minister Peter Collier's own statements, the advertisements asserted the government's intentions but were bereft of detail.



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