NSW planning boss wants more transparency in development decisions
Professor O'Kane said her decision to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest had more to do with her role in overseeing the 2013 review of coal seam gas activities in NSW.
“I think the study conflicts me because I’m so associated with it," she said. The review – which found the industry's risks could be managed – "makes it hard for people to think that I don’t bring views to [the sector]”.
Critics of the previous Planning Assessment Commission cite concerns about the inconsistent admission of telephoned evidence at public hearings, which curbed the use of experts by poorly-funded community groups working pro-bono from afar.
They also complained that commissioners had taken private tours by project proponents – such as one organised by Santos to Queensland. The opponents also want the ability to challenge evidence put forward by proponents at public hearings.
Project opponents face "an inequality of resources that prevents an equal articulation of views", Jeff Angel, head of the Total Environment Centre, said. He suggested a small fund – paid for by developers – should be set aside to assist grassroots groups.
"That's why we have legal aid," Mr Angel said.
Professor O'Kane said she appreciated the funding discrepancy between developers and opponents: "The deep pockets tend to be in one way."
One method to address the issue, though, might be to tap the resources of the Chief Scientist & Engineer to provide research to help deal with scientific issues in "a more systematic way", she said.
The Herald sought comment from Planning Minister Anthony Roberts and the Labor opposition.
Jeremy Buckingham, the Greens energy spokesman, said the Planning Assessment Commission had been "a virtual rubber stamp for large mining and gas developments".
The loss of the rights to a full merits appeal – unless directed by the Planning Minister – had undermined trust in the whole process, he said.
“Establishing a cab rank system for planning consultants, so that there can be genuine independent assessment of planning proposals – rather than hired guns – is another essential reform,” Mr Buckingham said.
Professor O'Kane said that the public should expect proponents' applications would get better as scrutiny by the commission and the department improved their proposal.
Still, “if you never saw the commission disagreeing [with a proposal], it would sound a bit suss," she said.
While symbolic in nature, the Commission has applied to a cabinet sub-committee to have the waratah replaced by the state's coat of arms – much like judicial bodies have – to more clearly distinguish its independence from the government.
Professor O'Kane, whose part-time role has an initial term of three years, plans to have an informal review of the commission's processes in six months and a broader overview in about a year from now.
Peter Hannam is Environment Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald. He covers broad environmental issues ranging from climate change to renewable energy for Fairfax Media.
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