Image for Who’s polling for local government amalgamation?

Brace yourselves for a news headline citing an opinion poll claiming that an overwhelming majority of Tasmanians support council amalgamations. While the poll is likely to claim substantial popular support for amalgamations, the phrasing of the questions is likely to be contentious.

Last week the Tasmanian market research firm, Enterprise Marketing and Research Services (EMRS) was busy phoning Tasmanian residents soliciting their opinions on possible local government amalgamations. Amongst the questions being asked were whether respondents considered 29 councils for a population of 500,000 was too many. In a similar vein, respondents were asked whether having 281 councillors and alderman was too many.

Then the pollsters moved on to testing whether those surveyed thought that council amalgamations would save money. In a follow up question, those surveyed were asked if they would support council amalgamations if it would result in a 10% saving on rates. No detail was provided to respondents on the origin of the claim that rates would be cut by 10%.

Who is behind the poll? Not surprisingly, the EMRS polling staff wouldn’t disclose to those interviewed who the client is. Allan Garcia, the Chief Executive Officer of the Local Government Association of Tasmania, told TT his organisation hadn’t commissioned the poll.  The Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry also stated that it had no knowledge of the poll.

At the time of going to press, the Property Council of Tasmania’s spokeswoman, Mary Massina, was not available for comment.

First published: 2010-11-15 03:55 PM

Friday, November 12:

Planning reforms urgent
Source: Stateline Tasmania
Published: Friday, November 12, 2010 7:30 AEDT
Expires: Thursday, February 10, 2011 7:30 AEDT

The head of Tasmania’s Planning Tribunal is calling for the system to be streamlined.

AIRLIE WARD, PRESENTER: There have been plenty of people bemoaning the state of Tasmania’s planning system.

Entrepreneur Dick Smith has been one of the most high profile. Mr Smith abandoned plans for a multimillion dollar resort and warned others off investing in Tasmania after his experience with the planning system.

Now the head of Tasmania’s planning tribunal has joined the criticism. Simon Cooper says the laws under which he has to make rulings are full of flaws.

Mr Cooper is no strange tore controversy. However, this time he’s courting it.

Simon Cooper was thrown into the spotlight three years ago when he was caught up in the aborted assessment of Gunn’s planned pulp mill for the Tamar Valley. He became the acting chairman of the RPDC after its head, Julian Green, quit.

It then emerged Mr Cooper was leaned on by former premier Paul Lennon’s departmental secretary, Linda Hornsey, not to send a letter to Gunns pointing out deficiencies in the mill proposal.

It was then alleged the Government was about to appoint Mr Cooper as a magistrate, to remove him from the pulp mill assessment process. Mr Cooper told a parliamentary committee that wasn’t true.

SIMON COOPER, PLANNING APPEAL TRIBUNAL CHAIRMAN: It’s fatuous nonsense. I had constantly been asking to be relieved from the RPDC.

AIRLIE WARD: Mr Cooper was already head of the Resource Management and Planning Appeals Tribunal, known as RMPAT. He did apply to become a magistrate and was told by then attorney-general Steve Kons he was about to be appointed.

That didn’t happen and the Shreddergate scandal ensued. Cabinet documents recommending him for the post were shredded but pieced back together and tabled in parliament.

It cost then attorney-general and deputy premier Steve Kons his job.

Although he’s given evidence to a parliamentary inquiry expressing his dismay over public sector appointments, Mr Cooper has never spoken publicly about the episode.

SIMON COOPER: I really didn’t want to get involved in the dispute and the controversy I suppose about Shreddergate. It was pretty uncomfortable and enough people had enough to say about that.

I didn’t think anything I had to say would particularly either change an outcome, change anybody’s view or really contribute to the debate. So I thought it was appropriate in all the circumstances to keep my council.

AIRLIE WARD: But he is not keeping his council over what he considers the parlous state of Tasmania’s planning system.

SIMON COOPER: I’ve been in my current position now for four and a bit years and the same problems that I encountered when I started are continuing and the solution doesn’t seem to be me to be that difficult.

AIRLIE WARD: The main role of the tribunal is to review decisions made by planning authorities which in the main are local councils.

Now, Tasmania has 29 different councils, or municipalities.


AIRLIE WARD: How many different planning schemes does Tasmania have?

SIMON COOPER: Probably 35. Or it could be more. It’s never always entirely clear.

AIRLIE WARD: So many schemes cause many problems.

SIMON COOPER: It’s difficult for the tribunal to actually be consistent and coherent almost in its approach because in many of the planning schemes, same expressions will mean different things. So if it’s hard for us, it’s I think almost impossible for the ordinary members of the community.

You’d have somebody for example that lives in the greater Hobart area that may be confronted with four or five different definitions of height, which you’d think would be something that would be, there could be some agreement about and some certainty about but unfortunately there isn’t.

AIRLIE WARD: What you’re basically saying is that the laws under which you’ve got to make determinations are an ass, as they say?

SIMON COOPER: I think in many cases they could be improved and I know that there’s certainly some work going towards that, that the Tasmanian planning commission has been doing some work in relation to drawing all that together, but I am of the view that it’s reached a stage where it’s almost critical that it be addressed and addressed quickly.

AIRLIE WARD: What needs to happen then?

SIMON COOPER: There needs to be as a matter of urgency one planning scheme, I think, for the state of Tasmania.

AIRLIE WARD: One residential planning scheme?

SIMON COOPER: One planning scheme that would cover everything.

AIRLIE WARD: One of the largest residential building firms in Tasmania agrees.

BEN WILSON, BUILDER: The biggest thing that we encounter as a business and especially as a project home builder is that we have standard designs and trying to adapt them to different municipalities for their different setback requirements, height requirements and site coverage requirements, makes the process reasonably difficult or complicated for our clients and ourselves.

It also can vary in relation to modifications on houses to suit planning schemes into whether there’s cost variance on our project home as well.

AIRLIE WARD: The housing industry has long been lobbying for a single statewide scheme.

It says the inefficiencies of the Tasmanian system were clearly demonstrated when the Premier, David Bartlett, announced special legislation to make sure Tasmania could access Federal stimulus money for social housing last year.

BEN WILSON: The fast track of certain developments under that funding is the biggest recognition of the fact that we do have an issue here in Tasmania.

AIRLIE WARD: It’s not the only time Tasmania’s unwieldy system has been recognised.

BEN WILSON: One of the best examples we’ve had as a business personally is defence housing contract in the state and we’re the only contractor throughout Australia who defence housing and building in excess of 1,000 dwellings that were given an extension of time under their contract to deal with our planning schemes in the state.

AIRLIE WARD: Why were you given an extension of time?

BEN WILSON: Because we simply could not commit to the length of time that it would have taken to get the application through, whereas in other areas throughout Australia the other processes are much more straight forward.

AIRLIE WARD: Last December, the State Government said it would streamline the approval of single houses, saying the Government understands the importance and urgency of the issue.

The industry is still waiting.

BRYAN GREEN, PLANNING MINISTER: Look this is an extremely complex process. We’ve understood it was complex.

The State Government put the necessary funds in place to allow this process to be undertaken because we recognised there are difficulties within the planning system. So we are all in the same boat here. We want to get a good result.

EMMA RILEY, PLANNING INSTITUTE: There’s been a lot of small changes. It’s true to say that the Government has pinned a lot of the significant changes particularly relating to planning schemes on the three regional planning projects at the moment.

AIRLIE WARD: State president of the Planning Institute, Emma Riley, is the joint project manner for the southern regional planning project recently released for public comment.

The plan for 12 southern councils would halt urban sprawl and encourage more high density housing. Ms Riley doesn’t think one planning scheme is necessary.

EMMA RILEY: The objectives of the three regional planning projects that are currently happening in the state, one of the key priorities is to deliver contemporary consistent planning schemes.

So that they will have a very strong element of consistency within them but enable some variation where there’s local values that warrant it.

BRYAN GREEN: I think by the end of next year we will have the three regional strategies in place and we will be handing down interim schemes to each of the councils and as a result of that we will be able to get on with the job of having effectively uniform planning across the State.

AIRLIE WARD: Mr Cooper maintains it doesn’t matter whether it’s residential houses, high rises or commercial premises, one single planning scheme will address those concerns.

SIMON COOPER: As to what land is actually put aside for or zoned for particular purposes, that is not affected by that. That remains a decision of the local council and the Planning Commission to make those determinations.

That bit we’re going to set aside for residential use but, having done that, that’s the way it will be regulated. That bit we’re going to put aside for rural residential or whatever you want to call it. Having done that, that standard will apply all over Tasmania and that bits the commercial bit of Glenorchy or it’s the commercial bit of Launceston. And once it’s commercial, that’s the standard that applies in Glenorchy will be the same as the standard that applies in Launceston.

AIRLIE WARD: Mr Cooper says, regardless of where they are, heritage considerations are not going to be significantly different.

Currently, he says, conflicting decisions are sometimes made by the Heritage Council and the local council.

But at the moment you have a situation where you are sometimes having to decide which heritage body has made the right decision, given one’s given a red light and one’s given, one’s said no and the other’s said yes.

SIMON COOPER: It’s better than that because sometimes they can both be the right decision because the considerations are different.

AIRLIE WARD: Poorly worded schemes cause significant problems.

SIMON COOPER: As I understand the situation, Tasmania is the only jurisdiction where that task, the task of preparing and amending planning schemes is not carried out with the assistance of parliamentary counsel.

Now parliamentary counsels are the specialists. They’re the people that draft the acts of parliament for parliament. They’re the ordinarily involved in the preparation of basically every other type of subordinate type of legislation that I am aware of but planning historically at least seems to have been treated differently. It’s not everywhere else.

Every other state that I am aware of, specialist legal drafters are involved in that process.

AIRLIE WARD: The consequences, he says, are significant.

SIMON COOPER: I think the community broadly is affected. It bleeds through from mum and dad who just want to do an extension or, in some cases, even just put up a shed in the backyard through to multi-million dollar developments which then has an impact on the whole community.

It impacts upon the smaller councils, it impacts upon the bigger councils.

Smaller councils in many cases have really small rate bases, they have lack of resources, they might be in a situation where they’re involved in a planning appeal defending a decision of theirs against a powerful and cashed up developer and they’re in a situation where they often can’t represent or so it seems to me, their community very well.

AIRLIE WARD: Mr Cooper didn’t want to talk about specific cases and said he wasn’t aware of any untoward behaviour from any developer, but said he was concerned about the possibility and public perception.

In a recent talk to the Planning Institute, Mr Cooper spoke of the last of precision in many schemes. He cited the Break O’Day council which sets a maximum height for front fences but then states there may be exceptions.

SIMON COOPER: It leads to uncertainties. It means in many cases that the provisions in a planning scheme can almost mean anything that one wants them to mean.

EMMA RILEY: We are never going to get it black and white and that is the unfortunate reality of the conflict between the way a tribunal or a court system that operates more in a legal, litigious manner and the realities of a planning system when we’re dealing with merits.

AIRLIE WARD: Emma Riley admits planning systems in Tasmania have been a problem for some time but says there doesn’t seem to be the understanding at a political level, the benefits that could be gained by putting the resources into fix it.

EMMA RILEY: The value of improving the planning system is underestimated.

But look I agree, there is no doubt that the condition of planning schemes play a cause the tribunal a significant headache that needs to be addressed.

I think there are measures that are being taken to address the problem. They are just taking a little bit longer.

AIRLIE WARD: A shortage of planners across Australia means a number of Tasmanian councils don’t have one, including Tasman council which arguably has the most significant European heritage in Australia.

Transcript, Read, Watch HERE

Saturday, November 13:
Pressure for planning reform
Posted Sat Nov 13, 2010 9:54am AEDT

(7pm TV News TAS)
Tasmania’s Local Government Association is resisting calls for a statewide planning system. LGAT believes regional reform is the right way to go.

The head of the Resource Management and Planning Appeals Tribunal Simon Cooper has told the ABC’s Stateline program the current planning system is confusing and costly.

Mr Cooper wants one scheme to cover the whole of the state but the state government is funding development of three regional schemes.

LGAT chief executive Alan Garcia says there are good reasons for having three strategies.

“The north-west is quite linear in its development,” he said.

“The north has a central hub and then a lot of spokes out from that wheel, whereas the south is a different sort of arrangement as well.”

Executive Director of the Property Council Mary Massina says Mr Cooper’s call indicates the system is not working.

“He really is echoing ... the concerns that have been coming from the private sector about the need to urgently improve our planning system.”

Full story HERE

Earlier on Tasmanian Times:

Emma Riley’s four part analysis: Is the planning system in crisis?

Part 4: Overview
Part 3
Part 2
Part 1

Or dial Emma Riley in to the TT search engine…