IN the next month it is likely the outcomes of the current review into the planning system will be announced.  While there is considerable discussion about possible scenarios it is clear that there will be at least some structural changs to the way that the functions under the planning system are delivered.  However the ultimate question is how necessary are changes to the planning system.  Indeed how necessary is the current review?

There is no doubt that we should always strive for continual improvement of the planning system.  It has now been operating for 15 years and the pressures and issues experienced within Tasmania are now different o what the were when the planning system was initiated in 1993.  However, as alluded to in the previous parts of this series, it is questionable that any review of the planning system at this point in time can ppropriately identify failures when it ha never been given the opportunity to work effectively.  Indeed the planning system is only in crisis because of a lack of commitment and resourcing at the State level.
The Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC), Resource Management and Planning Appeal Tribunal (RMPAT) and the Land Use Planning Branch are all suffering because there is insufficient staffing and resources.  Consequently the ability to achieve good planning outcomes is compromised.

Take the Land Use Planning Branch in the first instance.  They are now responsible in full or part for the following:

• Preparation and review of state policies (until they reach the RPDC);

• The regional planning initiative;

• Preparation of standard schedules;

• Preparation and/or coordination of the Subregional strategies and planning schemes for Brighton/Southern Midlands/Central Highlands/Derwent Valley;

• Preparation and/or coordination of the subregional strategies and planning schemes for the East Coast councils; and

• Delivery of other recommendations within the Better Planning Outcomes report;

How one branch with only 7 staff can possible achieve all that is beyond me.  In actual fact the inability of the Land Use Planning Branch to do what it needs to do is evident in the regional planning intiative.  This initiative involves the preparation of three regional planning strategies for the North West, the North and South.  The approach developed is based upon the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the state and Councils in each region, with Council’s then taking responsibility for the preparation of the strategy in a cooperative way.
It is intended that these regional strategies will provide the necessary policy and direction for the preparation of new plannig schemes which will then result in better cohesion and standardisation.  However in order to achieve good planning outcomes the regional strategies not only need to provide the broad aspirational diections for each region, they need to provide clear strategic directions and settlement planning which will form the basis of each planning scheme.

There is a lot of doubt whether the current approach to these regional strategies will achieve this.  Ultimately in the exercise of settlement planning (i.e. determining where growth should occur and ensuring the community services and physical infrastructure are planned in advance) there are some local government areas that are going to be more advantaged over others.  Unfortunately because of the political and financial imperatives of each local Council there is significant potential for thi to represent a hurdle in the adoption of the strategy. In the end we may just end up only with agreement on the broad policy directions.
Moreover, without the State government taking the clear lead and direction on this initiative, there is potential for considerable difference in approach between the three regions.  We may end up with three very different types of strategies and how is that going to help the community and developers undersand the planning system better in Tasmania?  Not to mention how are planners within local government who are already overworked meant to achieve this in an appropriate time frame.
So instead of focussing its energies and time this year on getting the resourcing and structure to provide needed to ensure tha the regional planning initiative is successful, the State have ended up doing another review (the fourth since the planning system came into effect in 1993).

As demonstrated in the previous parts to this series, concerns within industry and the community regarding timelines, are mostly perceived.  Where some of these concerns are held up in reality, for example the RPDC, it is not because they are under resourced, which they have acknowledged for a long time and have, prior to this review, been working on improving.
We do not need any major changes to the planning system at this point in time.  Yes, a WA style planning commission may work, but so would our current system if it was allowed to.  What is the point of establishing a new style planning commission combining the policy and decision making functions, Particularly when it will result in so much time and energy over the next few years for everyone (the government, the community and professionals) to come to grips with the changes, which given what limited resources there are could be better spent on developing the much needed policy.
It should be clear then that I am not promoting the position that the planning functions of government should see considerably more money.  That is an unrealistic aim particularly in the current economic climate. However an economic downturn is the ideal time to undertake strategic planning and in the long run it will save us a lot of money (imagine being able to avoid some of the current water and sewerage infrastructure problems in the future by planning growth properly) and ensure that our processes are efficient.  In the absence of development pressures, it means that we can plan with equality.
I also acknowledge that we are not in the political climate at the moment to propose major bureaucratic changes (although a Department of Planning and Infrastructure sounds goods). The establishment of a central planning agency under an existing department however does sound an attractive option.  This agency could then be charged with coordinating and communicating all government activities related to the RMPS is a very attractive option at the moment.  The independence of statutory bodies can be maintained, we wouldn’t have to go through lengthy, expensive and unnecessary legislative changes and finally the community would have a central point of contact.  For example a person with an enquiry regarding dam approvals could contact that central agency and then be directed to local egional Water Management Officer who would then explain that dam approvals are dealt with under the Water Management Act and asessed by the Assessment Committee for Dam Constructions rather than either the local council or the EPA.  It would save what even some of us planners experience sometimes:  a ridiculous series of phone calls trying to find the right person!  This central agency could also be responsible for general community education on the planning system.

One can only hope that our new Minister for Planning brings a breath of fresh air and then takes a determining role in ensuringthat we dedicate what little time and money that we have into delivering what is really needed rather than unnecessary legislatve changes that will make a few bureaucrats and critics happy.

In this four part series, Emma Riley, State President of the Planning Institute of Australia, Tasmanian Division examines whether the planning system really is at a crisis point, in light of recent criticism and whether we need to review and update the system or undertake planning reform.
Part 4: An overview