Planning shortcomings addressed following independent investigation
Published: 25 Oct 2016 9:35am
An investigation into past City of Wagga Wagga planning decisions has uncovered many instances where correct planning approval processes have not been followed.
The full extent of the problems are not yet known.
While the independent investigator’s reports are highly confidential due to legal professional privilege, General Manager Alan Eldridge has today revealed as much information as possible as part of his commitment to the Councillors and to the community to transparency and accountability.
The problems centre on decisions made in the planning directorate, including approval of Development Applications (DAs), conditions of consent and fees and charges, dating as far back as 2011.
There also appear to be unlawful decisions and a disregard of planning control tools such as the Development Control Plan.
“There are at least 22 areas at this time where it has been demonstrated some applicants were treated more favourably than others,” Mr Eldridge said.
“In one occurrence, an applicant received around a $1.5M reduction in fees and charges. This appears to have happened against professional staff advice, without the correct authority and without a Council resolution.
“In other instances, environment controls were deleted, again against professional staff advice, without the correct authority and without a Council resolution.
“The total number of issues is still not known as all possible DAs involved have not been reviewed at this time. Council will be working with all affected applicants in a systematic and structured manner to address the issues as we work through them.”
A highly qualified independent town planning firm has been appointed to examine the affected DAs, compare them with the planning instruments and put forward remediation plans where required.
Mr Eldridge said there will probably be financial implications for the organisation and the community for some years to come.
“It’s difficult to determine the extent of the financial impact and it may take 12 to 18 months for the independent town planning firm to examine all the affected DAs and recommend solutions,” he said.
“It has also been uncovered there have been significant shortcomings in the administration of developer levies under Section 94 of the Environmental Planning & Assessment Act, which has very strict guidelines about how that money must be recorded, accounted for and disbursed.
“The independent investigation found the Section 94 levy register was non-compliant in a number of aspects and that some funds have been allocated inappropriately.
“Council will now have to return funds to the Section 94 levy fund, which will have a knock-on effect on future budgets.
“It also appears that at times that relevant contributions associated with planning matters have not been collected, which means that some social and community infrastructure currently does not have properly allocated funding. This will need to be managed carefully when considering infrastructure projects.”
Mr Eldridge said a number of steps have already been taken to understand and address the various issues raised by the independent investigation.
“I can assure the Wagga Wagga community that the resolution of these issues is one of Council’s highest priorities,” he said.
“Along with appointing the independent town planning firm, extra resources have been directed to the Planning Taskforce and I’m delighted to announce that a senior planner will be joining Council in the near future.
“The taskforce is working with key stakeholders and the community. It has made substantial progress in its review and updating of Council’s planning instruments, and some amendments will be going to Council for consideration shortly.
“On behalf of the City of Wagga Wagga, I thank the community for their patience and understanding during this long and complex investigation.
“There’s still more work to be done and it will be an ongoing process that will take some time.
“I intend to keep the Council and the community updated with information when possible.”
Given the findings, Council has a responsibility to forward the results of the independent investigation to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
- The independent investigation centred on decisions made in the planning directorate, including approval of DAs, conditions of consent and fees and charges, dating as far back as 2011.
- Currently there are at least 22 matters of concern, including one decision where an applicant received approximately a $1.5M reduction in fees and charges.
- Another issue saw environmental controls removed from consent.
- Section 94 levy funds have not been correctly collected in some instances, have not been used for their intended purpose and the Section 94 levy register is non-compliant.
- Section 94 levy funds used for other purposes will have to be repaid into the s.94 fund by Council.
- Where s .94 funds have not been collected, Council will have to find money for social and community infrastructure.
- There will be a financial impact on Council and the community, the extent of which is not yet known.
- A highly qualified independent town planning firm has been appointed to examine the affected DAs, compare them with the planning instruments and put forward remediation plans. This may take 12-18 months years to complete.
- Extra resources have been directed to the Planning Taskforce and a senior planner will be joining Council in the near future.
- Council will be working with all known affected applicants and others as it deals with the issues.
- The investigation reports will be forwarded to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).