Corruption watchdog warned NSW government of risks surrounding plan to speed up rezoning of residential land | Politics of New South Wales End-shutdown

The New South Wales corruption watchdog informed the state planning department that its decision to expedite large tracts of land for rezoning for new housing carried a number of risks, Guardian Australia can reveal.

The Independent Anti-Corruption Commission warned that “a favorable rezoning” under the plan to rezone large tracts of land on the Sydney fringes “could result in a significant windfall for an applicant” and that this could encourage applicants to try “various lobbying techniques”, including “direct approaches to the minister”, and “using or cultivating personal contacts” within the department.

The department requested the advice, which was general in nature, on the Rezoning Pathways program (RPP) in December last year, six weeks after Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet and Planning and Housing Minister Anthony Roberts announced the first tranche of sites that would be accelerated under the program.

Sites for 19,000 houses in the Appin region of south-west Sydney were announced in November. The department had previously informed then-planning minister Rob Stokes in 2019 that Appin would not be needed for housing supply until 2036.

The sites put on the fast track are Walker Corp’s Appin site, an adjoining Ingham Property site and a site known as Gilead 2, owned by Lendlease closer to Campbelltown.

The department said the sites were chosen because advice from a previous pilot program, the Technical Assurance Panel, “informed the Department’s listing of the sites as suitable.”

At the time of the announcement, there were no published guidelines for the Rezoning Pathways program. When they were finally published in December, they included an application process, with a closing date of January 22, eligibility criteria, and criteria against which sites would be chosen for the limited seats in the accelerated program.

The announcement by the ministers of the three sites on November 2 also revealed that the government intended to remove Wollondilly council as the decision-maker. The new decision maker would be the planning minister, with powers to delegate in his department.

This came as a surprise to the council, which is opposed to Appin being developed at this time.

The three sites will now be “assessed by the state,” bypassing the council. Other sites in the fast track program will be “state run,” with the department helping councils evaluate rezonings.

Icac’s council warned that due to the potential large increase in value of a rezoning “this could prompt applicants to try various lobbying techniques, including: direct approaches to the Minister, using or cultivating personal contacts in the department, offering gifts /hospitality, invitations to informal meetings on the site or seek access outside of approved channels”.

Icac noted that “some of this is hard to police,” but suggested incorporating an agreed communication protocol that requires staff to report any contact. He pointed to his report on lobbying and the dangers of holding “secret meetings.”

The rezoning of farmland in Appin for housing will result in land purchased by the multimillion being worth hundreds of millions, or even billions, depending on the densities that are ultimately allowed.

Roberts stated a meeting with Walker Corp in his ministerial diary disclosures in December 2021, a few days after becoming minister.

His former chief of staff, when he was formerly planning minister, Rob Vellar, now works for Walker Corp.

skip previous newsletter promotion

Roberts and Vellar declined to answer questions from The Guardian about their current relationship and whether Vellar met with the minister over the Appin rezoning. There is no suggestion that Roberts, Vellar or Walker Corp did anything inappropriate or contrary to Icac’s advice in connection with the proposed development or expedited rezoning decision.

Icac also highlighted the importance of having a “clear mechanism” to evaluate projects and eligibility criteria. Icac noted that the department had acknowledged that its published criteria were somewhat subjective, but some kind of scoring system should be developed to fairly evaluate projects.

The department said it used the same criteria now in the published guidelines to choose the three Appin sites, but did not explain how they got on the fast track before the application deadline.

He said that all routine and general probity issues raised by Icac were already incorporated into the departmental process or planned for inclusion in the process at later stages.

He said he would take into consideration all issues raised by Icac throughout the pilot process and the advice helped the department ensure the process was robust.

Icac said his advice was general in nature and not legal.

Opposition leader Chris Minns was asked about Guardian Australia’s revelation that the government appeared to have ignored earlier planning department advice in 2019 that Appin would not be needed for housing supply until 2036.

“That is a worrying report and is indicative of a government that continues to put pressure on the city’s population in Sydney’s western limits in areas that do not have the infrastructure they were promised,” he said.

“At the end of the day, you’re going to have builders and developers in Sydney. It’s up to the government of the day to set clear guidelines and targets for where people will live not just in the next four years, but in the next 10 years.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *