Corruption report to back stripping power from councillors: sources
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A push to strip Victorian councillors of their planning powers is about to be bolstered with the tabling of the anti-corruption watchdog’s report into allegedly crooked land deals in Melbourne’s south-east.
Senior state and local government figures who have been consulted about the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission’s Operation Sandon final report say it will include a long list of recommendations for planning and governance reform, including removing local councillors from statutory planning approvals.
Local councils could be cut from planning decisions under contentious changes being considered by the state government.Credit: Paul Rovere
This comes as the government reaches out to the development industry over housing affordability and planning. Premier Daniel Andrews met alone on Thursday in his Treasury Place office with leaders of key lobby group the Property Council.
Operation Sandon has involved a five-year investigation of development approvals centred on Casey Council. Concerns were first raised by The Age in 2018, including over the outsized political influence of allegedly corrupt developer John Woodman.
The Sandon report is set to be tabled within weeks.
Senior state and local government figures expect the report to criticise various current and former MPs, including for their involvement with Woodman, who in public hearings was alleged to have paid bribes to council officials. However, the report’s most serious findings, sources say, will be about the alleged corruption of councillors and planning at Casey.
Developer John Woodman.Credit: Justin McManus
State ministers and councillors have told The Age they expect the report will give cover and impetus to potentially contentious planning changes flagged by the government in response to the housing crisis and Labor’s bid to rein in urban sprawl. The changes were revealed by The Age last month.
Local government peak group the Municipal Association of Victoria is anxiously awaiting the tabling of the IBAC report, conscious its findings will be confronting for councils.
“We recognise that Sandon may well be utilised by the state to centralise further planning powers in the minister and away from councils and community,” association president David Clark said.
He urged the government to acknowledge that the corruption allegations related specifically to Casey, arguing it would be unfair to punish Victoria’s 78 other councils.
“We urge the state to work with the sector on reform, rather than seek to force change that likely will only support a discrete group of private interests (the property industry).”
In its compilation of the Sandon report, IBAC has consulted senior government figures while also studying interstate planning system models, sources say.
Government sources say they expect IBAC to point to the NSW planning system as a model for change. In NSW, councillors are distanced from planning approvals. Expert local, regional and state planning panels decide approvals, depending on their value.
Last month The Age revealed that the government was working on a reform package to streamline planning to help squeeze an extra 1 million homes into Melbourne’s middle suburbs – a package likely to include a reduced role for local councillors.
‘We recognise that Sandon may well be utilised by the state to centralise further planning powers in the minister and away from councils and community.’
Premier Daniel Andrews then confirmed that Deputy Premier Jacinta Allan and Planning Minister Sonya Kilkenny were working on measures to present to cabinet before an announcement later this year.
The Sandon report will also help the government justify revisiting reform after last year’s debacle when it announced and then quickly abandoned a package to streamline planning and to introduce a 1.75 per cent levy on residential development to raise $800 million a year for social housing.
The government scrapped the planning/social housing package after a dispute with the development sector, which Labor accused of breaching a “grand compact” and running a campaign of misinformation by vastly overstating the impact of the levy.
Property Council Victorian executive director Cath Evans.Credit: Justin McManus
At the time, Labor ruled out reviving the changes not only for the then term of government but beyond.
However, ministers told The Age that the deteriorating housing situation has made government action on planning and affordable housing a priority.
The government has re-entered discussions with the development industry about planning reform, notably the Property Council, which stepped up pressure last month for change.
After meeting the premier on Thursday, Property Council executive director Cath Evans said housing affordability had been “front and centre of discussions”.
“Our planning system isn’t delivering the homes we need at the moment, and we support bold, state-led action to address the current issues,” Evans said.
Ministers and senior Labor figures, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said the government was hoping to tap into frustration, especially among young Melburnians, over a lack of housing close to jobs, public transport and entertainment.
Labor strategists say the government has the opportunity to wedge Greens-dominated inner-suburban councils in particular because the Greens are viewed as obstructive to larger apartment projects.
The government did not respond to questions from The Sunday Age. A spokesman would only say: “An update of Plan Melbourne is currently under way.”
Plan Melbourne is the government’s long-term strategic plan for the metropolitan area.
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