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Is the Tasmanian planning system in crisis? The answer is probably not if a crisis is defined as an unstable and dangerous situation where the old system can no longer be maintained.  The planning system will continue on irrespective of how good or bad it is.  But that is not the best question to ask. The better question is could the planning system be improved in a number of ways to encourage economic growth and improve productivity in the state.  The answer is clearly yes and Tasmania needs to catch up with the other jurisdictions across Australia.

In 2004 the then Minister wrote that the Resource Management and Planning Scheme in Tasmania “has been independently assessed as one of the best in Australia” and even recently a legal practitioner has said that “the planning system has been reviewed and found to be effective and efficient” and “to say that the planning system is holding up economic development is absurd”.  Such thinking is unfortunate as it is not backed by clear and objective evidence.  It is contrary to evidence from many other sources. 

A powerful representative national group says that “All Australians bear the cost impost of our current inefficient development assessment system”.  In 1998 the Development Assessment Forum (DAF) was formed to recommend ways to streamline development assessment and cut red tape - without sacrificing the quality of the decision making.  The Forum’s membership includes the three spheres of government; the development industry; and related professional associations.  In its Reform Implementation Report Card 2010 the Forum specifically said in regard to the Tasmanian planning system that “reform of the Tasmanian planning system is lagging behind most of the other states.  At the present time the system is reasonably robust but characterized by an absence of articulated state and regional strategies and highly individualized out-of-date local plans”  It says that the system is antiquated and cumbersome and only works because of the small size of the state.

Few would argue with the fact that insufficient resources have been applied to the planning system over the years which has resulted in the deficiencies that presently exist.  Tasmanian governments of all persuasions have been at fault for neglecting this important state responsibility.  Strategic land use planning and statutory planning has never been seen as very important in Tasmania with surveyors and engineers dabbling in it as a side line.  This has resulted in some of the worst urban design and lot layout that I have seen in any of the other states of Australia.  History shows that the Tasmanian gentry and land owners resisted planning rules for at least 50 years after settlement.  Ministers have never been focused on planning and it has never had a champion.  Emma Riley, one of the few people that takes the time to write good analytic papers on the planning system, has pointed out that in 2008 the Tasmanian government spent only $3.50 per person on planning while NSW and Victoria spent $14 and $27.50 respectively per person.  While the handful of planners within the Justice Department are experienced and work hard there is no way that they are going to bring the planning system up to a level comparable with the other states without more resources and support. 

You only need to look at the legislation to see the deficiencies where important States Policies are alluded to but are missing.  It is like a train without the carriages.  There are only 3 Tasmanian State Planning Policies with the wheels on the Coastal Policy a bit wobbly.  NSW which follows the same model has 62 State Environment Planning Policies (SEPPs).  People from elsewhere find it incredible that Tasmania does not have a planning department, a land supply body or a housing department.  This leaves Tasmania without a state director of planning that in other states has an important statutory role in decision making and in formulating recommendations to a Minister.  Land supply is ad hock in Tasmania with nobody knowing how many lots are coming on stream across the state.  The supply of housing is managed primarily by Health and Human services and focuses mainly on welfare housing.  A previous premier, Paul Lennon promised a state policy on housing but that never eventuated. 

Why is the current planning system not performing well?

Productivity and Planning

Tasmania has to move towards a new economic model with new sustainable industries otherwise it will go broke.  The other states are pushing Tasmania to improve its GSP and not be dependent on handouts from other jurisdictions. It has been shown in the planning literature that for an economy to work well it needs an efficient planning system.  Using the TERM model developed by the Centre of Policy Studies at Monash University it has been shown that improvements to the Tasmanian planning system could improve the state GSP by 2.4% with a whole set of flow on effect across the economy.  The NSW planning department has taken the issue further in a paper called “Promoting economic growth and competition through the planning system 2010”.  It recognizes that “the planning system is essential in the rational delivery of economic growth and jobs; housing and infrastructure;”….and other things.  “To provide for the best economic outcomes and an efficient economy, it is important for a planning system to provide a reasonable degree of certainty for new investors,…”  It points to the fact that planning provisions must not stand in the way of competition between business entities.  A legislative based SEPP is being prepared to cover all of these issues in NSW.

A publication released in May 2011 by the Federal Department of Infrastructure and Transport called Our Cities’ Our Future says “The shape of our cities cannot be changed quickly or easily, and yet planning and shaping of our cities has profound economic, environmental and social consequences. Productivity gains can be achieved by facilitating efficient and effective connections between people, businesses and markets”.  This comes down to strategic and integrated land use planning which in turn guides the provision of infrastructure to serve the economy and the people.  For example it has been shown that improvements in transport planning and resolving congestion in Australian cities could add 1% to the nations GDP. Good land use planning impacts on the amenity experienced by every person in the community.

Commonwealth Government Pressure

Recently the Commonwealth Government through COAG has focused in on the efficiency of planning systems across Australia and the Reform Council is gathering evidence and reviewing performance. 

COAG has agreed that all major cities in Australia will have a metropolitan plan that conforms to a set of stringent criteria by January 2012.  COAG went on to “noted that the Commonwealth will link future infrastructure funding decisions to meeting these criteria.” The greater city of Hobart is the only capital city that does not have a metropolitan plan and while it is being worked on right now it will be interesting to see whether it can meet the tough criteria dictated by the Commonwealth.

Is Tasmania Closed for Business

Is the less than perfect land use planning system contributing to a message to firms and investors that Tasmania is closed for business?  Professor Jonathan West from UTas says that the outdated planning legislation is the number one problem facing entrepreneurs and that it is strangling much of the most important economic development.  The Tasmanian Opposition and some developers and businessmen have jumped on this bandwagon to their advantage.  The pulp mill is too complex to be covered here but the canal estate and the development at Ralphs Bay would probably have not got through planning in any other jurisdiction in Australia.  The unfortunate part in this regard was that there was not a Director General of Planning to tell the proponents that they would not get anywhere with their projects from the outset.

So closed for business is a bit strong and developers are inclined to say derogatory things about all planning systems across Australia.  However, it also needs to be recognized that at this time investment capital is globally very mobile and risk adverse.  A land use planning system that is not up to date, is complex and open to parochial discretion can put off investors.  Developers avoid planning jurisdictions where the rules are unclear, third party appeals are not controlled and there is a vacuum caused by lack of state planning policies that leave too much discretion to decision makers.  Time to sort out problems costs money.  In preparing good planning instruments a cost benefit approach needs to be taken to test each clause as to whether it actually needs to be included for the public good. 

If the tests above were applied to the Tasmanian land use planning system it can be clearly seen that it needs some urgent work done on it.  Too much effort has been applied to minor statutory development issues at the expense of strategic land use planning.  Priorities need to change and be spelt out and resources and management structures put into place.  Until this happens, the social, environmental and economic circumstances of Tasmanian will not be as good as they should be. 

Most politicians including the Premier know that there are problems with the Tasmanian planning system and that reform is needed to meet the needs of today.  But I suspect they do not know where to start.  Another review has been suggested but four of those have already been run at considerable cost and effort with very little outcome.  Asking people with little knowledge or expertise how to make the system more effective would be a waste of time and interrupt the good planners in what they are currently doing.  Another approach is needed.

Subsequent to this paper being prepared the Tasmanian Treasurer announced that $6m shall be directed towards planning reform.  This will go some way towards improving the planning system provided it goes towards providing the missing components in the current system and not another parliamentary review of the planning system.

Another article is being prepared showing how the Tasmanian planning system can be improved.

Dr Bob Murfet has a PhD in planning from UNSW and taught at that institution for 5 years.  He has since worked for 30 years as a strategic planner, project manager and land economist on major projects in all of the states and territories of Australia.  He started out life in Burnie.