Development, Economics and finance, Government and governance | Australia

9 June 2020

With the constraints of COVID-19 ushering in changes to planning laws in some states, ANU Crawford School Institute for Infrastructure in Society’s Kirsty O’Connell and Sara Bice look at the changes and explore what they might mean for community engagement in a post-pandemic world.

Social distancing creates obvious barriers to usual, person-to-person community engagement. In addition to the physical barriers posed by COVID-19, some states have recently passed laws that allow ministers to circumvent normal planning processes and conditions of approval. In certain instances, they can now approve new projects without stakeholder consultation.

The planning changes are intended to ensure that governments can move as quickly as possible to establish critical facilities such as fever hospitals, and also to facilitate much-needed economic activity.

But these changes are unusual in their reduction of citizens’ opportunities to participate in the planning process, particularly at a time when community interest in the planning process was strong – as demonstrated by the large number of submissions to various planning applications.

While some of these changes are temporary, others are permanent.

Changes that are underway in our most infrastructure intensive states:

So how significant are these changes?

Australia has a long history of public participation in infrastructure project assessment and regulatory decision-making, and statutory requirements to consult at various points in the assessment and decision-making process are common. Legal rights for members of the public to challenge decisions in the courts also exist in certain cases.

While project assessment and approval laws change with each new wave of reform, it is rare to see any erosion of those requirements and rights. On the contrary, some state governments have recently enhanced the quality of community engagement in assessment and decision-making processes, and expanded that engagement to other phases in a project’s life cycle.

For example, the New South Wales Department of Planning, Industry and Environment Social Impact Assessment Guideline for State significant mining, petroleum production and extractive industry development (2017) is now included in the assessment requirements for major infrastructure projects.

More on this: Keeping the community on board

How necessary are these changes?

The dramatic effects of COVID-19 on the economy mean that governments are looking to infrastructure projects to provide much needed economic activity. Statements by leaders including Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack indicate that governments are eager to roll out the stimulus without delay – even if it means addressing green and red tape.

However, infrastructure professionals working with the program say that communities expect to have a say about projects and activities that impact their lives. They also rate stakeholder opposition as one of the leading causes of project delay.

This raises the question of whether the need to act quickly in the interests of community and economic health will come ahead of the community’s desire to have a say.

What is clear is that project assessments need to continue even during the COVID-19 crisis. This may require allowing provisions for public exhibition via the Internet, given the legal restrictions on movement and gatherings, and changes to laws about how public participation is done.

More on this: Building a resilient and sustainable future

Regardless of participation method, it is difficult to imagine how laws that allow proper community consultation to be bypassed can be justified.

Just as importantly, policymakers must determine if these laws will benefit infrastructure projects in the long run or whether they may sow the seeds of costly community opposition.

So what options are available?

Where a project will create significant community impacts it is important to retain the key elements of community engagement. Tools such as 1800 community numbers, online forums, video conferences, and responsive social media platforms all offer opportunities to continue to connect and consult.

Restrictions on face-to-face gatherings do not mean that consultations should be foregone. Planning authorities could also ask project proponents to demonstrate that they have assessed potential community impacts through activities such as online research, surveys, telephone polls, and meetings with staff from other projects who are operating in the same geographic area, and that they have a plan to mitigate each of the issues that would likely be raised through full consultation.

Alternatively, planning authorities could limit the opportunities for streamlined assessment where community impacts are likely to be significant.

Obviously, the changes to planning laws are intended to help the community and to allow Governments to move as quickly as possible if they need to do things like build emergency fever hospitals. This is, after all, the worst health and economic crisis the world has faced in 100 years.

It would have been unthinkable a few months ago for example, for governments to tell citizens not to leave our homes except for very limited reasons, but during such a crisis communities have accepted these measures – for the most part – because they can see it’s for their benefit.

While limited public participation in planning may be accepted by the community in the short term, evidence would suggest that thoughtful consideration of community issues will still be essential to support an ongoing social licence for new projects, and by extension, better project outcomes in the long term.

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