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Amendments to the EPA Act regarding local planning panels commenced 26 February 2018. Councils within the Greater Sydney Region and Wollongong City Council must have their planning panels in place by 1 March 2018. From 1 March 2018 councillors are no longer able to exercise a council’s functions as consent authority.

The changes come amidst sweeping reforms to the EPA Act and are embodied in the Environmental Planning and Assessment and Electoral Legislation Amendment (Planning Panels and Enforcement) Act 2017.

Most importantly, the Act abolishes the role of councillors of the councils mentioned above in the determination of development applications and requires that those councils establish local planning panels. Other councils may (but are not required to) follow suit.

Once a local planning panel is constituted, the consent authority functions of the council (in relation to Part 4 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979) will be exercised on behalf of the council by:

1)             the local planning panel;

2)             an officer or employee of the council as a delegate of the council, or

3)             a regional panel.

Local planning panels must be comprised of:

1)             an independent chairperson approved by the Minister;

2)             two other independent persons with relevant experience and approved by the Minister, and

3)             a community representative.

Councillors, property developers and real estate agents must not be members of panels.

Local planning panels will also have the role of advising on planning proposals if those proposals are referred to the panel by the council or at the direction of the Minister.

Panel meetings will be:

1)             advertised on the relevant council’s website;

2)             conducted in public;

3)             recorded; and

4)             made available to the public.

The decisions of the panel must be transparent and the reasons for the decisions recorded in writing and made available to the public.

In practice, most councils already have in place Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPS). Existing IHAPS as at 1 September 2017 will be continued and taken to be local planning panels until 1 March 2018. Most councils with existing IHAPS will reconstitute those IHAPS as planning panels as at 1 March 2018, with existing members of the IHAP being automatically “considered” for the respective role in the local planning panel.