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Cutting Joe Public out the loop

The City proposes to amend the system of delegated authority in order to ‘maximise administrative and organisational efficiency’. Under the proposed amendment the City will remove  from sub-councils the power to decide on all Use Rights, Departures , Rezonings, Subdivisions and the Application of Conditions on matters within sub-council borders. These powers will be delegated to the Executive Mayor . All that will remain is the processing of business and liquor licenses, naming of streets and input on service delivery performance.

An increase in efficiency is to be applauded but we argue that these proposed changes will not only fail to improve efficiency: they will also erode a key pillar of the DA manifesto and fall foul of the Municipal Systems Act in the area of transparent government.

The volume of applications under consideration will not decrease. Since the Executive Mayor will not be able to process these applications, decision making powers will shift as low down as possible within the executive sphere of government. In effect this is no different from the current situation except in one area: the shift of delegated authority from the political realm to the executive realm cuts the public out of the loop.

In an environment where the City repeatedly and substantially disregards its own EESP policy and planning guidelines – we cite the proposed Wescape and Phillippi developments that run contrary to the principal of densification and the carefully planned Urban Edge – there is absolutely no reason to believe that decisions will be more predictable and uniform when taken by the Executive Director:EESP (ED) than they are when steered through the sub-councils. The best mechanism for achieving honest, fair and consistent decisions is still to subject them to the very public scrutiny that the City proposes to remove.

In so far as there is a problem with efficiency, we believe that it lies with the gatekeepers to the system. The planning regime permits developers to disregard Use Rights and Zoning restrictions by applying for departures. The task then falls largely to the dedicated assembly of volunteers from Civic Associations such as ours to lodge objections to development proposals that are inappropriate. Where no objection is raised the pattern is to pass the application. The question is therefore: why have a zoning scheme at all if it is repeatedly and by default, disregarded? This regime favours persistent and well-resourced developers, permitting them to arbitrarily extract unfair value from their properties at the expense of law-abiding property owners who constrain themselves within the zoning framework. There is no need for any additional certainty – that already exists. There is a need for the gate-keepers to refuse applications that do not conform to guidelines.

Further, we argue that a degree of friction in the departure application process is highly desirable. The risk of time and money wasted on protracted planning applications encourages developers to self-regulate, to soften their proposals and to make compromises with their neighbours. In the current environment of cheap finance, the addition of a weakened regulatory system, as in this proposal, can only lead to the creation of a speculative property development bubble.  

As we can see from the empty housing estates and unfinished sky-scrapers across the US, Ireland and the Mediterranean countries of Western Europe, short term gain is no substitute for long term sustainability.

We appeal to the Mayor to reject this proposal in its current form and engage the sub-councils and ward committees in a proper public participation process to discover better solutions.