The New South Wales corruption watchdog advised the state’s department of planning that its decision to fast-track large areas of land for rezoning for new housing carried with it a number of risks, Guardian Australia can reveal.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption warned that “a favourable rezoning” under the plan to rezone large swathes of land on Sydney’s fringes “could deliver a significant windfall to an applicant” and that this could prompt applicants to attempt “various lobbying techniques”, including “direct approaches to the minister”, and “using or cultivating personal contacts” within the department.
The advice, which was general in nature, was sought by the department on the Rezoning Pathways program (RPP) in December last year, six weeks after the premier, Dominic Perrottet, and planning and homes minister, Anthony Roberts, announced the first tranche of sites that would be fast-tracked under the program.
The sites for 19,000 houses in the Appin region in south-west Sydney were announced in November. The department had previously advised the then planning minister Rob Stokes in 2019 that Appin would not be needed for housing supply until 2036.
The sites put into the fast track are Walker Corp’s Appin site, an Ingham Property site adjoining it and a site known as Gilead 2, owned by Lendlease closer to Campbelltown.
The department said the sites were chosen because advice from an earlier pilot program, the Technical Assurance Panel, “informed the Department’s inclusion of the sites as being suitable”.
At the time of the announcement there were no published guidelines for the Rezoning Pathways program. When they were finally published in December they included an application process, with a closing date of 22 January, eligibility criteria and criteria against which sites would be chosen for the limited slots in the fast-track program.
The ministers’ announcement of the three sites on 2 November also revealed that the government intended to remove Wollondilly council as the decision-maker. The new decision-maker would be the planning minister, with power to delegate to his department.
This came as a surprise to the council, which opposes Appin being developed at this time.
The three sites will now be “state assessed”, effectively sidelining the council. Other sites in the fast-track program will be “state led”, with the department assisting councils to evaluate rezonings.
The Icac advice warned that because of the potential huge lift in value from a rezoning “this could prompt applicants to attempt various lobbying techniques including: direct approaches to the Minister, using or cultivating personal contacts in the department, offering gifts/hospitality, invitations to informal site meetings or otherwise seeking access outside the approved channels.”
Icac noted that “some of this is difficult to police” but suggested embedding an agreed communication protocol requiring staff to notify of any contacts. It pointed to its report on lobbying and the dangers of holding “secret meetings”.
Rezoning farmland at Appin for housing will result in the land bought for several millions being worth hundreds of millions, or even billions, depending on the densities eventually permitted.
Roberts has declared one meeting with Walker Corp in his ministerial diary disclosures in December 2021, a few days after he became minister.
His former chief of staff, when he was previously minister for planning, Rob Vellar, now works for Walker Corp.
Roberts and Vellar declined to answer questions from the Guardian about their current relationship and whether Vellar has met with the minister over the Appin rezoning. There is no suggestion that either Roberts, Vellar or Walker Corp have done anything inappropriate or contrary to the Icac advice in relation to the proposed development or the fast-tracked rezoning decision.
Icac also stressed the importance of having “clear mechanics” for assessing projects, and eligibility criteria. Icac noted the department had acknowledged that its published criteria were somewhat subjective, but some sort of scoring system should be developed to fairly assess projects.
The department said it used the same criteria now in the published guidelines to choose the three Appin sites, but did not elaborate on how they came to be put on the fast track prior to the deadline for applications.
It said that all of the general and routine probity matters raised by Icac were either already incorporated into departmental process or planned for inclusion into the process during later phases.
It said it would take into consideration all matters raised by Icac throughout the pilot process and the advice assisted the department in ensuring that the process was robust.
Icac said its advice was general in nature and not legal advice.
The opposition leader, Chris Minns, was asked about Guardian Australia’s revelation that the government appeared to have ignored previous planning department advice in 2019 that Appin would not be needed for housing supply until 2036.
“That’s a troubling report and it’s indicative of a government that continues to put the city’s population pressures on the western fringes of Sydney in areas that don’t have the infrastructure that’s been promised to them,” he said.
“At the end of the day, you’re going to have builders and developers in Sydney. It’s up to the government of the day to set clear guidelines and targets about where people will live not just in the next four years, but in the next 10 years.”