A study of planning contributions in New South Wales, Australia

There are many great benefits to be had if you are lucky enough to win a scholarship to Australia, reports Sarah Foster.

Winning a trip to Australia does not happen every day. But it did happen to me one day this year. While at a loose end one Sunday in April, I entered a competition I had seen advertised in Planning to win one of two travel scholarships donated every year by the Planning Summer School.

The scholarships are provided to allow one planning practitioner and one student to travel abroad and study an aspect of planning in a foreign country. After the trip, the successful scholar attends the school to give a presentation to delegates about the study and prepares a short written paper on the topic.

I decided to keep my entry as relevant as possible to my role as section 106 officer at Manchester City Council. I therefore proposed a study of the New South Wales (NSW) equivalent to planning obligations - planning contributions and section 94 plans. When I discovered that amendments to the NSW planning contributions system were due to be enacted in July 2005, I knew that it must be fate. Sure enough, in June I received a phone call telling me to pack my bags and book a flight to Sydney.

The next four weeks were spent arranging contacts and travel arrangements and buying high-factor sun cream. About 24 hours before my flight took off, I finalised my schedule. After a few weeks of frantic e-mailing, I had been invited to meet with representatives of the Planning Group, Sydney City Council, Wollongong City Council, Shellharbour City Council, Shoalhaven City Council, the Property Council of Australia and the Planning Institute Australia. All of these meetings were to take place in four working days, and people back home were saying that I was going on a glorified holiday.

Once in NSW, I was given a warm welcome by everyone I met. The people I visited at the various organisations and councils gave up an enormous amount of their time and we had some really interesting discussions about the section 94 system and the way in which it was about to change. I also visited some amazing places and saw some fantastic facilities that had been funded in this way. At the same time I was able to offer a perspective on the system that we use in England and Wales. Considering that the NSW planning system has historically been influenced by the UK system, I was astounded at how much the two seem to have diverged in planning contributions and obligations.

In NSW, contributions plans are the main method of collecting money from developers to benefit communities. These plans are based on predicted population trends over a set period of time. From these forecasts, the levels of facilities, services and infrastructure that are required to support the anticipated growth in population are calculated. Developers can then consult the plan to work out how much they will have to pay, based on the population size of the proposed scheme.

I could see that there are many significant benefits to the section 94 plans in ensuring transparency and accountability and achieving more long-term benefits for the whole population. Developers in NSW will always know how much they are expected to pay even before an application is submitted.

Similarly, the local community knows exactly what that money will be spent on. There is less emphasis on stressful, time-consuming negotiations and less risk of succumbing to immediate political pressure. On the negative side, contributions plans are expensive and rigid. Our section 106 system responds relatively rapidly to unexpected changes in economy or population, which is more difficult to achieve with a section 94 plan.

In acknowledgment of the rigidity of the contributions plans, the 2005 amendments to section 94 have introduced the option for local authorities to use negotiated legal agreements as well as a standard one per cent tariff. This is based on one per cent of a development's costs, which is also how planning fees are calculated in NSW.

In contrast to UK section 106 agreements, there is no need for nexus in legal agreements and the proposed one per cent levy. Nexus is equivalent to our necessity test, which has just been re-emphasised and reiterated in England and Wales in circular 05/2005.

Coming from a system where nexus is intrinsic to all legal agreements, I left NSW wondering how its removal would impact on the politics of contributions via negotiated agreements and tariffs, and how local communities affected by developments would feel about their main means of achieving remediation solutions that were effectively being spent elsewhere.

In England and Wales, the requirement for a firmer policy basis may eventually herald a shift towards a middle ground somewhere between the current section 106 system and the contributions plan system. In addition, the prospect of the introduction of some kind of standard tariff in England and Wales, similar to the one per cent tariff, makes me think that the two systems are not quite as divergent as they appear at first glance. In fact, both systems can certainly learn from the experiences of the other.

I can honestly say that this trip was invaluable in broadening my understanding of this area of planning practice both in my home country and on the other side of the world, and I managed to make a bit of time for some sightseeing too.

- The full research paper can be viewed via www.planningsummerschool.org/papers/year2005/2005PS1042AU.pdf. Visit www.planningsummerschool.org for details of how to apply for the 2006 travel scholarships.

BULLETIN BOARD

Belfast conference success

The Belfast conference ran from 4 to 6 November and was a great success.

Look out for a full review that will appear shortly. In the meantime, if anyone has any photographs that they would like to share on the network, please e-mail them to young.planners@rtpi.org.uk. Furthermore, if any delegates still have conference evaluation forms, they would be gratefully received and would help us to make the conference even better next year.

National voting has commenced

There are three candidates standing for one position on the board of trustees of the RTPI for the term 2006-07. They are Joanne Dutton, James Kirkwood and Mark Thorne. The election is by ballot and takes place from 15 November until 13 December. The electoral college is the general assembly.

- Further information can be viewed via www.rtpi.org.uk/ about-the-rtpi/governance/elections/.

Join the young planners network

Do you want to be connected to hundreds of other young planners nationwide?

Joining the young planners network, which was launched earlier this year, is simple and free to existing members of the RTPI. All you need is your five-digit membership number, which is printed on the plastic wrapper of your copy of Planning. If you are not a member you can still apply to join. Please e-mail networks@rtpi.org.uk for an application form. The steering group will consider your application promptly. To sign up, visit www.rtpi.org.uk/cgi-bin/

memsys/network-signup.php.

- There is no young planners page in December - we have rest for Christmas - but we will return in the 27 January 2006 issue of Planning. The young planners network steering group wishes everyone a very merry Christmas and happy new year.


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