Wollongong City Council has agreed to fast-track the assessment of development applications that create jobs, despite concerns from almost half the councillors that this could have bad outcomes for residents.
Councillors were split six votes to five on whether to take part in a NSW Government program to push development plans through the system more quickly. Northern suburbs representatives were most concerned that further overdevelopment from ill-considered construction could "totally destroy" their area.
The program, which is part of the state's COVID recovery plan, aims to support councils and planning panels to fast-track locally and regionally significant DAs with the aim of creating jobs. Councils who take part are eligible to apply for extra funding - up to $3 million for Wollongong - for public space projects.
Greens councillor Mithra Cox said she believed accelerating development approvals had "a very great danger of exacerbating the problems facing the northern suburbs" and warned that the council should not be seduced by a funding "bribe".
"We have a community who is stressed out and frustrated, sitting in huge queues of traffic just trying to go about their daily lives.
"The one thing people do not want, is to see us 'fast track development,' which reads as 'approve more overdevelopment without considering the important transport constraints or other legitimate planning concerns'.
"Even with the bribe of being eligible to apply for a potential $3m in funding, I don't think this will be enough to buy off people's skepticism especially in the northern suburbs."
Similarly, Labor's Janice Kershaw said residents already felt "disenfranchised" from the planning process, and was concerned the fast-tracking program would further take away their ability to make comment on development plans affecting their area.
"The wonderful Liberal government... has implemented many things that have attacked councillors right to have a say on what developments occur in this city, but also the residents' rights to have a say," she said.
She said changes allowing private certifiers to approve plans instead of the council, and a recent policy which means dual occupancies can be built on any residential land without any consultation with neighbours were examples of this.
"Everything is stacked in favour of the developer," she said.
"If we [speed up these processes], we'll get some sort of - not that I'd say bribe - a nice little grant from the government.
"There are issues going on with our planning processes that are just totally destroying this local area, and specifically in Ward 1 (Northern Suburbs)"
Northern suburbs Labor and Liberal councillors, Jenelle Rimmer and Leigh Colacino also spoke and voted against the motion, as did Greens councillor Cath Blakey.
Putting forward a motion to accept the staff recommendation to join the program, David Brown acknowledged he had some hesitation about the government's fast-tracking push - but said he was "happy to support any streamlining of the system that doesn't compromise the outcome of processes like community consultation".
He suggested a report on the program come back to councillors after 12 months so they could review the effectiveness of the accelerated assessment.
Councillor Ann Martin, who works for the planning department, also spoke in support, saying she did not believe the program would lead to staff skipping over the usual council assessment processes.
"I have confidence in the capacity of our staff to do a thorough job," she said.
Liberal John Dorahy said he thought it would "only be positive to fast-track" and noted that "we complain often that we don't receive enough from the state government [and] this provides a chance to grow."
Acting Lord Mayor Tania Brown acknowledged it was a difficult issue, but said she was persuaded by anything that would help with local employment generation given financial adversity people were facing during the pandemic.