Current Issue #488

Slings and Arrows:
Park Lands vulnerable under new planning system

Park Lands developments such as the Adelaide Oval hotel and since-withdrawn Adelaide Crows headquarters bid have drawn passionate opposition

Adelaide’s Park Lands will within six months fall under a new, troubled planning regime, but few South Australians have any comprehension of the likely development consequences. 

The state Liberals are silent about what is going to be a revolutionary change for Adelaide’s ‘jewel in the crown’. The city council is aware of it, but hasn’t the bottle to throw a public tantrum. 

Adelaide’s media appear to have slept through this one. The reason is probably because many journalists simply don’t get it, or don’t want to. Complicating the story, the technical and legal complexities are challenging. But the consequences are easy to predict.  Adelaide’s planning rules for the Park Lands are to change profoundly, in a once-in-30-years revolution. The old rules are out, and new ones will be active within months. They will revolutionise development allowances for every one of the 723.5 hectares of Park Lands under the care and control of the Adelaide city council. 

Ironically the planning revolution is being implemented by a state government that, when in opposition in 2015, opposed much of it. But since winning office in March 2018, the Libs are now vigorously implementing the new model. 

It’s all about a new rule book called the Planning and Development Code. Under this, the state is dismantling many former planning checks and balances relating to Park Lands development approvals, throwing out many of the more rigorous and transparent former rules under which city council administrators, its Adelaide Park Lands Authority board subsidiary, and councillors once determined matters. 

The world-renowned landscape surrounding our little city is soon to be highly vulnerable to new and confronting development proposals. The big ones will be handled under new rules by a handful of unelected state planning bureaucrats, directed by one planning minister. Key developments likely to be exclusively determined by this group include new Park Lands ‘education establishments’, hotels and ‘public infrastructure’. The hot tip for 2020 is a new Park Lands stadium and a multi- storey hotel by Torrens Lake. 

Opposition opposes, but now delivers

In 2015 the Liberal opposition complained that a new planning bill to replace the former Development Act 1993 was not accompanied by critical operational and procedural evidence, including a mysterious ‘Planning Code’ and the bill’s likely regulations. It meant that no-one could road-test it until years after the law was proclaimed,
well past 2016. Labor’s well-honed parliamentary tactics got the bill passed on a ‘Trust us it-will work’ basis. Only very recently have some aspects been tabled for scrutiny. 

Any attempt to condense complex legislative and (consequential) procedural complexity into something easy to understand in this brief article risks parachuting Review readers 

into a swamp of complication – laws, instruments, Park Lands development assessment procedures, categories of development, strategies, management documents and their legal (or not) status when assessing proposals. It is best to simply note that, only since the full enactment of all of the sections of the Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act 2016 (occurring about now, after a very long, provision- by-provision implementation phase), can the true effect of the change be understood. 

It’s no understatement to note that since public consultation on the Code began on 1 October 2019 (now closed), local governments across SA have observed chaos within Planning SA in rolling it out. The implications for the Park Lands remain murky. 

Stinging Town Hall critique

Adelaide city council’s Park Lands Authority quietly delivered a stinging critique of the new Park Lands ‘code’ specifics on 6 February.* Journalists slept on. It focused on the consequences of the state’s shredding of the Adelaide (City) Development Plan’s contents for the Park Lands policy zones. This plan was an instrument of the Development Act 1993. But that statute’s now been replaced by the new 2016 law, which mandates a replacement Planning Code (P+D Code). 

Council criticism covered eight pages. These aspects are the most disturbing. Policy reflecting the parks’ environmental, cultural, recreational and social values has been dumped. Adelaide’s six squares (key elements of the 2005 Park Lands Act’s Adelaide Park Lands Plan) have been omitted. The category of ‘non-complying’ development has been deleted from the assessment criteria. (This blocked some of the worst development proposals in the past.) Descriptive policy detail has been deleted, meaning that development applications will be, according to Town Hall, “wide open to interpretation without appeal rights”. 

Dumping of former Development Plan policies prompted council advisors to note that “new and larger [future] buildings [are] more clearly contemplated”. 

Landscape character reference dumped

The Park Lands P+D Code is without former reference to special landscape character areas (including some cultural or national heritage places). Limits to car-parking expansion have been dumped, allowing ancillary growth of new spaces adjacent to development sites. (This was previously blocked.) New and inadequate criteria for assessment of shop and restaurant development will lead to more development. 

Of most concern is a new Code feature that replaces the former three categories of development. These were: (1) no public consultation; automatic approval, (2) subject to some consultation and (3) non- complying; consultation mandated; and assessments appealable in a court. Each has been replaced with new criteria that diminishes checks and balances (especially public consultation mandates), and shreds the concept of non-complying development (3). That criterion has been replaced with a new term, ‘Restricted Development’, but it will no longer be an assessment guideline; merely a “pathway for [the] assessment authority”. 

This means approvals will default to a clutch of Planning Commission bureaucrats to decide, under non- transparent procedures, with public consultation not mandated. 

It is under this criterion that future development applications for “education establishments, hotels and public infrastructure” will be grouped. More high schools and tertiary colleges? High-rise international hotel towers? A commercial club takeover of a community swimming centre? A big new stadium? 

It is no understatement to warn that this is Adelaide’s quietest, but scariest, Park Lands planning revolution since 1993. It’s one of Adelaide’s biggest news stories that the media never wrote.

Read the Adelaide Park Lands Authority’s full submission to the Planning and Design Code consultation here (pages 13 – 47) 

Ash Whitefly

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Ash Whitefly is Executive Director of the Adelaide Whitefly Institute of Diplomatic Studies.

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