Image for The Decline and Fall of RMPAT: Tribunal loses its teeth

*Pic: Image from here

First published December 9

Have you had an inappropriate development approved in your street?  Do you realise that the loss of your view, light or airflow is now considered irrelevant to planning authorities? Developments, which maximise profit at the expense of neighbours’ amenities, are now festering like un-lanced boils across many suburbs and town in Tasmania.

As many Tasmanians will now be aware, the State Government is in the process of implementing new, contentious, standardised planning legislation designed, supposedly, to make development applications …“fairer, faster, cheaper and simpler”.  The Government mantra does not state for whom the new State-wide planning scheme will be ...“fairer, faster, cheaper and simpler”, but it is not hard to work out that the developer will be in the driver’s seat from now on.

Previously, Tasmania had one of Australia’s fairest planning systems, which provided checks and balances against inappropriate development, and which gave individual right of appeals.  For instance, in 1993, the Tasmanian Government introduced a suite of legislation as part of a framework called the Resource Management and Planning System [RMPS].

The objectives of the RMPS were:-

• to promote the sustainable development of natural and physical resources and the maintenance of ecological processes and genetic diversity
• to provide for the fair, orderly and sustainable use and development of air, land and water
• to encourage public involvement in resource management and planning
• to facilitate economic development in accordance with the objectives set out in the above paragraphs
• to promote the sharing of responsibility for resource management and planning between the different spheres of government, the community and industry in the State

Of the various elements of the RMPS, the Resource Management and Planning Appeal Tribunal [RMPAT] is the independent statutory body tasked with hearing appeals provided under a range of Acts, including the Environmental Management and Pollution Control Act, 1994 [EMPCA], which covers the primary environment protection legislation in Tasmania,  and the Land Use Planning and Approvals Act [LUPAA], which covers such matters as planning schemes, regional strategies and planning directives.

With the departure of the current Chairman of the Resource Planning and Appeal Tribunal (RMPAT), perhaps it is an opportune moment to examine this arm of the planning process.

When it was set up, the RMPAT was heralded as a non-legalistic forum where “Average Joe” was encouraged to become involved in resource management planning issues.  If a landowner had a development issue – possibly affecting his own property or that of neighbouring properties – he or she were able to bring the matter to the attention of the Tribunal in the hope of having the matter arbitrated fairly, speedily and cheaply. 

The process was heard by a panel of experts in planning in a non-threatening, non- confrontational environment, in which recourse to lawyers was rare.  To encourage community participation in the process – one of the objectives of the RMPS - fees to lodge objections to contentious development applications were held low, and the Tribunal Chairman endeavoured to make proceedings as stress-free as practicable.  Thus, the average man in the street was not over-awed by the process; it was as unlike a court setting as could be achieved, within the constraints of the Tribunal’s stated objectives.

Initially, legal or expert witness was not required or kept to a minimum, again to keep the process financially within the grasp of everyone.  However, over the years, these laudatory objectives of the Tribunal have been high-jacked by the legal profession.  Today, appeals to the Tribunal are an expensive legal undertaking, where costs of upwards of $4,000 per day - to retain barristers and expert witnesses - are not uncommon.

Tasmania, in the 1990s, had a planning process which had a democratic structure; it was a model much-admired by other States.  It may have been somewhat unwieldy to administer, but, at least, it could not be accused of representing only “the big end of town”. Gradually, over the years, yet another avenue for public participation in the planning process has been subverted to vested interests, and this Tribunal – once admired and respected – has been subtly subsumed into the government-of-the-day’s long-term economic agenda.  The decisions of this Tribunal have become increasingly capricious and out of touch with reality. Its hearing’s are redolent of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. 

Given the State Government’s highly unpopular push to swing the planning pendulum in favour of developers – its so-called ...“fairer, faster, cheaper and simpler planning system” – the democratic ideals of former days are fading fast.

As one of the last forums available the Public to be involved in the planning process in Tasmania, we have a right to expect that the original objectives of the Resource Management and Appeal Tribunal are upheld and, in fact, strengthened to counterweigh the influence of big business.  I fear that the only way this will occur is if the RMPAT is eviscerated, and a new democratic structure raised in its place, possibly completely divorced from the recently introduced Tasmanian Planning Scheme.

David Halse-Rogers is a former educational psychologist and heritage conservation consultant.  He is the Honorary Secretary of The South Hobart Progress Association.