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When local government decisions are for sale

Corruption in local government could result in poor town planning leading to unaffordable, unsafe and unhealthy communities, according to ANU Professor of Public Policy Adam Graycar.

Professor Graycar, Director of the Research School of Social Sciences in the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, made the comments at a Design + Crime conference in Sydney today.

Professor Graycar said that corruption could distort local council decision-making processes and entice some elected and appointed officials to break their bond of trust with the public.

“Professionalism among those making town planning decisions is generally high. However when either the system or someone within it fails, the result is rotten,” Professor Graycar said.

“In New South Wales, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) received 303 complaints regarding development applications and rezoning in the 12 months to June 2011.

“In the last 12 months, the ICAC found that an Auburn City Councillor acted corruptly in accepting $4,500 to expedite a development application and that several members of a Land Council accepted several hundred thousand dollars to facilitate the rezoning of Council land.   In September a Melbourne City Councillor advised the press he had been offered a reduced price on an apartment to assist with securing development approval.

“While blatant bribes are not common in Australia, we do see powerful interests seeking access to strategically placed officials and a small number of cases end up in anti-corruption bodies in the various states.

“Problems typically arise when professionalism is overridden, payments are offered to speed up the process and there is an abuse of discretion.  Even if corrupt offers are not acted on, development opportunities are seen to be for sale and there is an erosion of public trust.

“The cost of these activities to the community can be high and lead to unaffordable and unsafe communities. That is why it is important to ‘design out’ corruption in town planning by reducing the rewards and removing excuses for corrupt acts.  This can include pursuing penalties under the Corporations Act for offending directors of development companies, or naming and shaming those found to have engaged in corrupt practice.

“For example, too much discretion devolved to decision makers can lead to abuse, so can a highly complex process involving excessive time periods and a lack of transparency in who makes decisions and how they are made.”

Professor Graycar said measures to tackle corruption in local government included:

  • A third party appeals mechanism for development disputes, similar to the one recommended by the New South Wales ICAC.
  • Clear guidelines for the exercise of discretion.
  • Community education on the decision making process and anti-corruption standards.
  • Randomthird party reviews of development decisions.
  • The publication of processing timelines, and establishing performance indicators for planning bodies.

“We need to develop increased transparency at the point each local government decision is made, to adopt a more structured approach to the exercise of discretion, clearer guidelines around gift giving and reduced compliance costs in local government,” he said.

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