SA corruption watchdog to take closer look at planning system and developers

The Independent Commissioner Against Corruption has announced a wide-ranging review into the state’s planning and development system after revealing her office has undertaken “several corruption investigations” within the sector.

Jun 14, 2024, updated Jun 14, 2024
Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

On Wednesday, Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC) Ann Vanstone KC released a statement revealing her office “recently commenced a project to advance our understanding of corruption vulnerabilities within the planning and development system”.

The project, which involved a “wide-ranging strategic assessment of the corruption pressure points” in South Australia’s Planning and Development Act, is now seeking further information “to test identified weaknesses and areas amenable to exploitation”.

“The Commission has had some exposure to the corruption threats involved in planning and development,” Vanstone said.

“Reports of poor conduct within the sector have led to several corruption investigations.

“Nonetheless, a full appreciation of risks involved in the planning and development regulatory landscape has proved elusive.”

Vanstone said it was a good time to review the planning system given the new act came into full force in 2021 and “is now settled”.

She also said the sector was seeing increased activity due to the pressures on the housing market, with that activity “likely to accelerate in the coming years”.

“Along with that will come greater risk of corruption,” Vanstone said.

The ICAC also said planning and development was a “complex area of public administration where corruption weaknesses can easily materialise”.

“The planning system is often contentious and adversarial in nature, with high levels of discretionary decision making and subjective assessment,” she said.

“The influencing of planning officials on even minor amendments to planning controls can have substantial effects on the value of land and developments.

“Such impacts can increase the opportunities for impropriety among developers and planning officials.”

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Vanstone said she would consider initiating a formal evaluation of the sector if she finds aspects of the planning and development scheme are “assessed as vulnerable to corruption but inadequately controlled”.

Corruption watchdogs interstate have regularly investigated land deals and property development, particularly in New South Wales and Victoria.

A recent NSW ICAC inquiry found that state’s planning system “lacked effective anti-corruption safeguards” and made 23 recommendations for reform.

But Urban Development Institute of Australia SA division CEO Liam Golding said corruption was not a problem in the state sector.

“This is simply not an issue in South Australia,” he said.

“In the Commissioner’s statement itself there’s nothing about what has actually happened that is the target of the inquiry.”

Golding said the UDIA will “always support appropriate mechanisms that make the system fair and equitable” and recognises “the importance of public confidence in the planning system”.

“But it should be noted, the recent Expert Panel Review of South Australia’s Planning System handed down 113 recommendations, with not a single one related to issues of corruption or integrity, which in itself is a positive sign given the extent of the review and consultation process,” he said.

Planning Minister Nick Champion said he welcomed the ICAC’s investigations into the planning and development system, adding: “Its integrity is paramount.”

“Our State will not be able to grow without a robust, trusted, and respected system,” he said.

“Our planning system must continue to drive SA’s economy, to deliver additional homes for South Australians now and for the future.

“It is prudent this be properly analysed by Commissioner Vanstone, however we must not forget that our planning system is the envy of the rest of Australia.”

Champion noted a Business Council of Australia report released last September found South Australia’s planning system was the best in the county on “efficiency, consistency, certainty and transparency”.

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