Addressing Delays in Processing Development Applications

It’s not a surprise to some that Ku-ring-gai is the slowest council in Northern Sydney when it comes to processing Development Applications, and as a councillor I get contacted a few times a year from residents who are disatisfied with the process. The usual story is either that they had submitted their DA a few months ago and haven’t heard from council since, or that after several months they finally are contacted by council only to be told that unanticipated additional reports (traffic, acoustic, geo, landscaping, etc.) are required, adding further to the delay.

In these situations there’s not much that we as councillors can do to directly influence the outcome because it is an operational matter under the authority of staff, however, if the majority of the governing body this council term is open to reviewing the process, setting appropriate performance measures instead of moving goalposts when things get too hard, and identifying improvements (e.g. re-engineering the process, triaging certain DA’s to earlier identify issues, improving the system to allow residents to track progress, or allocating greater budget) then we can be on the way to restoring Ku-ring-gai’s reputation in this space.

In the past I’ve asked these process improvement questions on an annual basis but the usual response has been no, not needed and not interested. Which is really weird and I hope the new council will be better.

Yes there is also the explanation of an increase in CDCs resulting in an increase in the complexity of DA cases, and you can see some limited evidence of that in the data below, however I don’t think it tells the full story and it doesn’t explain why the other councils are so much better than us. Anyway, this is one of the areas where I’ll be talking to councillors behind the scenes to test if there’s more appetite to explore doing it more efficiently without unnecessarily dropping standards.

Elected Council Confirmed

Elected Council was confirmed just moments ago.

Comenarra Ward – Jeff Pettett, Greg Taylor

Gordon Ward – Barbara Ward, Simon Lennon

Roseville Ward – Sam Ngai, Alec Taylor

St Ives Ward – Martin Smith, Christine Kay

Wahroonga Ward – Kim Wheatley, Cedric Spencer

Positions such as Mayor, committee memberships, etc will be determined on 11th January.

Ku-ring-gai’s Community Strategic Plan

At the start of each term, councils across NSW consult with the community to create a 10+ year ‘Community Strategic Plan’ (CSP) which frames and guides all decisions made at council.

I’ve had a look through Ku-ring-gai’s two most recent CSP’s and while they are above average compared to our peers in Northern Sydney, there’s still a lot that can be done to make it a more meaningful, effective and inclusive document.
Some of the early stage improvements include:

  1. Considering whether we are focussing on the right objectives. Are some priorities not high enough (or absent) while others over-emphasised?
  2. Incorporating a more inclusive community consultation process (similar to Willoughby) and ensuring that the objectives that we settle on represent the diverse needs of residents across the LGA.
  3. Encouraging more active engagement and representation by the full governing body (similar to Hornsby) rather than just the Mayor.
  4. Including a more direct link between specific objectives and the actions required to achieve this (Lane Cove does this, but there are even better ways of communicating it on a page).
  5. Directly tying metrics, performance targets, actions and ownership to each objective (similar to the long-term strategic plans that I see in the corporate world).
  6. Stating how the community can be involved in producing a better outcome (similar to Hornsby).

It’s going to be a quiet month and while we aren’t yet technically councillors until 11th Jan, I’ll be brainstorming more suggestions to make the CSP process better this time around. I would love to be in a position in June 2022 to say that out of all the 128 councils in NSW, Ku-ring-gai’s CSP is the best, and if we can get there then I think it’s something that Ku-ring-gai’s residents and council staff should be proud of.

After the CSP is finalised, the challenge is to then stick to the plan, monitor performance, and tweak the course if circumstances change.

Reflections on Transparency

It’s been a month since the HKPost Town Hall event which I personally found to be the most enjoyable night of the month-long campaign. The candidates had a good time sharing their views on policy without the usual nastiness of debate from the previous council term.

Interestingly, although just over a third of the lead candidates accepted the invite to attend, a much higher proportion of two thirds of those who did attend will end up on council. It might say something about the people’s preference of choosing candidates who are approachable and transparent. Thanks to the Hornsby Ku-ring-gai Post for organising this enjoyable and informative evening, it plays an important role in keeping our residents informed of the candidates and issues.

Council Rate Increases from July 2022 – June 2023

Here’s some good news or bad news, depending on how you want to see things.

The rates that you pay are set by IPART (the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal) and in the last decade the increases have on average been at 2.46%, a tad above inflation.

For the 2022-23 period, IPART has decided (with a new calculation method) that Ku-ring-gai’s increase (excluding waste levy, land valuations, etc.) will be limited to 0.7%. It’s good news for those who don’t like paying rates. It’s bad news for council in that 0.7% is certainly less than the cost increases that we expect from providing services, upgrading our infrastructure, and paying our staff. Things are going to be tight next year. Ultimately there will have to be some sort of cost cutting or efficiency measures, and while you do save some money you will probably also get less for what you pay.

Festive Season at St Ives

We visited St Ives Shopping Village to have a quick lunch, charge up the car for free (25% in 71 minutes), and visit the seasonal attractions.

There is the Community Tree of Joy run by St Ives Rotary where we are encouraged to pick up a card from the tree, purchase a gift for the person in need, wrap it up, and return to Rotary for distribution. It’s something worth doing if you are in the area.

This year there is also an art exhibition to celebrate the International Day of People with Disability. The Gallery is located on the ramp in the middle immediately above the EV chargers, and the art is on display from today through to 21 January 2022. Worth checking out if you dare to brave the shops at this time of year.

Thank You

I’d like to thank the residents of Roseville Ward for asking me to serve them as a councillor for a second term. The election result was quite a surprise and it goes to show that if incumbent councillors do their job of listening to and representing their residents, they will be recognised for it.

It was an incredibly hectic three weeks and this election campaign would not have been possible without the support of volunteers. We appreciate all of you who were willing to dedicate time to the cause, whether it be an hour or a few dozen hours, and I will be coming to thank each of you personally in the weeks to come.

The full election result is not yet known, with ballots still being counted and some postals still coming in til 17th December. We actually won’t know who the ten councillors are until the week commencing 20th December which is when the preferences are distributed. Until then, we can only be certain about one councillor for each ward so I would like to congratulate Barbara Ward (Gordon), Martin Smith (St Ives), Kim Wheatley (Wahroonga), and Jeff Pettett (Comenarra) for getting elected. Each of us have been elected on a particular platform or set of objectives, and I look forward to working with you to see if we can deliver on these in a collegiate manner.

Focussing on Roseville Ward, we do not yet know who the other councillor will be. It will most likely be Alec Taylor, with Amanda Blackman being a possibility and a remote chance for Jennifer Anderson. It will really depend on the distribution of preferences in two weeks’ time. Each of these candidates have worked hard to seek election and I look forward to working with the one that gets elected.

I would also like to thank Amanda Blackman and Mitchell Frater-Baird for being such amazing running mates. I do genuinely believe that we are stronger together as a team and look forward to seeking your input to policies and motions over the next three years.

As a Christian, I would also like to thank God for the election result. As some of you know, last decade I was actually training to become an Anglican Church minister and serving the local community through the church. I never really expected to become a politician, but had at the spur of the moment in 2017 wondered whether my commercial skills could be applied to serving the community in a different way as a councillor. My Christian values guide my approach; I strive to serve with integrity and there is a stronger emphasis on seeking the interests of others than on promoting myself.

Finally I’d like to thank my wife Kathryn and our kids for putting up with this election campaign. It’s been a tough few months with all the dramas at council followed by an election, and Kathryn has had to juggle a lot in my absence.

It will be very interesting to see what the future council of ten looks likes. Each councillor will have been elected on their own platform and our challenge is to, where possible, assist each councillor in delivering on this. From the election result and from speaking to residents, I think it’s also clear that many residents aren’t interested in dysfunction and instead want a council that focuses on delivery of outcomes. But I don’t think it will be possible for us to hit the ground running on all outcomes; at least half of the council will be new councillors and it will take some time for them to settle in and become familiar with local government concepts and organisational culture.

As usual, if you have any queries as residents then feel free to contact us and we will do what we can to help you.

Ku-ring-gai’s Housing Legacy (and the mess that next term’s Councillors will inherit)

Some of us have a Will, a legal document that provides instructions on what to do with our estate once we are gone. And for those of us who have a Will, especially a complex one, we take extra care to make sure that every word is crafted such that there can only be one (intended) interpretation. And if our lawyer drafts a Will and we are unsatisfied with it, we ask for the changes to be made and presented to us for review again before signing it.

In recent years, the State Government asked each of the Sydney Metro councils to prepare a Housing Strategy through to 2036. In many ways it is similar to a Will. I’m not going to be a Councillor by 2036 however the decisions that we make as a Council today affect our children though to 2036 and beyond. If council works collaboratively on a Housing Strategy, the State Government can then plan the appropriate transport, education, hospital, and other infrastructure delivery. And because I intend to live in Ku-ring-gai in the decades to come, and I want my children to do the same, the Housing Strategy through to 2036 is very important to me.

In September and October 2020 there was a bit of drama regarding Ku-ring-gai’s Housing Strategy and I am disappointed that the former-mayor, who used to be my mentor, used Council’s resources of 31,000 mailing list as well as ratepayer funded newspaper ads to misrepresent my position on the matter. I asked councillors and General Managers from other LGAs as to whether this activity was normal, and they said no definitely not.

So what was the drama about? In preparing a draft Housing Strategy for Ku-ring-gai, council staff had proposed 15 storeys in Lindfield and 20 storeys in Gordon. All ten councillors opposed this proposal (as demonstrated by the September 2020 minutes and webcast) however there were two views on how to best move forward.

One group of councillors including myself proposed that given the slowed population growth due to COVID, the population projections were no longer accurate and that we should require council staff to prepare an amended strategy with lower dwelling targets and a more diverse mix of housing to include townhouses and duplexes in sensible places. We proposed that staff should prepare the revised plan and put it out for public consultation and councillor consideration.

The other group of councillors proposed that Ku-ring-gai would do absolutely nothing at all. All land zoning to remain exactly the way it is now. The 600+ page housing strategy to be revised to reflect this and submitted to the Department of Planning without further consultation with members of the public or consideration by councillors.

I had strong objections to this alternate approach for the following reasons:

  1. Despite their claims it did not provide a housing plan through to 2036. It was 2031 at best, or potentially 2026.
  2. It bypassed all community and councillor consultation, akin to asking your lawyer to drastically amending your will and getting you to sign it without any review.
  3. It leaves Ku-ring-gai exposed to further property developer spot-rezoning. So instead of the community having a say on where townhouses should go and what they should look like, the buck was being passed to property developers who would do it without appropriate consultation.
  4. It places Ku-ring-gai at much greater risk of significant 10+ height increases under a state Labor government (whereas if we had gone with brand new 2-3 storey townhouses 200m from the train station, with Ku-ring-gai-specific R3 development controls to conform with local character, nobody would think to replace them with 10 storeys next decade).

The former mayor got her way with the casting vote. The housing strategy was revised and then lodged with the Department of Planning. Councillors were notified less than 2 hours before lodgement, however there’s no way that you can expect any Councillor to read a 377 page document in that period of time, and provide meaningful feedback. A subsequent review revealed that council staff had left some inclusions that left some parts of the LGA especially St Ives exposed.

More recently in July 2021, the Department responded with a letter of conditional approval for the Housing Strategy. The message was basically that no, Ku-ring-gai’s proposed Housing Strategy in isolation was insufficient to provide the diverse housing needs of Ku-ring-gai through to 2036. 2026 yes, but not 2036. So in order to achieve approval, twelve additional conditions were added to close out the remaining gap. You can read the document in the following link, in particular point 6 which says that if Ku-ring-gai is unwilling to do the rezoning, the property developers will.

At the November Council meeting, 6 out of 10 councillors rejected the twelve conditions of approval. I personally said that I wasn’t a fan of the conditions either, but that I’d prefer staff to prepare the material and let the next council decide what to do next. But with the twelve conditions of approval outright being rejected now, it means that the housing strategy itself also has no approval.

Yes, Ku-ring-gai fought the housing targets but Ku-ring-gai certainly has not won. We had a great opportunity for residents to have a say in what they would like the future to look like, and to set appropriate development controls so that our residents’ downsizing needs could be met while ensuring that future multi-dwelling homes are consistent with Ku-ring-gai’s character, but that opportunity has been given away now and this messy legacy is left to next term’s councillors to tackle.

I am disappointed at the use of these short-sighted political stunts for short-term political gain, at the cost of Ku-ring-gai’s future and legacy, by people who don’t plan to hang around to live with the legacy. This is the legacy that my children and I have to live with, and it’s not fair. We would never sign a Will without reviewing it and understanding the implications, why would we ever allow a Housing Strategy through to 2036 to be pre-signed even before reviewing the legal document? 

In the attached image you can see a great example of what a multi-dwelling home could look like. It looks like a regular house set in a Heritage Conservation Area. It has a massive yard for residents to enjoy. But it actually contains four very pleasant dwellings (I know because my friends used to live in one of them).

Chanukah on the Green

Despite yesterday’s rain forecast we had a pleasant day and the annual Chanukah on the Green organised by @ChabadNS went ahead.

Chanukah is an eight day religious festival where the Jewish people celebrate their victory over the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes IV during 2nd Century BC. (Some people believe that this was foretold in the book of Daniel.)

We got to see the lighting of the Menorah (candle) as well as a range of other shows and dancing.

Two other councillors chose to attend this event. St Ives Ward Councillor Christine Kay and Gordon Ward Councillor Peter Kelly. Their regular support for the Jewish Community is appreciated.

Outcome of November Council Meeting

Lindfield Netball Club and Ku-Ring-Gai Netball Association. In recent months I’ve been working with some of your executive to ensure that the Tryon Road courts could be set aside for Training in 2022 however last month council staff argued that for ‘Equity’ reasons Tennis Permanent Hirers should have first dibs on court hire in November, with Sporting Codes (including Netball) having second dibs in January. For Tryon Road this means that if a single tennis court is booked, both of the perpendicular netball training courts are unavailable.

I disagreed with this ‘Equity’ argument as there are ~50 tennis courts in the local area and only three multipurpose netball courts (all prioritised for tennis to maximise profit). I have nothing against Tennis and there are plenty of options for Tennis to use. However I’m disappointed to report that six of the ten councillors including Councillor Anderson voted against the proposal, so you will have reduced access to Netball Training courts next year because of this decision.

Similarly the (realistic) proposal for staff to investigate increasing the number of basketball hoops in the area from 5 to 12 were shut down by the same councillors.

We’ll try again next council term.

The other main decision of the night was that the majority of councillors outright rejected the conditions of approval for the Ku-ring-gai Housing Strategy. With the conditions of approval rejected, it also follows that the Housing Strategy itself has no approval. Without an approved Housing Strategy, next term’s councillors will have to deal with the consequences of this legacy (including additional property developer spot rezoning).

To be honest I was not completely happy with the conditions of approval either, but I thought it was more appropriate for staff to prepare the options, buy us some time to negotiate with the State Government, and let the new councillors digest the issues early next year. This reflects my personal work style, I prefer to first consult with the community, stakeholders, and higher levels of government to achieve the best outcome possible.