Community engagement is a significant feature of current reform packages in the local government and planning sector. Over time consultation has progressed from local councils sending out a written letter or placing an advertisement in the local newspaper, to councils proactively listening, engaging and collaborating with communities using a range of methods.
A large driver for this change has been technology which has provided greater access to information. There is also an increasing community expectation of transparency in decision making and recognition that effective community engagement is critical to good decision making, provides confidence in the planning system and makes local government accountable. This has resulted in a trend for community engagement to be embedded in legislation.
We explore three recent examples of how community engagement is being enshrined in legislation below.
Example 1: Local Government Act 1993
At a local government level, the Integrated Planning & Reporting Framework under the Local Government Act 1993 requires local councils to review or adopt a community strategic plan every four years after the election of a new council. The plan must identify the “main priorities and aspirations for the future” and is a long term plan for at least the next 10 years (section 402(1)). Alongside the plan, local councils must establish and implement a community engagement strategy based on “social justice principles” (section 402(2)).
In recognition of the growing importance of effective community engagement, the current review of the Local Government Act 1993 proposes to broaden the existing requirement for community engagement strategies. The adoption of a community engagement strategy would become a general legislative obligation and would apply to all council activities.
It is envisaged in the Towards New Local Government Legislation Explanatory Paper: proposed Part 1 amendments, that this strategy would need to meet minimum prescribed requirements which would be set by guidelines. Councils would also be required to periodically assess whether the consultation methodologies are working. The aim is for local councils to “engage with their communities in a strategic, ongoing, flexible and locally appropriate way.”
Example 2: Planning Reforms
At the same time, the State government is looking to review community engagement as part of its latest round of planning reforms. This includes re-visiting the creation of a new part in the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 that consolidates community consultation provisions and requires decisions makers to give reasons for their decisions. In the ill-fated Planning Bill 2013 this was known as the “Community Participation Charter”. There is also consideration being given to direct consultation between neighbours about proposed developments.
Example 3: Coastal Management Reforms
The new package for coastal management in New South Wales (the Coastal Management Act 2016 which passed both houses of parliament on 31 May 2016) includes broader and more inclusive obligations in relation to community engagement for coastal issues.
For the first time, councils will need to integrate coastal management planning into the community strategic plan (section 22). This is to better align coastal management priorities with broader community priorities. There will also be a requirement for councils to consult with each other in areas of coastal vulnerability which are in same coastal sediment compartment as well as with other public authorities.
There is no doubt that community engagement is here to stay. Local councils who are able to adapt to this new era will have a greater understanding of their communities needs and desires and will be able to respond accordingly.
Our team includes highly qualified and experienced community engagement practitioners who can help you design and implement a community engagement process that meets your legislative obligations and matches your desired outcome. For more information about our community engagement services, please contact: