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Accelerating environmental approvals in NSW

To fast-track project assessments and keep the construction industry moving during COVID-19, the NSW Government has introduced a new Planning System Acceleration Program. 

24 September 2020

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What needs to be considered for a fast-tracked assessment?

To be considered for a fast-tracked assessment, development or rezoning applications must already be in the planning system, deliver a public benefit and demonstrate an ability to create jobs, both during construction, and once complete.

Construction must be able to commence within six months (for State Significant Development or State Significant Infrastructure applications) or allow a development application (DA) to be lodged within six months (for rezoning applications).

An independent probity advisor has been appointed to ensure the prioritisation process is robust and transparent.

Pedestrians walking in the afternoon sun in Sydney CBD, NSW Australia. Buses, traffic and city buildings in the background.

Inter-agency coordination the key to acceleration

The aim of NSW’s Planning System Acceleration Program is not to change the assessment process per se, but to facilitate a situation where projects can move through it much faster. The usual planning rules and policies still apply. 

Acceleration is achieved by a commitment to coordinate the input of all key State Government agencies in a one-stop-shop model that addresses potential inter-agency roadblocks that can slow things down. To do this, resources have been redirected within departments to ensure projects identified for fast-tracked assessment have a determination within four weeks.

Assessment success takes two

While most would agree that the commitment to enhanced coordination and rapid assessment by government agencies is a good thing, the onus is still on applicants to submit quality applications that demonstrate how risks will be managed. This is not only vital for approval, but for the development of social licence as well.

Environmental investigations and assessment play a huge role in this. I’ve seen many projects delayed for significant periods of time because of unforeseen assessment requirements, conditions of approval that were unexpected, or worse still, project design teams having to go back to the design drawing board and modify project details.

Getting a head start on environmental risk

Information is power when it comes to environmental risk assessment. The sooner you start investigating, the better understanding you will have of the study area and potential barriers to design, approval and future development.

As projects in NSW start to consider or prepare for fast-tracked assessment under the Planning System Acceleration Program, commencing environmental risk assessment as early as possible is a key strategy to consider.

Starting earlier puts a scaffold of environmental rigour around the development of the business case, which in turn gives confidence to assessment bodies that project risks are being identified and considered. It also provides more certainty about where additional focus and resourcing is required for detailed environmental investigations and design–particularly in areas where there is a complex interface between the project and broader communities.

Environmental management plans can also be prepared earlier than has been typical to date. These can be done during the assessment process and incorporated into subsequent approvals. Plans take time and preparing them isn’t something that should be rushed. But getting a head start reduces the time it takes to start implementing required measures, as you aren’t starting from scratch post approval.

Plan for permanence, but don’t forget the temporary

Plan for permanence, but don’t forget the temporary

A key slow-down point that I’ve seen for projects is a failure to adequately assess the impact of temporary areas and supporting utilities required for construction into environmental applications and approvals.

All construction initiatives require ancillary facilities like compounds and laydown areas, and for big infrastructure initiatives these areas can be quite large and are required right at the start of construction. I’ve seen projects delayed significantly by having to complete separate assessment processes for these zones after the broader project has been approved.

It’s important to consider not just the infrastructure assets themselves, but the additional places and spaces that can be impacted and occupied during delivery. There’s little value in a faster assessment if you have to complete assessments multiple times.

Focusing on the practicality and effectiveness of proposed impact mitigation measures and utilising resources with relevant project delivery experience can generate major efficiencies in preparing your approval strategy and moving into the delivery as quickly as possible. 

As we up the pace of infrastructure development, it’s great to see project assessors, proponents and teams across New South Wales working together to prioritise environmental management while moving projects into development faster. Perhaps one positive to come out of COVID-19 will be a streamlined yet rigorous assessment model that we can use into the future.

Meet our Infrastructure Environment leader, Gareth Thomas

Gareth Thomas, RPS Practice Leader - Environment