Account Director Kathy Lindsay outlines the changes to the development application process for medium sized projects in Sydney and Wollongong.

A desire to guard against corruption and deliver better outcomes is behind a major overhaul of the NSW planning system, which came into effect on 1 March.

Under the changes unveiled by State Planning Minister, Anthony Roberts MP, development applications for building projects in Sydney and Wollongong with a value of between $5 million and $30 million will be assessed by four-member Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPs).

The IHAPs, now mandatory for all Sydney councils, will comprise three independent experts, with the chairperson specialising in public policy or law, along with a community representative. 

The Planning Minister chooses the chair while councils choose the two other experts (from a pool of experts approved by the Minister) and the community representative.

IHAP membership will not be fixed, as members will not always be available. Furthermore, a pool of community representatives is required to ensure there is someone from the local council ward available.

According to Mr Roberts, the IHAPs will guard against corruption and deliver better planning outcomes.


IHAPs provide additional safeguards, probity and accountability to the decision-making process, the Minister’s spokesman told media in February.

Some local councils are strongly against the change, saying it will be harder for residents to voice their concerns due to decreased access to the decision makers. They argue local area knowledge and understanding of community needs will be lacking in the panels, as technical arguments can override residents’ concerns.

Councils will continue to set the rules around their strategic plans and IHAPs are charged with making decisions based on those rules without the inherent conflict of interest councils may face.

Under the changes, development applications for most building works valued below $5 million will still be determined by the local council. For large scale developments over $30 million, Sydney Planning Panels (SPPs) or the Minister of Planning will decide whether the project is approved.

Prior to the IHAP legislation, SPPs were the approval body for projects valued at $20 million and over, and local councils were responsible for development applications for works under $20 million in value.

IHAPs will also determine development applications where the applicant or owner is the council, councillor or the councillor’s family, council staff member or a member of Parliament.

If a development application gets 10 or more objections, or if it is accompanied by a voluntary planning agreement or seeks to depart by more than 10 per cent from a development standard, the IHAP will also take over.


Residential buildings with three or more dwellings assessed under (State Environmental Planning Policy) SEPP 65; demolition of heritage items; licensed premises of public entertainment and sex industry premises; and other developments set out in the Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulation 2000 will also be determined by IHAPs, as these development applications are associated with a higher risk of corruption according to the new legislation.

IHAPs will also offer independent advice to councils around rezoning and other matters within the local environmental plan.

Major projects that have state significance due to their size, economic value, area of development or potential impact, are determined as a State Significant Development (SSD) by the Minister for Planning.

All meetings of councils, IHAPs and SPPs are open to the public.

In the greater Sydney Region, there are five Sydney Planning Panels:

  • Sydney Eastern City
  • Sydney Central City
  • Sydney Western City
  • Sydney North
  • Sydney South.

Outside of Sydney, four Joint Regional Planning Panels are in operation:

  • Hunter and Central Coast
  • Southern
  • Northern
  • Western

Wells Haslem Mayhew can help clients navigate the development application process and help ensure community engagement programs are well targeted and effective.