The ACT Government has moved to abolish appeals and sidestep planning laws for its $800 million light rail project.
New planning laws introduced in the Legislative Assembly on Thursday seek to centralise decisions in the hands of the government for infrastructure related to the tram line – including tracks and stops, terminus sites, a depot at Mitchell, power lines and power substations.
None of the planning decisions on those developments will be able to be be appealed in the ACT Administrative Tribunal, and the ministers will be free to ignore recommendations from government departments.
Planning Minister Mick Gentleman said the changes to planning laws would "smooth the way" for construction in the Northbourne Avenue corridor with the new rules covering all light rail development within one kilometre of the proposed route which also takes in Flemington Road and the Federal Highway.
If passed, the laws would mean the government could avoid using controversial call-in powers to begin construction, which is expected ahead of the 2016 territory election.
Similar laws were used for approval of the secure mental health unit at Symonston.
After aspects of the light rail project's construction are approved by the ACT Planning and Land Authority, the planning minister would make the final decision. Power substations are planned for seven sites including Mort Street and Kate Crace Street.
New 60-day limits will be placed on rights of appeal against decisions in the ACT Supreme Court and other judicial reviews limited.
Appeals in the ACT Administrative Tribunal will be removed for any light rail infrastructure, which could also include fencing, access roads, footpaths, signalling and car parking.
The Planning and Land Authority would be given power to declare specific projects through notifiable instrument and Territory Plan variations would be sped up.
Relevant Assembly committees considering light rail plans would be required to report within six months and some documents required as part of existing planning processes would no longer be needed for applications related to the light rail line.
Aspects of the legislation are similar to a series of proposed fast-track planning laws which Chief Minister Katy Gallagher intervened to withdraw after strong public opposition and a bitter debate in the assembly this year.
Ms Gallagher said the laws would limit risk on the project, which will link the city and Gungahlin. The line is due to become operational by 2020 and will be built by private consortium partners.
"I think we've been careful but we do need to provide some certainty, particularly to industry as we go through the next stages of the project, that it will happen and won't be tied up for years in unnecessary ACAT appeals.
She said the assembly's consideration would be more transparent than the call-in powers.
"It is not by the stroke of a pen from one minister," Ms Gallagher said.
Opposition transport spokesman Alistair Coe said the proposed laws showed the government was desperate to push ahead on light rail despite community opposition.
The opposition is yet to outline its public transport policy, but opposes the tram line's construction.
"The government doesn't like the idea of the community having a say on this, they don't like the idea of the community taking them to court so they are fast-tracking it," he said.
"We could see a situation whereby the development application for a pergola in someone's backyard has more documentation attached to it than something related to light rail."
Greens minister Shane Rattenbury backed the proposed laws over call-in powers.
"I think concern the community had with the fast-track legislation was it was quite generic, whilst the government had clearly in mind it would deal with matters relating to light rail," he said.
"This is a much more specific and focused initiative than how some perceived that fast track legislation."
Braddon Forum director and lobbyist Peter Conway gave his support to the laws, which he said were required for the project to be built.
"All governments need in their quiver of legal armoury specific infrastructure legislation that says to people that Parliament has voted for this, we're going ahead with it," he said.
"If you don't, light rail or any other major projects won't proceed. There will be objections all along the way from various community groups, rightly or wrongly. I can imagine the opposition, who are opposing the light rail, orchestrating objections which they are entitled to do."
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