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Court knocks back biggest NSW development -

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ELEANOR HALL: The New South Wales Opposition says there's something rotten in the state when it
comes to planning approvals for housing developments.

Today, the Land and Environment Court overturned a Government approval for the largest housing
development in the state. While in Parliament, the former planning minister was grilled over the
role that lobbyists play in the government's planning process.

In Sydney, Timothy McDonald reports.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: It was supposed to be the biggest housing development in the state but today the
Land and Environment Court ruled against the project, saying a land swap deal the Government did
with the developer made it invalid.

The Sweetwater Action Group took the Government to court over the 7,200-house project in the Lower
Hunter. Spokesman James Ryan says locals think it's a good outcome.

JAMES RYAN: They value their village. They value their heritage. They value their bushland and they
value a quiet way of life and they really like living where they do and to have the State
Government come along and foist on them an entirely new town of 20,000 people in an environmentally
sensitive area and done in a way with this last-minute lobbying from large developers when the site
had been assessed as being the least suitable out of 91 in the whole of the Lower Hunter, it really
made people angry.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Local resident Dennis Rothwell says many in the area will be pleased, because
they weren't satisfied with the process.

DENNIS ROTHWELL: I'd say it's a great victory for sanity and I think it can only be to the
advantage of all the local residents. Nobody who chooses to live in a rural area wants to be
overwhelmed by a development of this size, particularly when you consider the process by which the
permission was obtained.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: The developer, Huntlee Holdings, agreed to transfer nearly 6,000 hectares of land
to the Government which would be set aside for national parks and conservation reserves. In one
previous similar case, the Land and Environment Court went so far as to describe a similar swap as
a "land bribe". The court said that by accepting the land, the previous minister Frank Sartor would
potentially have been a biased participant rather than an impartial umpire.

A spokesman for the current Minister Kristina Keneally says today's decision not to contest the
matter came after a review of previous court decisions. The Government argues there's nothing wrong
with environmental offsets per se - it's just that the proper procedures weren't followed in this
case.

But the Opposition's planning spokesman Brad Hazzard says the case is further evidence that the
planning system in New South Wales is in desperate need of an overhaul.

BRAD HAZZARD: Planning laws need to be certain. They need to be clear. They need to be transparent.
What we know as a result of this decision and the Government and State Labor's admissions is that
there is no transparency, no certainty particularly where there has been dollars donated to the
State Labor Party before the planning decision approvals were given.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Community groups too have long argued that political donors and their lobbyists
have a relationship with the Government that's far too cosy.

That relationship has come under the microscope at a parliamentary inquiry into the death of
Michael McGurk, a Sydney developer who was gunned down outside his home. The inquiry has previously
heard that Labor identity Graeme Richardson previously met with the head of the planning
department.

The former planning minister Frank Sartor says he met with Mr Richardson about once a year, but
never discussed planning matters.

FRANK SARTOR: He kept quite clear of me.

QUESTIONER: He kept clear of you?

FRANK SARTOR: Yes.

QUESTIONER: Do you think that was deliberate?

FRANK SARTOR: I have no idea. You would have to ask Graeme that.

QUESTIONER: I might.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Mr Sartor defends his own record of dealing with lobbyists and says he never
allowed them to discuss the merits of a proposal during a meeting. But he says it's a tricky issue
to deal with because the planning process requires constant revision, and meetings between
department officials and developers. He says it's difficult to know exactly where to draw the line
about who meets with who.

FRANK SARTOR: I think we need to bring a bit of sanity into this debate. There are two types of
people involved in a development process. There is the applicant and their technical advisors and
then there is a whole bunch of people that give them other advice like public relations companies,
like government relations people, like lobbyists and so on.

The difficulty you have in starting to buy into that is that you can't just have a rule for Graeme
Richardson. You have got to have a rule for everybody.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Graeme Richardson is expected to face the inquiry this afternoon.

ELEANOR HALL: Timothy McDonald in Sydney.