A FURIOUS State Government has threatened to strip Cessnock City Council of its planning powers and replace it with an independent panel.
NSW Planning Minister Tony Kelly has told the council it has just 21 days to show cause why it should be allowed to keep its decision-making functions.
In a letter to Cessnock Mayor Alison Davey on Friday, Mr Kelly said he was considering appointing a planning panel because of concerns over the council's failure to implement the Government's Lower Hunter Regional Strategy under which 20,000 new dwellings will be constructed in the area in the next 20 years.
"My concerns relate to extensive delays in preparing a new council-wide local environmental plan [LEP], the time taken to progress important land releases and the inefficiency of council's development assessment process," Mr Kelly said.
"The recent land releases that have actually been finalised have taken, on average, three to four years to complete."
The council's general manager, Bernie Mortomore, rejected Mr Kelly's claims of delays although he conceded "there had been a couple of issues with development consent".
He said the council had approved land rezoning for more than 3000 lots at Bellbird North and several hundred sites at Kitchener last year and had been waiting ever since for Mr Kelly's department to approve them.
"We are certainly not holding up the release of land," he said.
The NSW Government's plans for major housing developments in the Lower Hunter have been frustrated by residents action groups, which successfully stopped developments at Huntlee near Cessnock and at Catherine Hill Bay.
Mr Mortomore has moved to reassure councillors he is working on a report that will be presented to them on May 26 with a suggested response for the State Government.
He will face a significant challenge, with Mr Kelly furious over the council's lack of progress on a new local environment plan.
"The Cessnock local government area is identified in the Government's Lower Hunter Regional Strategy as an important location for new housing to cater for the region's expected growth," Mr Kelly said.
"It is therefore imperative council's strategic and statutory planning functions operate smoothly."
Mr Kelly said that in spite of the predicted influx of residents, the council had not been making preparations.
"Rather than moving to efficiently meet the area's needs, council has run into a host of lengthy delays in preparing its new comprehensive LEP," he said.
Cessnock Greens councillor James Ryan said the threat of a planning panel was "outrageous", motivated by political reasons.
"The ALP lost their majority on Cessnock Council in the 2008 election and since then planning decisions have improved out of sight," Cr Ryan said.
A spokesman for Mr Kelly said the move was not political and that more than half of the complaints received by the Minister's office related to Cessnock council.