Cessnock council powers

STATE Planning Minister Tony Kelly moved to strip Cessnock City Council of its planning powers despite advice from his department that the council's performance was broadly satisfactory.

The largely unremarkable report that assessed the council against the requirements of an "unsatisfactory performance of council order" raised new questions about Mr Kelly's surprise move on May 7.

The report came to light after an upper house "call for papers" last week.

It noted the council had improved development application approval times and had made "significant progress" in addressing issues raised in a critical Department of Local Government report in February last year.

Under a series of "heads of consideration" in the nine-page document, the department repeatedly reported it was "not currently aware of any areas where the council's performance . . . is unsatisfactory".

The council offered "valid explanations" for development application approval delays during a meeting with senior department officers, although "a clear change of practice" was required in one area.

The report noted nearly 40 complaints or submissions to the department about development in Cessnock, with most forwarded from Cessnock MP Kerry Hickey's office.

They included submissions on the Huntlee proposal, the Stevens' Group's Vintage development, and Hardie Holdings' Hunter Valley Accommodation Centre.

It noted the council went from being the seventh-most complained-about council in 2007-08, to "outside the top 27" the following year.

It achieved improvements despite having to refer 52 per cent of development applications to state agencies on issues such as fire protection, mine subsidence, flood protection and threatened species.

Comparable councils were forced to refer only 16 per cent of development applications.

Cessnock councillor James Ryan said: "The ball is in [Mr Kelly's] court now to try and justify his move because, as it stands, he's ignored the advice of his department in favour of his Labor colleagues."

A spokesman for Mr Kelly said the minister "will not conduct a running commentary on the process . . . until the council had an opportunity to respond to the allegations properly".

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