Tony Kelly unable to back Cessnock statement

PLANNING Minister Tony Kelly is unable to provide figures to back his statement to NSW Parliament that "more than half the complaints I have received since becoming the Minister for Planning relate to Cessnock City Council".

Although he stood by the statement, Mr Kelly said yesterday that "a lot of those [complaints] were verbal ones as I moved around, so they're not things I have a record of".

He made the statement in Parliament on May 11 after announcing his surprise move to strip the council of its planning powers.

It followed questions from Greens MP Sylvia Hale about whether his "decision was influenced by the $278,200 worth of donations to the Australian Labor Party by Hardie Holdings", whose Huntlee development was blocked by a Land and Environment Court decision against the NSW government.

On Tuesday, Mr Kelly denied "jumping the gun" before the Local Government Department had completed a council review that included planning issues, after an investigation and critical report in February last year.

Mr Kelly said he acted after the Department of Planning sent a briefing note recommending he ask the council to show cause why it should not be stripped of its planning powers in 21 days.

"I followed a recommendation of the department," he said.

Mr Kelly said an adviser in his ministerial office, Paul Scott, had "misinterpreted" a conversation about the number of complaints against the council when Mr Scott told the Herald on May 10 that "half of all complaints to our office relate to Cessnock Council".

Documents produced after a NSW Upper House call for papers show that three days later, on May 13, Mr Scott emailed six of Mr Kelly's staff after the Herald asked for the specific number of complaints.

"We have been quoted as saying, and so has Tony, that 'More than half of all complaints received by our office relate to Cessnock Council'," Mr Scott said.

"The journo wants details. I've told her privacy prevents us doing that but she asked for the number of complaints. Is that readily accessible?"

Cessnock councillor James Ryan said he was "just amazed" a minister and his office would make the statement without being able to verify it with figures.

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