Two months into her role as Council’s new Director Environmental Services, Linda Davis isn’t daunted by the challenges confronting her.
“I started my career as a DA assessor at Shellharbour Council, and as I moved into a strategic role and then onto the Department of Planning I never forgot to consider how the strategies and policies were going to be implemented in practice,” she says.
“Having come full circle back to local government, I am looking forward to setting some good new strategic direction for Kiama, backed by my insight into the expectations for the region as a whole and how it will grow and change.”
Before leaving the Department of Planning for a stint in the private sector, Ms Davis had the role as Regional Director for Southern NSW, an area covering 29 councils.
In that role she had lead responsibility for the development and delivery of the Illawarra-Shoalhaven Regional Plan, and the urban planning for land release at West Dapto and Albion Park.
Ms Davis says, at its heart, strategic planning is about the balancing of competing priorities.
“The Regional Plan, for example, isn’t all about growth and change. It also talks of biodiversity corridors, water quality, infrastructure, employment opportunities, management of our rural lands and more, so there are a lot of different policy settings that need to be balanced out.
“I come to this role with an in-depth knowledge of where all of the intersections of those competing priorities are sitting in a regional scale.
“The challenge for me is diving deeper into understanding Kiama – its characteristics, the wishes of the community, the opportunities and challenges, and the expectations of the council – to provide a local tailored response to that broader strategic context.”
She joins Kiama Council at a time when the Municipality is experiencing a development boom, leaving many concerned about the pace and direction of the change.
It is a time when Council’s major strategic documents – the Local Environment Plan (LEP), the Kiama Urban Strategy (KUS) and the Development Control Plan (DCP) – need to be revised, in part due to the new context they are operating in due to State Government changes.
Ms Davis says it is important to go about this in a systematic, consultative way that will necessarily take more time.
“Rather than diving in and just amending the LEP, we need to take a step back, and address some of the big questions around how we see ourselves moving forward.
“Let’s be in charge of our own destiny. What’s our vision? What do we want our guiding principles to be?
“Let’s acknowledge all of the challenges, opportunities and values that are going to frame how we move ahead.
“We need to establish the principles that we see as important to all, agree on them to set a framework, and then work down to the detail needed in the various strategic documents.”
It is the type of work that Ms Davis has a great deal of experience in, and she is looking forward to doing so to get a better understanding of the Municipality and its issues.
“The Kiama community has always been much more engaged than others by a long shot, so I have no doubt the consultations will bring in good ideas.”
She estimates it will take about a year for the process to unfold.
“I feel the expectation for us to have our new set of strategic documents very quickly, but sometimes doing things properly does take a bit of time.
“When we are tinkering with specifics, let’s do it in a context that we actually know what outcomes we are trying to achieve.”
In the meantime, her department will continue to assess applications as they are lodged.
“We have a highly skilled team of planners – it is not like there is a void of policy settings guiding our work at the moment, it is just that we know they are due for
a refresh,” says Ms Davis.
It is a team that is currently down two leadership roles due to retirements.
“People probably don’t realise how much work goes into any assessment process, in working with the proponent to make sure we can get the best possible outcome for any application.”
With planning rules becoming increasingly complex, she agrees it is difficult for the lay person to fully understand both the laws and the need to balance competing issues.
“Planning quite often is subjective. Sometimes it is a judgment about how you prioritise and balance between different competing issues.”
This explains why there are instances when councillors go against the recommendations of the planners on particular developments.
“Our planning professionals do an assessment, looking at compliance and outcomes, and on balance will make a recommendation around what we think is a reasonable outcome.
“Councillors look at the matter with a different lens, to do with community issues and their own values, beliefs and philosophies. So, on balance, they may prioritise a different outcome over what we would.”
She has been impressed with how well the Kiama community is managing to get their points across on applications that affect them.
“On our part, we need to be reasonable and appropriate and professional in how we take those concerns on board.
“Sometimes the community raise really important and valid issues that we need to ensure are reflected in our planning decisions. Other times those concerns, while real to those people, may not be appropriate to underpin a determination.”
She believes the refreshed LCP, KUP and DCP will give a better narrative which will articulate what the community, through Council, is trying to achieve.
“I’m all about consistently looking for improvement in all we do,” says Ms Davis.
To help facilitate this, she has established an informal group of the planning directors of all the Southern
region councils, so they can discuss shared challenges and learn from each other’s experiences and initiatives.
Planning is just one aspect of Ms Davis’ role. She is also responsible for food safety, traffic, rangers and environmental services.