Premier's planning shake-up came after secret letter signed by developers

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Premier Gladys Berejiklian moved the Greater Sydney Commission under her control against the advice of a key departmental boss two months after a secret lobbying push by a group including big business and developers.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.Credit:Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images

A confidential letter was written to the Premier in March 2018 by a group of prominent Sydney identities urging her to seize ministerial control of the commission, which then fell under the Department of Planning.

Among signatories were Sydney Business Chamber directors and the president of the peak body for developers.

It was delivered just weeks after Department of Planning secretary Carolyn McNally vehemently opposed the move, warning it posed “major risks”, would create “uncertainty and confusion” and had no obvious benefits to NSW.

Department of Planning secretary Carolyn McNally.

Department of Planning secretary Carolyn McNally.

The letter was also penned the same month the Greater Sydney Commission released a report unpopular with developers because it recommended industrial land be protected from being rezoned for high rise residential.

A few months earlier, Ms Berejiklian’s secret lover, disgraced MP Daryl Maguire, had been intercepted by ICAC complaining to her that the Greater Sydney Commission was causing “big problems” with his prospective land deal near Western Sydney Airport.

Ms Berejiklian delivered her verdict in June 2018, opting to take control of the commission.

On Sunday, a spokesperson for the Premier said that the decision was “based on a request from the Greater Sydney Commission”.

A spokesman for the commission confirmed it was supportive of its relocation, saying the move allowed for better coordination of the implementation of its plans.

“It is standard government practice for whole-of-government and cross-agency work to be driven from the centre of government, as is the case with Infrastructure NSW,” he said.

Legislation had also been changed, removing the commission’s powers to rezone land and determine development applications, he noted.

The commission sets the blueprint for development and growth across Sydney.

The 2018 lobbying push can be revealed after the letter was tabled in parliament - and obtained by the Herald - following a call for papers by One Nation MP Mark Latham.

Christopher Brown of the Western Sydney Leadership Dialogue.

Christopher Brown of the Western Sydney Leadership Dialogue.

Its signatories included Arthur Ilias, then NSW president of the Urban Development Institute of Australia, which represents developers, and Michael Rose, chair of urban policy think tank Committee for Sydney.

It was also signed by Sydney Business Chamber directors Patricia Forsythe and David Borger and Christopher Brown, chair of the Western Sydney Leadership Dialogue.

A physical copy of the letter was mailed to the Premier, but Mr Brown also emailed her an advance copy because of “pressing timing issues”.

"This is intended as private correspondence to the Premier and we will not be making it available to the media,” Mr Brown wrote.

The non-profit Western Sydney Leadership Dialogue aims to stimulate discussion between a broad cross-section of community leaders, its partners including councils, government agencies, universities and businesses.

However the letter was so confidential Mr Brown said it would not be shared with the dialogue’s partners.

"Obviously I cannot speak for my colleagues who have membership bases they represent and possible need for further disclosure,” Mr Brown wrote.

Mr Brown argued the relocation of the Greater Sydney Commission would add greater certainty to the delivery of urban renewal precincts and bolster community confidence in planning.

The letter said the change would remove the confusion for industry navigating often “conflicting relationships” between the Department of Planning and Greater Sydney Commission.

“We do not believe the GSC should be beholden to any single department,” the letter said.

The view was countered by Ms McNally, who listed more than a dozen reasons why the Premier should not remove the agency from her department’s control, according to advice published by The Australian.

Aside from his role with the Western Sydney Dialogue, Mr Brown is the executive chair of Taylor Street Advisory, a corporate advisory, strategy, public affairs and communications firm.

The firm’s clients include Lendlease, John Holland and Celestino, the development arm of poultry empire Baida which has plans for a $5 billion science park next to Western Sydney Airport.

When asked by the Herald why it was necessary to keep the letter confidential, Mr Brown said it was a standard approach to government.

“This wasn’t a policy by press release,” he said.

“We didn’t want to become players if there was a blue on.

“Not everything goes through the media … I also didn’t issue my daughter’s letter to Santa to the media.”

Mr Brown said he had never heard of Mr Maguire when the letter was sent.

He stressed that the Western Sydney Dialogue was not a developer group and focused on civic issues. Behind the letter was a desire for the Greater Sydney Commission to serve a broader agenda, addressing social housing and environmental issues, Mr Brown said.

“The Greater Sydney Commission had a higher calling rather than just a land use planning body,” Mr Brown said. He said the move had been a great success.