Event land use regulation: Could it be easier?

Events are increasingly encouraged by all levels of government, but there is a scarcity of information on the planning and regulation process, writes Garry O’Dell, a PhD candidate researching land use for events.

Since the 1980s, there has been extraordinary increase in the number of events given the growth of free time, the appearance of gap years, more tourism developments and increasing mobility.

As events have become more commercialised, more market-oriented and integrated into place marketing agendas, the outcome is a continual stream of events.

Highly mobile events using temporary facilities such as stages, amenities and food kiosks seek novel public or private locations with times and duration pursued to maximise outcomes.

This, together with the desire for a point of difference in an ever-congested market, results in new locations becoming feasible and attractive venues for events.

Australia Day Ferrython on Sydney Harbour | Photo: Garry O’Dell

Correspondingly, the evolution of events from community-based activities to commodified productions has further complicated the process, resulting in a diversity of approaches to regulating and approving land use.

This uncertainty may result in events moving to other locations or even not proceeding.

The key player and gate keeper in the event planning space is the local councils, but there is confusion over legislation and numerous court decisions and interpretations as well as a lack of a strategic approach to the placement and type of events given the go-ahead.

To deepen these complexities further, in July 2018, NSW councils were given control of crown lands while other government land managers such as State Forests, National Parks, Marine Park Authorities and local showgrounds continue to govern use of their land under their own rules.

Rules and practices vary for private land, public land or water. Even the credentials of an event organiser may be a consideration when seeking permission to use land.

The result is the planning of and regulation for events is complicated and inconsistent.

Often events held on local government lands have a better chance of approval despite raising concerns about the commercialisation of public space.

On the flipside, the approval process for an identical event on private land requires a complex environmental assessment usually administered by the local council.

Even the NSW Government’s own tourism agency has highlighted concerns “…there is a significant amount of red tape at State and Local Government levels to secure approvals for events and festivals…“*

This confusion in rules is demonstrated by the NSW Government using the Major Events Act or the Motor Racing (Sydney and Newcastle) Act to exempt a government-favoured event from any local council or community review.

Local government has multiple roles in relation to events: attracting, partnering, funding (either in-kind or with grants), producing, promoting, regulating, liaising, facilitating and managing.

A Rod Stewart concert in the Hunter Valley | Photo: Garry O’Dell

There is confusion at local council level as to who is responsible for event regulation as there are many bureaucrats involved: urban or social planners; development control planners; community engagement officers; tourism or economic development managers; risk assessors; place-makers; urban designers – all with different agendas.

In addition to this, even though local government advocates community debates, the regulation of events occurs with limited community consultation as to the number, location, and type of events, preservation of the events’ characters and locations, resource usage, and management of community resources and expectations.

As a community becomes aware of government planning decisions that affect their lives, they are increasingly applying legislative mechanisms to ensure that the development is acceptable to them.

This manifests as an increasing concern about the number and location of festivals and events. Some events may be unacceptable given the location, theme, participants, promoters’ credentials or environmental issues.

Communities may not agree with the increasing number of events in their towns or neighbourhoods based on economic benefits.

Dollars are often used as a justification, but it is difficult to access such data based on “commercial in confidence” or “internal uses only” justification. This lack of transparency means that any discussion of costs or benefits of events is hypothetical and unverifiable

Much is known about how to run events, but there is little on their regulation and the efficacy of the related local government process.

My research, in the NSW Hunter Valley, has investigated the local government regulation of temporary land uses for public, commercial and private events.

Regulatory certainty is an issue for governments, proponents and communities and perhaps it is time that we prepare a logical, spatial and temporal strategy and regulation procedure for events which is transparent and inclusive. I am advocating pilot testing of a five-step process for selected NSW local councils as follows:

  1. Prepare an audit of all temporary activities
  2. Set up a working group with relevant stakeholders
  3. Complete a process audit for all event regulations
  4. Encourage a proactive, council-wide approach based on evidence and transparency
  5. Develop a Temporary Activities Strategy to integrate policies, rules, delegations and practices

What are your views and observations about this process? Do you know of good examples of policy and regulations for events? Does it really matter?

Garry O’Dell

As a result of his involvement with the Hunter Wine Country Tourism Board, Garry has worked with Professor Kevin Lyons from the University of Newcastle School of Business and Law to facilitate tourism strategies since July 2012. This working relationship spurred on his doctoral research to explore the local government decision-making process for temporary land uses for the purposes of events in NSW.

From 1981, Garry’s local government career evolved from a Development Assessment Planner to Senior Strategic Planner and finally to Development Services Manager. In 1994, he became Director and part owner of a multi-disciplinary firm of architects, planners, landscape architects and ecologists providing an integrated approach to land development. From 2009 to 2015, he was Principal Planner and sole practitioner for his own planning consultancy.

Garry can be contacted via email should you wish to discuss your experiences with land use regulation with him directly. At ASE we are, as ever, also interested in your experiences – you can email us here.

*(NSW Visitor Economy Taskforce, 2012, p. 95)

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