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Select Committee on Compulsory Acquisition of Properties for North-South Corridor Upgrade

The Hon. J.A. DARLEY ( 15:59 :45 ): I move:

That the report of the committee be noted.

On 29 July 2015, a select committee was established to inquire into compulsory acquisitions along the north-south corridor upgrade upon a motion I moved. The impetus for this was a number of concerning practices that I had been made aware of by constituents whose properties had been, or were being, acquired by DPTI. The committee heard evidence from dispossessed owners, most of whom were not objecting to having their property acquired by the government but rather the manner in which it was done. It was very clear that communication, in plain language, needed to improve so that people were aware of their rights. People expected, and deserved, to be treated with respect and sensitivity, especially in cases where the acquired property had been in the family for decades.

Dispossessed owners often did not have an understanding of the legislative requirements or their rights. For example, many were unaware that moneys were paid into the court by DPTI once the notice of acquisition was published. They also had no knowledge that this money could be accessed and withdrawn by the dispossessed owner at any stage. Withdrawal of such moneys is meant to have no impact on the negotiation process. However, it was concerning to see from DPTI's own evidence that this was used against dispossessed owners in cases where negotiations were ongoing.

Owners were painted as difficult because they were happy to take the money from government but did not accept DPTI's offer. Withdrawing these funds is entirely the right of dispossessed owners. Accessing moneys did not abrogate their right to continue negotiations, and it is disappointing these practices occurred.

The committee also heard from lawyers who had acted on behalf of several owners. Their evidence was particularly enlightening because it demonstrated that it was not just 'whingeing' landowners who were upset that they did not get enough money. Rather, evidence provided from these professionals indicated that the manner in which DPTI operated during these transactions left a lot to be desired and highlighted areas that needed improvement.

Experiences of being left in limbo were recounted by people who had been approached by DPTI to be advised that their property would be acquired, only to hear nothing from DPTI for years. There is no market for properties to be acquired because there is only one purchaser: DPTI. Also, property values off South Road escalated due to the demand from dispossessed owners to relocate within their own suburb. Valuers from the department seemed to disregard this factor in assessing compensation.

I am a little disappointed that there were not more people who were willing to give evidence. Contrary to DPTI's view that this is as a result of most people being happy with their experience, I hold the belief that it is simply because people have suffered so greatly from their experience that it was too difficult for them to relive it. I have spoken to many people who have been far from happy with their compulsory acquisition experience but could not put themselves or their family through the process of preparing a submission and giving evidence. Similarly, I know of valuers and lawyers who have been reluctant to come forward because they are afraid of repercussions. Adelaide is a small place and people felt they could not afford to come out and speak badly about DPTI for fear of not being referred work in the future.

I do have to acknowledge that it does seem that since the inquiry began DPTI has changed its processes and there have been fewer complaints on this issue. This is commendable, but it also confirms my original suspicions that the problem did not lie predominantly with the acquisition of land act but rather with the culture of those who were charged to execute and administer the act. I note that there have been several major staffing changes in DPTI since May 2015 and am hopeful that improvements will continue to be made. It is a pity that it required a parliamentary inquiry for these changes to be made.

The committee has made a number of recommendations, and I will watch closely to see what the government's response will be. I would like to thank the Hon. Robert Brokenshire, the Hon. David Ridgway, the Hon. Terry Stephens and the Hon. Gerry Kandelaars for taking the time to be part of this committee. I also give thanks to the Hon. Gail Gago for taking over from the Hon. Gerry Kandelaars, due to his retirement from this place. Finally, the committee could not function without the hard work of the secretary, Mr Anthony Beasley, and the research officer, Dr Margaret Robinson.

The Hon. G.E. GAGO ( 16:05 :10 ): I rise to speak in support of the report of the Select Committee on the Compulsory Acquisition of Properties for North-South Corridor Upgrade. As indicated by the Hon. John Darley, I replaced the Hon. Gerry Kandelaars on 28 February this year, due to his retirement. The timing of that meant I was not a member of the committee throughout the time that evidence was being presented to the committee, but I have relied on transcripts and written submissions to inform me.

I understand the committee heard evidence on 11 occasions and received some 15 written submissions since the plan for the north-south corridor was announced in 2007. The Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure (DPTI) has completed a number of large projects and is currently undertaking three major projects, which are the Torrens to Torrens project, the Darlington upgrade and the Northern Connector.

This report considers the role of DPTI in the acquisition of properties through policies and procedures. It looks at DPTI's ability to consult with the community and DPTI's ability to minimise the impact on property owners through well-trained staff and their ability to exercise empathy and compassion and at all times to act with integrity.

As you can imagine, it is an extremely traumatic and stressful ordeal to be forced to have to sell your home or property. The committee considered evidence primarily relating to the Torrens to Torrens project and the Darlington upgrade. DPTI's current acquisition policies and procedures and their effectiveness were considered in comparison with past practices of the department and the Rehousing Committee. DPTI's policies and procedures are underpinned by the Land Acquisition Act 1969 and continue to be updated periodically.

In providing evidence, DPTI representatives referred to statistics demonstrating that 98.5 per cent of properties acquired to date had right of access achieved through negotiation. Further, in relation to compensation, some 99.97 per cent of property acquisitions were reached through negotiated settlements. These are indeed very impressive outcomes for the vast majority of acquisitions. Although some owners subject to compulsory acquisition of their properties made complaints, the nature of these complaints varied. Overall, DPTI's processes and communications however appear to have been very effective.

The Chief Executive of DPTI, Mr Michael Deegan, explained in his evidence that across the north-south corridor the department dealt with 1,118 separate acquisition interests, yet only around eight or so property owners who were subjected to compulsory acquisition made representations to the committee in which they raised issues of concern. Mr Deegan was of the view that the majority of these grievances raised did not in fact relate to the acquisition process, but rather concerned themselves with one of two issues. The first is that parties formed the view that the act of compulsory acquisition was not a legitimate one. The second is that parties believed that a more generous compensation process should be in place.

Putting the parties' views aside, it is clear that there is a very low percentage of property owners who feel aggrieved by the practices and processes of the department, or at least do not feel aggrieved enough to have made a submission to our committee. Throughout the entire corridor only six right of entry notices were obtained through the courts, all of these occurring on the Torrens to Torrens Project. However, this committee has provided the opportunity for owners subjected to compulsory acquisition to air their grievances and their complaints and to be heard by the parliament.

The committee scrutinised the policies and procedures of DPTI and considered them in relation to previous policies and practices and community expectations. It looked at the conduct and abilities of DPTI staff; they were analysed and held to account and, for the most part, have been validated. Although overall DPTI's performance appears to be sound, evidence presented to the committee demonstrated that there were occasions where their practices left a lot to be desired, that their behaviour and inadequate processes, in some cases, caused confusion, stress and apprehension, and a great deal of angst that was, basically, unnecessary.

Clearly, there is room for improvement in their practices, particularly in areas like lack of clarity of information. There is also a number of other areas outlined in the report that clearly need improvement. DPTI reported to the committee that a number of recent changes to their procedures and practices have been put in place, and this has resulted in significant improvements. I note that in the Auditor-General's supplementary report which looks at DPTI and the acquisition it states:

We noted that improvements have been made to the acquisition process over the life of the Torrens to Torrens Project. For example:

  • improved clarity of information and instruction provided to affected parties

  • the introduction of a review by the State Valuation Office to verify that independent valuations obtained by DPTI are in line with issued instructions and fit for purpose.

However, I believe that even with those changes further improvements could be made and introduced, and these are addressed in the 13 recommendations outlined in the report. Some of these are also noted by the Auditor-General in his supplementary report. Again, I quote:

Consolidated policies and procedures for DPTI’s Acquisition Services group should be completed and documented as a matter of priority. The policies and procedures should reflect the prescriptive nature of the Land Acquisition Act 1969 and the level of broad guidance necessary for staff to deal with varied circumstances in each acquisition.

The report goes on to say:

Documented policies and procedures ensure that all Acquisition Services staff operate with the same knowledge of expectations and boundaries that have been decided by departmental Executive. Land acquisitions require sensitivity and equitable treatment of the people affected. This increases the importance of DPTI staff acting consistently and having clearly articulated rules, boundaries and guidance to operate within.

Sound advice and sound words, indeed. I support the recommendations as outlined in the report, and wish to thank the Chair, the Hon. John Darley, and other committee members as well, of course, as the committee support staff, the secretary and research officer.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. T.J. Stephens.