Environment Law in the Northern Territory

Planning and development laws overview

Introduction

Land use planning and development in the Northern Territory is regulated by:

The Planning Act and Planning Regulations are the laws which regulate how land in the Northern Territory can be developed and used. The Northern Territory Planning Scheme is a statutory document that divides land in the Northern Territory into certain zones. It sets out the details of how land in those zones is allowed to be used and developed. Development permits and exceptional development permits authorise the use and development of land.

What is development?

The Planning Act defines “development” as meaning:

  • the establishment of a use, or a change in the use of land
  • a subdivision or consolidation of the land
  • carrying out works such as excavation or land-filling; clearing of native vegetation; constructing a building, constructing or upgrading roads and drains. Works excludes mining or agriculture.

When does the Planning Act apply?

The Planning Act sets out procedures for making development applications; amending the planning scheme; appeals of decisions about development applications; and enforcement where the Planning Act is breached.

The Planning Act regulates the use and development of land in the Northern Territory through the Northern Territory Planning Scheme. The Northern Territory Planning Scheme sets out how land can be used and developed through applying different zones to land.

The specific uses and development of land in the Northern Territory is controlled by the Northern Territory Planning Scheme.

The Northern Territory Planning Scheme

The Northern Territory Planning Scheme is a statutory document that sets out planning objectives, zone tables for zoned land, area plans and detailed guidelines for land use planning and development. Land can only be used and developed in the ways set out in the Northern Territory Planning Scheme.

There are different types of zones. The zone sets out the controls for use and development of the land, for example, the restrictions on clearing native vegetation or subdividing land; land zoned as residential zone should be used for primarily residential purposes. If land is not zoned, the Northern Territory Planning Scheme only applies to subdivision of land and clearing native vegetation over 1 hectare.

The zone maps in the Northern Territory Planning Scheme show how the land is zoned.

The zone tables set out whether or not development consent is required.

The Northern Territory Planning Scheme does not apply to use or development of unzoned land.

Zoned land

The Northern Territory Planning Scheme zones land in the Northern Territory to control the use and development of land in that zone. The zones will indicate what uses and development are allowed and prohibited.

The Northern Territory Planning Scheme establishes four categories of uses for land. These are:

    • Permitted uses – which are allowed in the zone without the consent of the consent authority
    • Self-assessable
    • Permissible only with the consent of the consent authority
    • Prohibited in a particular zone

Unzoned land

Most land in the Northern Territory is not zoned, although such land tends to be those areas that are sparsely populated. Land use controls apply to some unzoned land in the Northern Territory in the following situations:

Subdivision

The subdivision of land in the Northern Territory, including unzoned land, requires development consent under the Planning Act. The subdivision of land under the control of the Pastoral Lands Act for a pastoral activity does not require consent under the Planning Act. If the subdivision is for non-pastoral activity, then it will require development consent under the Planning Act.

Who makes decisions under the Planning Act?

The ‘consent authority’ makes decisions on development applications. The consent authority is either the Minister for Lands, Planning and Environment or the Development Consent Authority, as follows:

  • The Development Consent Authority is the relevant consent authority if the land subject to the development application is within one of its seven divisions.
  • The Minister for Lands, Planning and Environment is the relevant consent authority if the Development Consent Authority has no authority to grant a development permit. This will be where the relevant land is not in one of the seven divisions of the Development Consent Authority.
  • The Minister for Lands, Planning and Environment is also the consent authority if he or she “calls in” a development application before the Development Consent Authority makes a decision.

The Minister for Lands, Planning and Environment also makes decisions regarding amendments to the planning scheme and granting exceptional development permits. When the Minister makes a decision in these circumstances, it is not in the Minister’s role as a ‘consent authority’.

Local councils in the Northern Territory do not have any powers to regulate land use planning. However, Councils must be notified of development (referred to as “proposals”) under the Planning Act.

Minister for Lands, Planning and Environment

The Minister for Lands, Planning and Environment has the powers to:

  • make or repeal a specific planning scheme to control development
  • amend the Northern Territory Planning Scheme
  • determine the extent of public notification requirements for amendments to the planning scheme and exceptional development permits
  • make decisions on planning scheme amendments and exceptional development permits
  • revoke or modify development permits
  • determine if a land use has been abandoned
  • direct the Development Consent Authority on general or particular matters (but not the determination of particular development applications or the contents of any report or recommendation the Development Consent Authority must provide under the Planning Act)
  • delegate any of the Minister’s powers in writing to “a person” (but not the power to direct the Development Consent Authority or to declare that an appeal right against a determination is no longer able to be exercised). In practice, this means the Minister may delegate powers to another Minister, the Chairperson of the Development Consent Authority, or an employee of the Department of Lands and Planning

Development Consent Authority

The Development Consent Authority has a division for each area it administers: Darwin, Palmerston, Litchfield, Batchelor, Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek. Maps for each division are available from the Development Consent Authority website.

The Development Consent Authority has a chairperson and members appointed by the Minister for Lands, Planning and Environment. In each division, the members include local council representatives and two members from the community. Community members must be nominated by the local council in the relevant division and all members serve a two year term of office. Nominations are usually advertised in the NT News when they become vacant. The Development Consent Authority holds meetings once a month to make decisions on development applications, planning scheme amendments and exceptional development permits. The meetings are open to the public and minutes are available on the Development Consent Authority website.

The Development Consent Authority must follow any “direction” given to it by the Minister for Lands and Planning. This applies to a Minister’s direction “generally or in respect of a particular matter”. The Minister cannot give a direction regarding determination of a particular development application or regarding any report or recommendation prepared by the Development Consent Authority under the Planning Act.

The Development Consent Authority has a function as a ‘reporting body’ on planning scheme amendments and exceptional development permits. The Development Consent Authority receives written submissions, conducts a hearing into the matter and provides a report to the Minister for Lands and Planning regarding amendments to the Northern Territory Planning Scheme (including rezoning applications) and exceptional development permits.

The Development Consent Authority has wide powers under section 84(2) of the Planning Act that are “necessary, convenient or incidental to” performing its functions or exercising its powers. The Development Consent Authority may:

  • delegate any of its powers and functions under the Planning Act to an employee in a Northern Territory Government department (referred to as an employee defined in the Public Sector Employment and Management Act).
  • delegate any of its powers and functions under the Planning Act to one of its members.

Planning Commission

The Planning Commission was established by the 2012 amendments to the Planning Act. The Planning Commission consists of a Chairperson appointed by the Minister for Lands, Planning and Environment; the Chairpersons of the Development Consent Authority, the Heritage Council, the Northern Territory EPA, a representative of the Local Government Authority and up to five other members appointed by the Minister.

The Commission is responsible for two roles under the planning system:

  •  to prepare integrated strategic plans, guidelines and assessment criteria for the NT Planning Scheme; and
  • to advise the Minister on significant development proposals (see discussion below and in our fact sheet on ‘Development consents, exceptional development permits and significant development proposals’.

In relation to its first responsibility, the Commission is obliged to undertake community engagement in the preparation of integrated strategic plans, guidelines and assessment criteria.

Development Assessment Services – Department of Lands and Planning

The Department of Lands and Planning has the responsibility for strategic planning, statutory planning, developing growth frameworks, strategies and infrastructure plans. The Development Assessment Services branch of the Department of Lands and Planning advises developers and the general public on planning controls. Its main role is to assess development applications and planning scheme amendments, consider submissions made by the public and prepare reports for the consent authority.

In practice, the planners employed in the Development Assessment Services branch undertake administrative tasks involved in the consent authority making a decision, from preparing the public notification advertisements to inspecting the subject land and completing an assessment report. For development applications, a planner from the ‘Statutory Planning’ division will undertake these tasks, and for planning scheme amendments or exceptional development permits, this will be a planner from the ‘Strategic Planning’ division.

What is a planning scheme amendment?

A planning scheme amendment is a change to the Northern Territory Planning Scheme, which changes the zoning controls of an area of land.

For more information on changes to a scheme see our Fact Sheet on ‘Planning scheme amendments’ .

Development consents, exceptional development permits and significant development proposals

Land use planning under the Planning Act is controlled by a system that requires people to apply for and obtain development consent for certain land uses and developments. A development application is required to be lodged by a developer for any development that is required to have ‘development consent’ under the Planning ActThe consent authority grants a development permit when it consents to development of land.

A development permit is also “taken to be issued” on land where existing use rights apply on particular land.

A development permit may also be issued as a “variation” of an existing development permit provided the development permit has not lapsed.

Exceptional development permits are a type of development consent which can be applied for when development in a zone would normally be prohibited. The Planning Act allows a person to apply for a permit for development when the proposal is prohibited under the Northern Territory Planning Scheme.  An exceptional development permit effectively turns an otherwise prohibited land use into an approved use without changing the zoning of the land.

When the Minister for Lands and Planning is considering whether to grant the exceptional development permit, the Minister must be satisfied that it truly is an ‘exception’. If it is not, the Minister for Lands and Planning must initiate a planning scheme amendment to re-zone the land permanently.

A significant development proposal is a one that requires a development permit and may have a significant effect on future land use and development. A proposal will be considered significant where it may have a significant impact on:

  • strategic planning; or
  • the natural environment or existing amenity of that land, adjoining land or other areas of land.

Where a proposal is considered “significant” in this sense, a significant development report must be written and provided by the Planning Commission to the Minister.[FN50B] That report must identify, and give advice about, the possible impacts of the proposal on future land use and development in the Territory.  A consent authority may also request the Planning Commission to provide the Minister with such a report where it considered a particular development to be significant.

Where a significant development report is provided, the relevant consent authority must take the report into account before determining the application.

For more information read our fact sheet on Development consents, exceptional development permits and significant development proposals.

When is environmental impact assessment needed for development?

Developments with the potential to have a significant impact on the environment may also require assessment under the Northern Territory Environmental Assessment Act and the Environmental Assessment Administrative Procedures. For more information on environmental impact assessment, read our Fact Sheet on ‘Environmental impact assessment’.

How do I access information relating to land?

Several types of planning documents are publicly available:

  • Development consent applications and exceptional development permit applications are available to view online at Development Applications Online. This website has information about current development consent applications that are exhibited for the public to comment on and also information about old (called archived) development consent applications. Documents relating to individual development consent applications, for example, plans and Statements of Effect can be downloaded from the website, by clicking “view proposal”. Archived development consent applications and exceptional development applications from 2005 onwards can be viewed on the Northern Territory Lands Group (Land Services) website.
  • Development permits and approved development plans are available for inspection from the Development Consent Authority during normal office hours. The Development Consent Authority must retain a register of approved permits and plans and make them available to the public under s138 of the Planning Act. It is free to inspect the register, approved permits and approved plans (also called stamped plans). However, there are charges for photocopying permits and plans. In order to find a development permit, it is necessary to know the address of the land for which the permit was granted. In Darwin, the Development Consent Authority’s register and plans are held at the Development Assessment Services office at Cavenagh House (corner of Cavenagh Street and Knuckey Street). It is also possible to obtain certified copies of permits issued under the Planning Act, and any other document issued under the Planning Act, by applying to the Minister for Lands, Planning and Environment.
  • The Northern Territory Planning Scheme is the document that sets out the rules for the use and development of land in the Northern Territory. It is a large document. It is available to download as a single document or by specific sections. The Northern Territory Planning Scheme has zoning maps, which show how land is permitted to be used and developed in different areas of the Northern Territory. It also has provisions that permit, prohibit or impose conditions on a use or development of land.
  • Planning Scheme Amendments are changes to the Northern Territory Planning Scheme. Members of the public can make comments on proposed Planning Scheme Amendments. There are two ways to view proposed Planning Scheme Amendments: from the Northern Territory Lands Group (Land Services)  website or from the Development Applications Online website. You can also see Notices about finalized Planning Scheme Amendments in the Northern Territory Government Gazette.
  • Copies of recent decisions of the Lands, Planning and Mining Tribunal are available from the Department of Justice website. In cases where a decision was not handed down, you can make an application to the Registrar to obtain a copy of the final order made by the Tribunal.
  • zone maps for all zoned land are available on the Department of Lands and Planning website.
  • A range of maps, satellite imagery and free public access to electronic mapping information is available from the Department of Lands and Planning at http://www.nt.gov.au/lands/lis/index.shtml.