Local government is a labyrinthine nightmare for renovators and builders, writes Guy Allenby
IF there’s one word guaranteed to get anyone involved in the business of building and renovation — particularly Sydney architects — frothing at the mouth it’s councils. ‘‘ We tell clients they’ll have to wait a year for planning approval,’’ architect Tone Wheeler says, ‘‘ unless it is absolutely straightforward.’’
Councils in Sydney now work on the ‘‘ BANANA principal’’, he says through gritted teeth.
‘‘ Build Absolutely Nothing where Near Anything.’’
Things are now so bad, he maintains, that Wheeler’s Sydney architecture practice, Environa Studio, has ‘‘ to a certain extent, given up waiting’’.
‘‘ On larger jobs and commercial jobs we are desperate to get a refusal from council so that we can go to court.’’
In NSW the Land and Environment Court is the adjudicating body on such matters and in the last year or so Wheeler’s firm has had seven court cases for seven wins.
‘‘ It’s because councils are unreasonable,’’ he says. ‘‘ We had a meeting with the Sydney City Council last week and it said it wasn’t even going to talk about what we’d proposed, and it would see us in court.’’
‘‘ A year is definitely normal,’’ says architect Jennifer Hill of the waiting time for development applications in urban Sydney.
Michael Neustein, an architect, urban planner and principal of Neustein Urban, which advises developers, applicants and councils on planning, , says ‘‘ a year is absolutely typical’’.
These anecdotal claims can’t easily be checked against any current, officially documented ones, because the irony is that there’s an even longer wait for the relevant figures.
NSW’s latest report ( Comparative Information on NSW Local Government Councils 2004- 05) was only released early this year, for instance — 18 months after the end of the reporting period.
It’s not that the country’s most populous state should necessarily hang its head in shame at its tardiness.
Some states don’t even bother gather such information.
The most recent national figures available are those put together by Archicentre, the building advisory service of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.
In its Development Assessment Survey Report 2005 it finds that time delays for the development approval process in home renovations vary widely from state to state.
Victoria is the worst, with an average 23- week wait for a decision, followed by NSW at 20 weeks. The other states came in at between eight and 11 weeks.
For new homes, Victoria again led the pack in the slowness stakes with 25 weeks, followed by NSW at 22 weeks, while in the Northern Territory it was just eight weeks.
In medium- density housing the spread goes from the ACT taking an average 44 weeks, to Victoria’s 38, NSW and Queensland’s 33, South Australia’s 19, Tasmania’s 16, Western
to Australia’s 15 and the Northern Territory’s eight. For large and small commercial jobs, time delays are similar to medium- density housing, state by state, with the ACT again taking the longest.
The report finds that ‘‘ while architects indicated there had been some minor improvements in development assessment processes, the improvements made have not been of a sufficient level to offset increases in time delays and rising compliance costs arising from proceeding through the many systemic problems encountered in working through many DA processes managed by local governments’’.
Top of the list of these ‘‘ systemic problems’’ is the fact that council planning departments are chronically understaffed and run by relatively inexperienced planners. More senior staff, says Wheeler, typically end up in ‘‘ private practice fighting councils’’.
‘‘ Imagine you are a trained planner or a building assessor and a local lawyer, developer, butcher tells you what you can and can’t do,’’ he says.
‘‘ You wouldn’t stay there. From what I understand talking to some senior managers in councils, there is a permanent 20 per cent vacancy.
‘‘ You find that council staff jump ship from one council to another because the councillors — the elected representatives — are so unreasonable at backing their staff.
‘‘ A development application goes for recommendation, it goes for a vote and if there are a couple of local people who have got in the ear of the Labor caucus or the independents or the Greens, or whatever, they just vote it down unreasonably. Then the day staff are forced to find a compromise for something they don’t believe in.’’
‘‘ We’ve been consistently losing the middle management of councils,’’ Jennifer Hill agrees.
A recent Planning Institute of Australia survey found a 20 per cent vacancy rate for council planners generally across Australia, Michael Neustein says. The lowest paid planners are local council planners, adds Michael Heenan, director of architecture firm Allen Jack and Cottier, and there is a flood to private practice and the state’s Planning Department.
‘‘ There’s a real crisis of talent, and that affects the time applications are in council because people are doing it by the book.’’ When ‘‘ the book’’ can be as much as 672 pages long ( in the case of Waverley Council in Sydney’s Development Control Plan), no wonder things can drag out.
Another council has a DCP that requires four days work to understand what does and doesn’t comply, Neustein says. ‘‘ People have to come and use me to get simple approvals about which there should be no issue at all.’’
‘‘ The planning process has become so complicated that you often need a professional who really knows how to negotiate their way through it if you want to have an outcome that achieves the maximum for the site,’’ Hill says.
‘‘ Most people would do what council want if only they could work out what that is.’’
The big frustration, Wheeler says, is that the planning process is unnecessarily complicated and confused.
Wheeler’s firm has undertaken work in a number of states but Sydney is easily the worst, he says, because there are so many ‘‘ small councils and every one of them has a strategic plan’’, he says.