Coun­cil calami­ties

Lo­cal gov­ern­ment is a labyrinthine night­mare for renovators and builders, writes Guy Al­lenby

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Prime Space -

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.

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