01/05/2020 - 11:21

Developers call for clarity

01/05/2020 - 11:21

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A long-running campaign to gain approval for an Applecross apartments project has highlighted planning inconsistencies.

APPROVED: Mustera’s Forbes Residences proposal was deemed to have not provided enough community benefit to allow a 10-storey variation in the height limit. Image: Mustera Property Group

A long-running campaign to gain approval for an Applecross apartments project has highlighted planning inconsistencies.

Concerns have been raised around the provision of community benefit to allow developers to exceed height limits, with a lack of clarity in the planning process as to what justifies an increase in height.

Planning Minister Rita Saffioti recently announced major changes to Western Australia’s development approvals system, streamlining the number of development assessment panels and reducing the number of specialist members making approvals decisions.

Ms Saffioti’s announcement, however, did not provide any clarity around what would constitute a community benefit, a planning clause used by developers to justify exceeding height limits for particular sites.

Midway through last year, the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage released a list of possible benefits for communities as part of its new Residential Design Code, including the provision of affordable housing, dwelling diversity, heritage, retention of vegetation, public facilities and energy and water efficient design.

The provision of community benefit nonetheless emerged as a major hurdle over the past 18 months for ASX-listed Mustera Property Group, which had sought to build a 20-storey apartment tower on an Applecross plot with a height limit of 10 levels.

Mustera applied to build its Forbes Residences project in late 2018, and was only able to win approval for the project after two design revisions and a reduction in the height of the building from 20 storeys to 13.

Mustera managing director Nicholas Zborowski told Business News there was no guidance from the City of Melville around what defines a community benefit.

Mr Zborowski said the project included a communal garden, end-of-trip facilities, a co-working space and a community centre to satisfy the community benefit requirement, but was told by the Metropolitan Central Joint Development Assessment Panel that those provisions weren’t enough to warrant a 10-storey variation of the site’s height limit.

“In the context of the community benefit, whether it's a commercial benefit that provides a benefit to the community that doesn’t exist in the area, or whether it is in the form of a landscape or an end-of-trip facility, there is no clear definition of community benefit,” Mr Zborowski said.

“I feel that it needs to remain fairly broad, but the assessment panel, the specialist members and especially the council members need to understand the broad context of what the community benefit is and how that will apply. 

“There definitely has been a grey area, which is why we have been drawn out through this process for the last 18 months, because there is no clarity.”

Property Council of Australia WA executive director Sandra Brewer said each local government was responsible for deciding what constituted a community benefit, with the provision generally assessed by council planning officers.

Ms Brewer, however, cautioned that a blanket definition of community benefit applying to the Perth metropolitan area would not be an appropriate solution.

“We welcome any clarity in the planning system, but I think making it so restrictive that it doesn’t allow flexibility would be a bad move as well,” Ms Brewer said.

“It would be great to see a really wide definition of what can provide community benefit, to provide communities with the maximum opportunity to have benefits.”

She said anecdotal evidence from developers and local councils showed communities did not consider libraries or business centres to be of much benefit, instead preferring elements such as more open space or parklands.

“We have done some research recently that we will release soon, but it shows that communities really appreciate that development brings new vibrancy and activity to their communities,” Ms Brewer said.

“More people living in their communities enhances safety and enhances business viability because cafes have more customers and local shops can open for longer hours.

“They aren’t necessarily tangible benefits that can be assessed in a development application, but they certainly are the benefits of medium-density living in existing suburbs.”

Ms Brewer said it was more pertinent amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis that the economic benefits of development, such as construction jobs and orders for building materials suppliers, were considered to be a significant community benefit.

“If we only assess community benefit and design excellence as parameters for proceeding, then the economic value of a project isn’t taken into consideration,” she said.

“And as we move into a period in the economy where we really need to support jobs and construction activity, that might need to be a higher factor in local governments’ assessment of projects.”

Urban Development Institute of Australia WA chief executive Tanya Steinbeck said the definition of what constitutes a community benefit was particularly challenging in areas with outdated Local Planning Schemes.

The Local Planning Scheme adoption process requires detailed community consultation and community needs assessments to be undertaken, as such through this process it should not be difficult to clearly identify community benefit,” Ms Steinbeck said. 

“However, it is evidently more difficult to define where local planning schemes are very old, and there is uncertainty regarding the needs of the community.”

Ms Steinbeck said the lack of clear guidance for industry from local governments created a significant challenge for developers. 

“A further impediment to providing certainty is that developers are unable to seek advice from JDAPs prior to a panel considering a development application,” Ms Steinbeck said.

“Clearly the definition of community benefit needs to be flexible to suit the specific social, economic and environmental needs of each individual community. 

“However, if we want to create great places to live and build more sustainable and resilient communities, then we should incentivise development that delivers benefit to all within our communities, including the silent majority.”

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