04/04/2012 - 11:13

Keep pace up on planning reforms

04/04/2012 - 11:13


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The state government has won high praise for its planning reforms but the industry, and Labor, say it needs to do better.

The state government has won high praise for its planning reforms but the industry, and Labor, say it needs to do better.

Housing affordability remains one of the most pressing issues for government in Western Australia.

The dramatic increases in land prices and construction costs that occurred between 2005 and 2007 have made it much more difficult for Western Australians to buy their own home.

Since the GFC, costs have been fairly static and, as a result, the issue does not attract constant headlines in the popular press.

However, the relative calm in the market still leaves us with an important question – has the state government implemented reforms that will ensure we do not have a re-run of the problems that occurred before the GFC?

Two recent reports highlighted the progress that has been made so far.

The Residential Development Council and the Property Council of Australia reported last month that WA has achieved good progress on development assessment reforms.

The state scored 7.1 out of 10, which was the highest of all states (behind only the Northern Territory) and up from 5.3 one year.

Reforms that helped to lift WA’s score included the introduction of development assessment panels (which effectively reduce the power of local councils) and the establishment of the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority, which brought together four separate authorities.

Other changes included major project facilitation, a strategic growth plan, the Directions 2031 strategy and a restructure of the WA Planning Commission committees and governance framework.

The COAG Reform Council’s Review of Capital City Strategic Planning Systems, released this week, also had good things to say about the WA planning system.

Commenting on the review, planning minister John Day said highlights included the role of the WA Planning Commission as a leading mechanism for delivering integrated whole-of-government advice.

The Metropolitan Region Scheme was acknowledged as an efficient tool for identifying and reserving land for urban expansion and transport corridors.

Another commendable reform, which took effect this month, was the implementation of the new Building Act – after more than 15 years of debate.

Among many changes, it introduces private certification of building projects, a task previously reserved for local councils.

Against this backdrop, it was somewhat surprising last week to see the Urban Development Institute of Australia call for “reform not rhetoric”.

UDIA WA chief executive Debra Goostrey said: “While some initiatives have been implemented …. there is a long way to go.”

She referred to delays in reforming structure planning and model sub-division conditions as examples.

The UDIA also took an unusually partisan stance by inviting Labor leader Mark McGowan to speak at the launch of its advocacy agenda.

In keeping with his (mostly) progressive and constructive stance since becoming leader, Mr McGowan sought to up the ante by advocating reforms that go beyond what has occurred already.

This included amending the Building Act to provide for deemed approvals if local councils do not process applications within two weeks.

Like other reforms recently adopted in WA, this policy has been working successfully in other states for many years and has been repeatedly advocated by local builders.

It should not be difficult to learn from experience elsewhere and act promptly.

Housing minister Troy Buswell’s response was disappointing. He defended the government’s achievements by referring back to the Property Council’s positive assessment.

However, the Property Council has more in common with the UDIA, and Mr McGowan, than first meets the eye.

Its state director, Joe Lenzo, has made it clear more needs to be done.

This includes ensuring consistency in local councils’ planning schemes and development codes and further rationalising the development referral system.

Speaking last month, Mr Lenzo concluded with a warning: “There is not a lot of time to implement these reforms because the population boom in WA will result in a repeat of the massive undersupply of housing that caused house prices to escalate sharply a few years ago.”

Ms Goostrey had similar words.

“We are very concerned that the system will not cope when the market normalises,” she told WA Business News.

“These reforms must be a priority before the upswing if we are to avoid repeating history.”

Mr Day has acknowledged that further progress needs to be made and said this remained a priority of the government.

He and his Cabinet colleagues need to live by those words.



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