30/04/2009 - 00:00

Property industry builds a case for change

30/04/2009 - 00:00

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Property players believe the time is ripe for a visionary state planning strategy. Janelle Macri reports.

Property industry builds a case for change

The Western Australian property industry has put forward an agenda for sweeping reforms to the planning system, after years of frustration with delays and complexities in gaining approvals.

Speaking at a WA Business News residential property forum, representatives from the building, planning, design and development sectors revealed their frustrations with the current system which, in their view, was in need of fundamental reform.

With a downturn in activity, a pro-development state government, and the Department of Planning and Infrastructure's highly regarded director general Eric Lumsden leading the push for reform from within government, the industry believes now is the best time to enact change.

Dale Alcock, managing director of the state's second largest residential builder ABN Group, believes drastic action is needed.

"What you've got to do is announce that you've got a crisis, that you've hit rock bottom," he said.

"This system is stuffed. You say that, you declare that it's wrong. And then you say, no more studies, no more naval gazing, because fundamentally you know what the problem is.

"You've got an excellent director general there in Eric Lumsden, who needs total support from government and industry because we've got the best DG you could hope for to effect change."

Cedar Woods Properties managing director Paul Sadlier said he believed there was a willingness in government to improve the system.

"They know what the problems are, they're on the right track...I'm not expecting revolution, but I think there's going to be some improvements made," he said.

"Coordination with the environment department is the biggest thing, as a developer, we face. You get a planning tick, but then it goes onto environment and they don't always have statutory timeframes."

Lester Group director Stuart Lester agreed, saying there was a need for agencies to coordinate better with each other.

"We seem to be going to each [government] agency and each agency is conflicting with each other," he said.

Master Builders Association director Gavan Forster said the issues ran deeper than just policy.

"I think [the government's] intention is good, but what we're finding is that these issues are structural, and extremely difficult to change," he said.

"You've got these reviews going on, a red tape review, a review into the planning system, but the culture of the departments is such that they don't like change.

"The culture that's there is, this is our system, and it's very difficult to change those things overnight."

The state government is currently undertaking a review into the state's planning system, with the Department of Planning and Infrastructure's Building A Better Planning System consultation paper currently out for comment.

Led by Mr Lumsden, the former WA president of Local Government Managers Australia and chief executive of the Melville and Swan councils, the reforms will focus on reducing the complexity and time taken to obtain approvals.

One of the initiatives being considered is the establishment of development assessment panels, which will be made up of elected councillors as well as independent experts.

This is similar to the actions of some councils including Victoria Park, South Perth, Cottesloe and Joondalup, which have set up panels of industry experts to assess major development proposals.

Other recommendations include the integration of state planning and environmental approvals, and the abolition of dual approvals required for some developments under both a region scheme (from the WA Planning Commission) and the relevant local planning scheme (from the local council).

The role of local government was a major source of frustration for the industry, with many affected by costly delays in gaining planning and building licences.

"You've actually got a whole stimulus package in itself in unlocking the shire approvals process, both from a planning and building licence point of view," Mr Alcock said.

"You need to rein in local government and tell them they're going to play by the rules, that any councillor that wants to be duly elected has to go through a process that says this is what being a councillor means. It doesn't mean to say you step over onto the operational side.

"You are effectively a board of management within a local authority...your professional officers will tell you what is required and then you vote on that and you move it forward."

Evoke Design Group director Steve Kinchin told the forum that while some local councils were able to process applications quickly, others were less equipped to make timely decisions.

"It's a political hot potato that they pass around. We feel that [councils'] planning departments have enough experience to make decisions," he said.

"They pass it onto the councillors, the councillors go, I don't really understand this, they probably looked at it that morning. A friend in the street complains, that holds up the process, you then go into the State Administrative Tribunal...but that process is just as long as the process you've come from."

The capacity of local councils to perform their work is one factor in the state government's plans for reforming that sector.

While the public debate has focused on possible council amalgamations, and a cut in the number of elected councillors, the government also supports better training and remuneration for councillors.

It also wants elected members to focus on governance and long-term strategic planning.

WALGA president Bill Mitchell said local government wasn't solely to blame for lengthy approvals processes.

"When you look at planning blockages, three groups need to share the blame - state government, local government and the developer for various reasons," he said.

Mr Mitchell said councils were looking at ways to improve the planning approvals process, including rolling out online development applications.

A successful trial of the scheme across 11 local councils found it cut, in some cases, months off the process by submitting applications to the appropriate government departments and local councils simultaneously.

Some of the other options suggested by those that attended the forum to fast-track standard approvals include a "10 day or deemed approved" for building licences, or private certification of building licences by an accredited provider.

"Victoria has self-certification of building licences, so at our operations in Melbourne, if we make an adjustment to a plan this afternoon and finish the drawings we can get a private certifier in this afternoon, approved, and we can put a slab down Monday," Mr Alcock said.

"Here, even now, we are months getting a standard building licence in some councils, and that's just a standard building licence.

"In NSW, going for a building licence, provided it's in [certain] suburbs, within certain councils and it is in all effect standard, then it's either approved in 10 days or is deemed approved and move on."

Mr Forster said that less local authorities would mean less inconsistency in decisions between the different councils.

"The same approval gets a different treatment in different local authorities and if you do have a more integrated system with mergers and so on, then that's going to help in getting more consistency," he said.

Real Estate Institute of WA president Rob Druitt said ultimately it was up to the state government to show vision and make good on their rhetoric of being pro-development.

"They say they want change, they're pro-development, but the practicality is they've got to get on and do it. They're early in their term, they've got to make the tough decisions," Mr Druitt said.

 

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