24/09/2008 - 22:00

State development vision hampered

24/09/2008 - 22:00

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URBAN infill was a key policy of the Carpenter government, outlined in the 'Network City' plan for a series of transit-oriented, high-density developments in Perth.

URBAN infill was a key policy of the Carpenter government, outlined in the 'Network City' plan for a series of transit-oriented, high-density developments in Perth.

But according to the property industry, it's a vision that has been severely hampered by the current planning approvals system, and the assessment role played by local government.

During the state election campaign, both the Property Council of Australia (WA) and the Urban Development Institute of Australia (WA) called for independent developer assessment panels to assume control of planning approvals in local councils.

Their argument was that a lack of expertise among councillors, along with vested interests, damaged the outcome of the planning process.

Recent cases of strong resident opposition to proposed high-density developments - notably in Dalkeith and Scarborough - have led those in the development industry to call for a new approvals model.

"At the end of the day, you've got to remove the end decision-making power [from] people who don't have the expertise to deal with it, and introduce panels of experts who have studied this," Ibex Capital director Charlie Robertson said.

"Everyone's been talking about urban consolidation but it's just impossible to actually make that happen without co-operation and a major evolution in the planning system. At the [local council level]...it just doesn't happen, because no-one wants a five- or six-storey block of apartments appearing in their backyard."

Match director Lloyd Clark believes reforms are also needed around the residential R-codes system, which dictates how many dwellings can be built on a given site.

"There's still a belief that R60 is high density - what a joke. Unless you want to be living 40 to 50 kilometres [away] from the CBD, there has to be a fundamental shift [and] a whole review of the planning system," he said.

"I think there is a genuine wide-market acceptance that we need higher density and more infill, but as long as it's not 'next door'; that's our biggest issue at the moment. You've got to get rid of R codes altogether and adopt a building envelope policy, and allow developers to decide how many units they'll get within that building envelope, not have it regulated by local councils."

One of the frequently quoted examples in property circles of a project which was efficiently managed through the local council planning process is Mirvac's Burswood Peninsula - a group of seven apartment towers, ranging from 12 to 22 storeys in height.

While the project had the advantage of not interrupting existing residents' views, and was less controversial as a result, it was originally zoned for just five storeys.

A decision by the Town of Victoria Park to create a design review panel to independently assess the project meant few design revisions, according to Mirvac WA chief executive Evan Campbell.

"We got...1,200 dwellings [approved] on a site that's 17 hectares, and we've had unanimous approval in everything we've put through, to a point where council have actually given the officers delegated authority to deal with each development application, provided we stick within the structure plan," Mr Campbell said.

He believes market acceptance for high-density development already exists in WA, demonstrated by the success of urban renewal projects on the CBD's fringe.

"There are two examples that I think are world class - East Perth and Subiaco. That is urban consolidation at its best. There's some of the best infrastructure anywhere in Australia - the footpaths, the streetscapes, the paths, the waterways. A lot of those lots are [200sqm]," Mr Campbell said.

Models for independent project assessment and certification of building licences already exist in Victoria and New South Wales, which have resulted in faster processing times, according to the building industry.

For Ibex's Charlie Robertson, a simple valuation model would be the easiest method of determining which projects should be quarantined from local council approval.

"I don't think it's necessarily that difficult to look at a model that satisfies both industry and local residents. I think you have to set a threshold level where developments above a certain value are dealt with by expert panels and obviously the fees attaching to those development applications are more than enough to pay for good, well-qualified professionals to actually assess those applications," Mr Robertson said.

While broad reforms in the approvals process have been called for, government efficiency and resourcing of agencies has been another major concern for businesses.

"A consequence of [staff shortages] has been delays in various planning approvals and rezoning," Cedar Woods managing director Paul Sadleir said.

"It would be nice to think that part of the booty that's flowing from the property industry could get redirected to see those agencies better staffed, and given some target times in terms of response, because for our industry holding costs are quite substantial."

Part of the problem, according to developers, is that a multitude of government departments and agencies are involved in the planning process - including planning and infrastructure, water, environment and conservation - which creates delays.

"To me, one of the better contributions a state government can make is to have a whole-of-government approach to issues. One of the biggest difficulties we face on a day-to-day basis is there's no consistency between the various government departments, and they all want to add on their bit in terms of cost," LWP Property Group managing director Danny Murphy said.

"[At Belmont Park racecourse], the government agencies couldn't agree such that you could maximise the dwelling yield from that site, so you end up with very much an under-built site...where planning clashed with environment clashed with transport. You've got to have a government that's committed to outcomes and brings all the departments along with them."

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