Development Approval Application

Development Approval Application

These days, the ‘elephant-in-the-room’ when it comes to development approval applications is local authority approval timeframes.

Most development approval applicants and their professional consultant team are really only prepared to discuss these protracted and prolonged timeframes in hushed tones, closed door client meetings or off-the-record phone conversations and certainly never in a public blog article or the like; argh……

Personal development approval application experiences in south-west Western Australia give you some indication how the development approval process has evolved into a lengthy ordeal.  For example, a recent development approval application in the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River was drawn-out to 200 days, a simple development approval application for a class 1 dwelling at the City of Busselton notched up a staggering 224 days and a current application at the City of Busselton is sitting at 122 days and counting.  This month, an enquiry with a local authority’s Manager of Development Services on a yet to be submitted two storey building, unashamedly advised that the development approval application would take at least 90 days. The late Michael Swift, City of Busselton CEO 1997-2002, was meticulous in ensuring all applicants were delivered an expeditious response (ie within twenty-eight days) on each and every  application and would no-doubt be grieved by the legacy that now exists.  When canvassing south-west builders, developers, town planners and other professionals; these timeframes are certainly not anomalous – bearing in mind that most development approval applications are then followed by a building permit application – also approved by the local authority.

One may well say, “…build a bridge a get over it…” or “…start a group…” but these extensive timeframes are well beyond the Town Planning and Development Act 2005 statutory period of ninety days and have a real commercial cost to every application, every proponent, all planning and building professionals and the wider community.  Afterall, are not planning officers’ salaries borne by the local authority ratepayers who ensure that the Council ‘make-ends-meet’?  When faced with these exaggerated timeframes, some of the choices are:

  1. State Administrative Tribunal (‘the Tribunal’) review after ninety days;
  2. abusing planning staff (only for the very brave or fool-hardy)
  3. write a letter of complaint to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO);
  4. lobby Councillors;
  5. contact Department of Local Government and Communities;
  6. contact Obudsman WA;
  7. all of the above

Baby boomers may have noticed the adjustment of attitudes amongst the public service with the evolution of JDF’s to the ‘officer’ description but this may not be so apparent to the gen-xer’s nor millennials. Unfortunately, this perceived recalcitrant behaviour falls outside the scope of the last two organisations and just another governance issue that falls between the cracks of government bureaucracies. The applicant is left with the choice of pleading for mercy to the CEO or lobbying a higher authority (Councillors) and the difficult task of finding a Councillor who cares. The applicant’s next act is to then try to motivate the Councillor to bring about accountability to the CEO and his/her sub-ordinate staff who are contracted through the CEO. When faced with this type political manoeuvring, most applicants will defer back to option (a) – a State Administrative Tribunal review after ninety days. Regrettably, taking your case to the Tribunal involves more effort, cost and longer timeframes – and local government officers know it. In fact, I have seen deliberate stalling tactics by local authority officers during Tribunal review meetings; presumably in an attempt to ‘bleed-out’ the appellant through excessive consultant time and professional fees. Thankfully, the Tribunal possibly addressed this insufficient respect towards the Tribunal in the decision DR 196 2014 Bruhn vs City of Joondalup, where the City lost the case and the Tribunal awarded the Bruhn’s costs of $14,880 – certainly a David and Goliath battle that turned the table on the Philistines.

In recent times, the Building Commission has shifted building surveyors out of local authorities to the private sector via the Building Act 2011. So should planning officers be the target of the next privatisation push of a hopeful new state government?  Although the recent privatisation of building surveyors’ services by the Building Commission has it’s detractors – perhaps the expedited timeframes on building permit applications and significantly reduced fees should be observed by policy makers. Given that successive state and national governments have privatised, CBA, Qantas, Telstra, Alinta Gas alongside a plethora of other parliamentary privatisation proposals; perhaps planning departments could be the next service industry to be privatised?  “…Extreme…” or “…radical…” you say; perhaps not?  The Western Australian Planning Commission has actually already set-up a working group to consider the outsourcing of the arduous planning approval process to the private sector – specifically to do with sub-divisional applications. Premier Brian Burke set the ball rolling and made the first attempt on privatising the Public Works Department (PWD) with later liberal and labour regimes thereafter taking bigger bites of the PWD cherry. Equally, it will take an incredibly self-assured Minister for Transport, Planning, Lands to initiate a move of this magnitude in privatising town planning services. Would the private sector do a better job?  Would the Corporations Act, ASIC et al bring greater accountability to private planning companies than we currently see at the local level?  Are the local authority CEO’s prepared to relinquish their lucrative development approval fees and planning officers take a hair-cut? And finally the question on every voter’s lips; what effect would this have on rates?

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