Do we need an external panel to deal with the most complex ACT developments?

Dan Stewart 6 September 2019 14
The City Precinct

The City Precinct plans announced this year mean that multiple complex developments will be seeking approval concurrently. Image: Supplied.

The ACT Government’s focus on infill development as a means of increasing housing supply, supporting utilisation of infrastructure and generally bolstering the economic health of the Territory is good policy.

However, this very focus is conspiring to hamper the outcomes government desires — much in the same way that a tourism spot popular for its uncrowded spaces kills itself by attracting tourists in high numbers.

Add the impacts of the Mr Fluffy program and there’s enormous pressure being placed on the planning staffing resources that are needed to ensure the smooth transit of major and complex development applications (DAs) through the approval process.

It’s well recognised that lengthy DA approval times contribute not only to economic inefficiencies and productivity lags, but also to a reduction in housing affordability.

In the ACT, where land release and management is subject to only one tier of government (except in a few cases where the National Capital Authority is involved), refining and streamlining this process should be easier.

It should be an exemplar. However, this is not the case.

Other jurisdictions (and particularly a small number of local councils) are leading the field, recognising that reduced approval times lead to greater economic efficiencies and overall growth. Given the ACT Government’s current focus on urban infill and densification to ensure full use of existing and new infrastructure (such as light rail), a streamlined DA process is critical.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, for such development to take place with approval timeframes of 10 months or more. And given the likelihood of an increasing number of complex DAs being lodged concurrently, as well as several other major projects already in the system, this timeframe could well push out beyond 12 months. This timeframe creates significant issues for any development project considering the impact of delays on holding costs, workforce management, sales rates and settlements.

While the ACT Government can be applauded for streamlining the pre-DA process, lengthy approval times are having the most significant negative impact on developers and home buyers from both a cost and an efficiency point of view.

Ultimately, longer and more expensive development processes impact local citizens and home buyers. Higher development costs are passed on to home buyers. Longer development timeframes impact local economic activity, investment and productivity.

So what is the answer?

One reform of note is the use of expert panels for assessing DAs, an idea given particular consideration by Yolande Stone in her work Council Decision Making and Independent Panels.

Stone focuses panel decision making as a way to depoliticise the process and to address probity concerns. For example, councillors, property developers and real estate agents are generally prevented from becoming a member of the new panels, ensuring independence from decision-makers.

For major or controversial DAs, independent panels provide a peer review of the technical assessment along with increased opportunities for applicants and objectors to input into the assessment process, increasing transparency and strengthening the integrity of decision-making.

Many councils and planning bodies have adopted panels as part of their DA approval process for the sole purpose of both actually reducing corruption as well as the perception of it. Polling by Newgate Research, commissioned by the Property Council, found high levels of community support for planning panels to depoliticise the development assessment process, with 81 per cent of respondents agreeing that large planning decisions should be made by experts.

Given the ACT Government’s recent decision to broaden the remit of its Design Review Panel (DRP), perhaps it is time to establish assessment panels in the ACT to consider Development Applications in their entirety – not only to speed up applications but also to provide transparency to the decision-making process.

Relevant expertise would be in the fields of planning, architecture (eliminating the need for a separate DRP), heritage, the environment, urban design, economics, traffic and transport, law, engineering, tourism or government and public administration. A community representative panel member should also be included. The members, including a Chair, would be chosen by the Chief Planning Executive.

The panel would be remunerated from fees paid by developers on a user pays or opt-in basis, however, any project above a certain size could automatically be referred to the panel, freeing up resources within EPSD and accelerating their broader assessment activities. EPSD staff would also benefit from exposure to, and mentoring from, the members of the assessment panels as there would still need to be administrative support from the directorate.

A key issue in this process is conflicts of interest and it is one that must be managed carefully, however, at the end of the day the panel is providing advice to the Chief Planning Executive, not making a decision. The final approval (or otherwise) would almost certainly continue to rest with the ACT Planning Authority.

Dan Stewart has a long history in Canberra urban planning. He spent 14 years in ACT government executive positions before moving to the private sector.

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14 Responses to Do we need an external panel to deal with the most complex ACT developments?
Alex SmilyLex Alex SmilyLex 12:29 pm 09 Sep 19

as long as human environmental impacts are not juts heard but acted upon. The removal of garema is the first step into the fiasco to open space similar to what has happened in Darling Harbour :(

Phillip Scharf Phillip Scharf 10:20 am 09 Sep 19

Other than half a dozen dodgy builders, who wouldn't want this?

Lyndon Zoukowski Lyndon Zoukowski 6:59 am 09 Sep 19

Sounds like a bloody great start given what's happening now...

bj_ACT bj_ACT 4:17 pm 08 Sep 19

Something different needs to be undertaken to improve our cities redevelopment. The current model isn’t working.

Many of Canberra’s inner city developments have delivered the opposite benefits of those claimed by the government and the opposite outcomes of what seems logical.

Experts have told me about the densification paradox that we have experienced in Braddon and the city centre.

People move into new inner city apartments taking up less space with shorter commutes. Surely that will lead to environmental benefits…..

However these people in the new apartments tend to still have cars, they cause congestion in the tight inner city roads, they have high consumption of goods and energy. When measured in full, the inner city apartment dwellers paradoxically create a larger carbon footprint and deliver worse environmental outcomes than their contemporaries out in the burbs on larger blocks with longer commutes. .

Andrea Lloyd Andrea Lloyd 3:59 pm 08 Sep 19

Anything proposed by any developers needs close evaluation by an expert panel which should also include members of the community, preferably from the proposed development area.

Leigh Watson Leigh Watson 2:22 pm 08 Sep 19

Perhaps the panel could also provide a special fast track approval for those developments that provide levels of genuine affordable housing.

Brendon Mulloy Brendon Mulloy 2:07 pm 08 Sep 19

We know how useless ACTAT is, so sure, why not have one more toothless tiger to help the developers win 🤷‍♂️

    MB Miyagi MB Miyagi 9:06 pm 08 Sep 19

    ACTAT or ACAT? I’ve nearly engaged ACAT on several occasions, will do so in near future.

    Dan Connolly Dan Connolly 9:06 am 09 Sep 19

    Brendon Mulloy spot on!

Trish Roberts Trish Roberts 1:19 pm 08 Sep 19

Do we need an independent assessment panel? Yes.

Shayan Rao Shayan Rao 12:59 pm 08 Sep 19

Current system isn’t working and is unfair & dodgy:

1. Developer assigns incomplete work to a builder

2. Strata is appointed by developer or builder

Strata management, EC of OC, support builder and developer

Unfortunately access Canberra supports builders too

The entire system is screwed

I am a victim too, have been dealing with useless strata , EC builder and access Canberra for a year to get serious building defect rectified but no one listens no one cares

Such a shame

Even though I have all the evidences but how one person can win a fight against system

Shayne Borger Shayne Borger 12:49 pm 08 Sep 19

Independent review board is needed for transparency. Stop Barr %$#@&^ canberra

    Sher Bee Sher Bee 12:58 pm 08 Sep 19

    Shayne Borger yep Barr humbug Vote him Out!

    Justin Watson Justin Watson 2:04 pm 08 Sep 19

    Barr is not the problem. Every state in the country, either Liberal or Labor is doing dodgy deals with developers just to grow the local economy. Federally our economy is screwed and until we fix that, state governments are going to do less than favourable deals with developers, because they are addicted to development like its a drug.

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