ELECTED councillors are warning a high-level proposal to privatise some planning applications will further erode the community’s opportunity to have a say in its own future.
The fact the issue has even been raised is being used to argue the Barnett government’s introduction of development assessment panels has been a failure.
The privatisation proposal has been flagged by the powerful WA planning commission, which is undertaking a major review of planning rules in an effort to cut red tape and speed up approvals.
Fremantle councillor Andrew Sullivan, an architect and former planning committee chair, told the Herald his own council’s flirtation with privatising heritage assessments had backfired.
“Drive-by assessors” kept providing dodgy reports, he told the Herald. “You do get cash for comment in the private sector.”
While Fremantle still orders the occasional external assessment, Cr Sullivan says the service is now run in-house and he’s more confident about the advice he receives. The council also benefits by having expert heritage advice on-hand when developing policies.
Cr Sullivan says councillors and staff who help draft a city planning scheme are in a better position than outsiders to make decisions sympathetic to the scheme’s goals. He says privatised planning might only work if those in the private sector are given the skills to deal with the special needs of a city.
But given his experiences with the much-criticised development assessment panels, known as DAPs, he doubts that will happen.
The premier introduced the DAPs over the objections of councils, arguing they would improve efficiency. Cr Sullivan says that hasn’t been the case, and they’ve merely added another unnecessary level of expense and bureaucracy.
He believes the state-controlled bodies have struggled to attract government-appointed members who are, “highly qualified and across local planning policies and schemes”.
“They’re all professionals but that can be drawn from a broad range of experience, and when you have somewhere like Fremantle where you have heritage considerations or urban guidelines in their schemes you need someone who’s a specialist to be a juror.
“But often they’re from a general background or one that is more tuned into a different type of planning,” he told the Herald.
Cr Sullivan wants the Barnett government to review the system, which he describes as “just longer, more bureaucratic and more convoluted”.
“It was another player and another layer.”
Veteran Stirling city councillor Terry Tyzack hadn’t heard of the plans (they’d been flagged in a WAPC discussion paper in September) but when told of the few details that had so far been made available, he said they were “not appropriate”.
“The problem with privatisation in many areas is that the standards tend to drop,” the former mayor told the Herald.
“Whether it’s power, gas or water, profit-making comes in.”
Both Cr Tyzack and Cr Sullivan say a great strength of the current system is the ability for the community to influence council decisions, in particular because they are often the first to experience the pointy end of new laws.
The WAPC discussion paper flags several privatisation models throughout Australia. In NSW—which has been beset by planning scandals for decades—private certifiers can sign off on single dwellings or additions that comply with various codes.
In Brisbane a process known as RiskSmart sees applications assessed by consultants who forward their reports to the council for approval.
Cockburn council’s planning director Daniel Arndt notes most eastern states models are aimed at single house dwellings. His council’s already ditched the need for planning approvals on single house dwellings.
by STEVE GRANT