By Michael McKeown, Director, Jensen PLUS
Last week I attended my final meeting as an independent member of the Unley Council Assessment Panel. Here are a few observations and opinions from my two years on the panel.
1. If you are not from South Australia you might not know that each council here appoints a panel made up of qualified planning, design or building experts to decide certain development applications. No more than one elected councillor also sits on the panel (although interestingly Unley has decided that for its next panel no councillor will be appointed. It’ll be professionals only).
2. Everyone has their say. At the panel meetings we always gave representors (who have objected to a development application) and applicants a fair chance to state their case and we tried always to ask questions and empathise with their genuinely held feelings, even when there were few planning merits in the points being made.
3. I tried hard to promote sustainable design at the panel even though the SA Planning and Design Code doesn’t ask for very much. Colorbond roofs in monument (super dark grey) were not a popular design choice by me or my fellow panel members. The word seemed to get around as roof colours got lighter as the months went on, or maybe that was just a change in architectural fashion?
4. The City of Unley is a relatively wealthy area and we saw more than a few house plans for the wealthy. Does money buy taste or good design standards? Sometimes it does, but the main trend seems to be that bigger is better for most applicants. Some new house or house extensions proposals were for 400m2+ homes. Maybe they just like cleaning? But the max-it-out culture to urban development is hardly the future of sustainable cities.
5. I don’t have a career background in development assessment planning and I think I assumed that typical applications to the panel might be for larger developments – apartment buildings for example. There were a few of these, but in reality most of the DAs to reach the panel are small-scale. Knock down and rebuilds, house extensions, and the like, all of which usually attract the ire of next-door neighbours, leading eventually to a panel appearance to hear it out.
6. Those who know about planning will understand that almost all applications get approved, eventually. Some applications get withdrawn, some approved schemes don’t get built, but few development applications actually get refused. Certainly most planning reports to the panel recommended approval. From time to time we didn’t go with the recommendation of the council planner, leaving the applicant and the maybe the planner a bit put-out.
7. The panel’s presiding member would often remind us that we’re not there to re-design an application (occasionally he would then list a number of design suggestions that could improve the project!). Our job was to approve, refuse or defer the application. Deferral is an interesting option. Sometimes it was an effective method to get a proposal improved to a level that made it acceptable for approval at the next meeting. Sometimes the applicant changed nothing except their justification. Sometimes this led to a refusal.
8. Refusing a development application is really a last resort. What is less well understood (by representors anyway) is that determined applicants often appeal that decision. The court first tries to broker a compromise, which in my experience council staff tend to support (maybe because they wanted the DA approved in the first place, or are worried about legal bills and their department’s budget?). The compromise would come back to the panel for decision, but (importantly) without a public gallery. It’s done in secret. Sometimes there would be no or next no change to the previously refused application, and sometimes the panel would change its mind and approve the compromise proposal. I see this behind closed doors process as a weakness with the panel system.
So did we make a difference in Unley over the past two years? I think so. Many development applications that came to the panel were approved based on their merit. Some were improved by the process. Sometimes neighbours were calmed after their concerns were aired and small compromises reached. And now and again a poorly conceived proposal was refused.
What would I change about the panel system? The council assessment panel process is a good one. It allows independent review of difficult or controversial applications which staff, local residents and applicants are absorbed in – and sometimes overlook the bigger picture.
One thing it has highlighted for me is the relative weakness of the planning system in educating the community about the ‘rules’ and the responsibilities of planning. What’s possible and what’s not. There’s a lot of people out there who assume that everything is black and white, and struggle with the concept of flexibility, local circumstances and variations.
Planning systems across Australia tend to be top heavy, with lawmakers in state parliament making laws and regulations, and plans and policies flowing down from above. This takes up lots of the time, energy and resources of planners with little to no effort made to explain, rationalise and convince communities about planning policies. It’s not an easy task, and the old saying is that no-one cares about planning until their neighbour proposes a development next door!
Perhaps there is an opportunity for planners ourselves – through the professional bodies like the Planning Institute of Australia – to communicate directly with communities about the purpose of planning and how to engage with the planning system? If over time more people understand the purpose and limits of the planning system they might get less distressed when the person next door lodges a development application. (We also need to talk to our neighbours more.)
So why did I not renominate for the Unley Council Assessment Panel? Well it wasn’t because of my fellow panel members, who were excellent. It wasn’t the staff, even though I surely annoyed them with my probing questions and contrary opinions. On a practical level, it does take a bit of time to prepare for a panel meetings, even if local site visits could be done by bike. The reports are long and time is a scarce resource.
The local-scale nature of many applications before the Unley panel did not for me address the important planning issues like urban sustainability, or not enough. And I’m not a particularly sensitive person but even so the panel meetings, with strong views expressed, could be emotionally draining. Sometimes it seemed there were only losers and no winners!
Being a panel member is an important responsibility. I am pleased to have contributed for my local community. Now for others to take over. Good luck to the new panel!