With the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimating that the number of people who call Australia home will grow from 22.7 million in 2012 to between 36.8 million and 48.53 million by 2061, we face a vast challenge in terms of providing sufficient levels of housing to cater for our growing population and to address housing affordability issues.

The challenges are especially large in our capital cities, with the population of Melbourne and Sydney expected to reach 8.6 million and 8.5 million respectively and that of Perth and Brisbane expected to hit 5.5 million and 4.8 million. In this regard, it is crucial for planning systems to facilitate growth whilst maintaining and enhancing the character and liveability of our cities.

Yet many within the property sector remain frustrated at what they see in some states and local areas as areas within the system which unduly add time, cost and uncertainly to the delivery of the housing and infrastructure. Whereas development approvals in Melbourne typically take around nine months, the NSW division of the Property Council complained in November, in Sydney it can take years. In Queensland, a report which the Council released in August revealed that decisions regarding rezoning applications can take anywhere between one year and nine months to nine years and four months.

At the same time, there have been examples of what many might say has been poor development which has been allowed to proceed. In the Melbourne city centre, for example, former Victorian Planning Minister Matthew Guy approved high rise apartment towers at a rate which was multiple times the density allowed in many major cities throughout the world. In the absence of strong design rules and guidelines – a situation which Victoria has gone some way toward addressing – a number of these apartments are felt to be of poor quality with limited space and natural light.

All this raises interesting questions about how planning systems in Australia can be improved and where some of the most critical ‘pain points’ or areas where obstacles and impediments to good development lie.

According to Desiree Houston-Jones, regional technical director – urban planning at infrastructure, urban growth, energy, mining and natural resource management firm RPS, these impediments exist across a number of areas.

First, there is the complexity of a system which has to deal with local, state and federal regulation. In this regard, Houston Jones describes a layering and duplicity of regulation across the various levels of government and even a considerable degree of overlay between local government jurisdictions, some of which do and do not apply to some sites.

Houston-Jones also says the rate at which planning reform is taking place is a challenge. Whilst virtually all states are undergoing reform of some description, she says the rate at which change is taking place is far from uniform – a phenomenon she says is both encouraging yet at the same time taxing. Frustrations, can arise, she said, where reforms are ongoing but indeed proceed at a slow pace or where there are changes coming to a planning scheme but in fact the time frames surrounding these uncertain. On the latter point, Houston-Jones says this can create a reactionary approach of rushing to submit applications prior to the change taking place.

In other areas, Houston-Jones said approval time frames can be lengthy and can indeed drag on for longer than the time frame associated with actual construction. Party appeal rights, meanwhile, are fair and reasonable in some states but excessive in others.

Finally, there is what can be a high level of prescription within planning systems – a function which Houston-Jones says can be either a created by the system itself or alternatively can be a manifestation of a culture within some planning departments. Whereas some planners adopt a flexible approach and are open to facilitating proposals which in fact make sense, she says others adhere to a ‘tick the box’ type of approach and are less flexible when it comes to proposals which may fall outside established guidelines.

“There can be a culture of ‘tick box’ with planning officers looking through each of the provisions, and wanting to ‘tick the box’ so as to say that an application has complied,” she said. “On the other hand, there can be a culture where regardless of the boxes, (officers ask) is this development a good idea, does it make sense in terms of the city or the town and the surrounds and what can we do to facilitate it.

“There is a mix of system challenge and cultural challenges.”

Ben Hendriks, managing director of urban and transport planning firm Mecone, says the process of obtaining approvals in Sydney is generally more difficult compared with that in Melbourne or Brisbane but acknowledges that there is a trade off in that Sydney’s controls do tend to have a greater focus on quality and amenity of development compared to other states.

In Melbourne, he noted, the recent government review of apartment quality cited examples of poor design such as ‘snorkel’ type apartments without natural sunlight reaching bedrooms.

“In Sydney the longstanding usage of SEPP 65 had avoided these types of outcomes. On the flip side the complex and layered approach to Sydney tended to, at times, stifle and delay good development outcomes,” he said.

Nevertheless, he says there are areas where the system in Sydney could be improved. In Sydney, for instance, there is a considerable degree of duplication between the rezoning stage for projects and the stage of development approval whereby developers must to go through as much technical analysis as well as environmental and design analysis at the rezoning stage as you in fact do with the development application stage.

Whilst the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act envisages that both the land rezoning application and the development approval would be able to be prepared and submitted simultaneously, local councils in fact have preferred the rezoning application to be lodged first and the development application to be lodged soon after following the approval of the rezoning – an approach which has been backed up by recent case law. Essentially, Hendriks says proponents were having to repackage information to go through two separate processes, which he said could add at least 12 to 18 months to the process.

Another challenge which Hendriks says is applicable to Sydney more so than other capitals is an undersupply of transport infrastructure – a challenge which the government had started to address over recent years with strong levels of investment. This, combined with good land use planning supported by bodies such as the Greater Sydney Commission, is staring to pay dividends with housing starts now reaching record highs. In this environment, he says it is critical to undertake close analysis of where new housing supply is in fact likely to take place on the ground and planning infrastructure around that. Without adequate levels of transport infrastructure, Hendriks says places such as Parramatta would be much less attractive place for residents to live or for companies to invest.

Finally, he says there appears to be a stronger tendency on the part of planning officers and bureaucrats in Sydney to adopt a more cautious and conservative approach with respect to planning approval decisions compared with their counterparts in Melbourne or Brisbane.

“You need to remember that Sydney is a global city competing with places like Singapore and Hong Kong for investment. Decisions in those towns turn on a dime. I’d hate to think that overly cautious planning lead to a loss of investment in Australia,” he said.

Whereas planning staff in places such as Brisbane and Melbourne tend to adopt a more flexible and proactive approach and view their role much more along the lines of working closely with proponents to facilitate positive outcomes, the primary focus of many of those in Sydney tends to revolve more around compliance and protecting the public good – something he said is highly subjective.

Going forward, Hendriks would like to see the ability to combine applications for rezoning and development approval within Sydney. Moreover, he would like to see a continuation and amplification of recent momentum with regard to infrastructure projects and a greater push toward more holistic housing and infrastructure planning which has been happening within the Greater Sydney region over recent years.

Beyond that, he said there could be greater effort to promote broader public awareness about the importance of having sufficient levels of development in order to cater for our growing population and housing affordability over the longer term.

He said “many within the broader public did not fully appreciate either the extent of the challenge in terms of housing our growing population nor the linkage between housing affordability challenges and the need to unlock new housing supply through development.”

“Ultimately planning needs to not only play a role in developing policy responding to growth pressures but importantly to inform the public debate about the challenges of growth in our major cities.”

Going forward, Houston-Jones would like to see a greater portion of the community input and consultation being done at the front end of planning schemes and thus more planning approval applications being assessed on a code-assessable development basis. She would also like to greater standardisation of planning provisions and an ongoing role for independent planning panels (such as the Greater Sydney Commission). With regard to cultural issues, she would like to see industry associations work toward encouraging the notion of a more accommodative role on the part of planners.

Finally, she would like to see a shift in culture which involves greater openness to innovation and a higher tolerance of risk. This is helped along, she said, where there are strong efforts with regard to the enforcement of approval conditions.

“I think that both the industry and government need to be OK with trying new things knowing that at times there will be some failure and if there is a spectrum of change then you might go a little bit too far down the spectrum but you will realise that, stop that and come back and be just on this point of the spectrum,” Houston-Jones said.

“If we are not tolerant of that, then there won’t be any increase in risk tolerance. That will stifle innovation.”