Back in the old days, a development application, particularly for a single house, was a matter of submitting drawings and a description of the materials and colours.

But in today’s more complex and risk-averse world, an applicant must also submit a raft of expert reports on diverse issues like soil conditions, heritage implications, environmental impact, water table impact, tree conditions and many other topics.

The Urban Taskforce recently engaged Empire Consulting to undertake a review of around 25 Sydney council Development Control Plans to see just what each council required or may require for a simple development application (DA). When we added up all the different reports across the councils, we had a list of 81 separate reports.

A whole new consultant industry is emerging to support the specialist reports required by planners in councils. The traditional planning consultant is branching out into expertise in heritage, environmental science, water mechanics, earth quality, wind impact and indigenous archaeology.

At the Northern Beaches Council, their DCP lists around 90 reports that may be required for a DA. The growing list of reports required by Sydney councils includes: Acid Sulphate Soils Report, Air Quality Report, Asbestos Management Plan, Arborist Report, Archaeological Assessment Report, Construction Noise and Vibration Management Plan, Contamination Assessment Report, Crime Risk Assessment Report, Flora and Fora Assessment Report, Hazardous Materials Survey Report, Heritage Impact Statement, Noise Impact Analysis Report, Reflectivity Report, Security Management Plan, Tree Management Plan, Water Cycle Management Plan, Erosion and Sedimentation Control Plan. Canterbury – Bankstown Council require a Neighbour Notification Plan that sets out how the applicant will inform the neighbours of the DA even for a single house.

The NSW Government is opening up the potential for a new group of experts to each produce reports with its new Strata Bond where two per cent of the contract price is retained while an independent building inspector who is agreed to by the owners corporation and the developer assess defects. The likely outcome is that the inspector will need to engage expert inspectors for fire safety, waterproofing, structural integrity and numerous other specialist areas.

It won’t be many years until checklists are produced by NSW Fair Trading listing 20 or 30 expert classes of inspector, all to be co-ordinated by a lead inspector. What began as a simple inspection will become a raft of expert reports that ultimately add another $10,000 to the cost of an apartment.

I think this dramatic growth in multiple expert reports is a result of governments privatising roles that were traditionally undertaken within government. The few government regulators left at state or local level now manage the private sector proponents and to minimise risk, they want multiple reports from private sector experts. There does need to be a balance between the amount of information that an applicant provides and the cost of this information which will be added to the construction cost of a house or an apartment.

One way to minimise the cost of expert reports is through the use of complying development, where a code sets the parameters for development that protect the amenity of neighbours. This approach does tend to standardise house designs as they tend to fill the envelope.

The Housing Code sets out rules for privacy, street and side setbacks and the height of roofs. Complying development is often not possible in certain areas where heritage or sensitive environments exist so their use is limited. The NSW government has recently introduced complying codes for greenfield housing and for terrace houses, town houses and manor homes in a package called the “missing middle.”

With Sydney housing being among the most expensive in the world, it is important that every added cost to the process of providing new homes is justified by measuring its cost to the benefit gained. I suspect a thorough review of our planning systems will find we have added multiple extra requirements that have a dubious benefit to the house owner or their neighbours.