The involvement of local councillors on development assessment panels in South Australia has created costly and inefficient processes which fail to deliver certainty or guarantee professionalism in decision making and are holding back the state’s economy, a leader in the state’s property sector says.

Reiterating support for provisions currently included under new planning legislation which would remove local councillors from development assessment panels (DAPs), Property Council of Australia – SA Division Executive Director Daniel Gannon said experiences of delays, costs and frustration with council process were widespread.

“Everyone has a story about a council application involving a great deal of red tape and being unclear, confusing, taking too long and costing too much,” Gannon said.

“It’s not just property developers, we are talking about mums and dads who put in applications for a building extension on homes or new garages. Many companies and individuals simply give up and getting approval just becomes far too hard.”

“Ultimately, this slows down planning approval process and the economy. At the end of the day, it has an ultimate impact on jobs.”

The latest call comes amid growing levels of concern that contentious aspects of the Planning Development and Infrastructure Bill 2015 in South Australia may be blocked in the state’s upper house.

Under the changes, elected councillors would no longer have a direct role on development assessment panels.

Instead, councils would appoint independent members to the panels who possess suitable levels of accreditation as well as relevant expertise.

Whilst the changes are supported by the property sector, councils say the reforms would strip local residents of their voice regarding individual proposals.

A University of Adelaide report commissioned by the Local Government Association of South Australia released in December concluded that there was a ‘strong case’ for ensuring elected government members continue to serve on DAPs, and that the changes would lead to a ‘democratic deficit’ at local decision making levels.

The latest development comes amid growing debate surrounding the future and function of local councils at a broader national level.

In New South Wales, for example, the government wants to reduce the number of local councils by around a quarter in order to eliminate duplication and improve efficiency.

There are also calls in that state to ban property developers from serving on local councils amid concerns Auburn deputy mayor and property developer Salim Mehajer was entitled to vote on planning matters from which he could potentially benefit.

Whilst councils may be opposed to the proposed changes in South Australia, industry lobby groups say they are necessary in order to depoliticise development approval processes and create certainty for applicants by eliminating the ability of councillors to obstruct developments due to pressure from vocal constituents or in order to pursue political objectives.

In addition, having independent and appropriately qualified members on DAPs would help ensure those looking at individual applications have the skills and knowledge required to make informed assessments, they argue.

Gannon says there are numerous examples of developments being held back by politicised council processes.

In one instance, a two story premises expansion for an existing small business involving no change of use was rejected at a council meeting amid local opposition even though the project had been recommended by council staff as a ‘sound development’, he says.

Other cases have seen years of delays to a wine cellar door expansion, a suburban housing facility for older people and the expansion of a private medical facility – the last with regard to which approval took two years and involved litigation amid efforts on the part of hostile councillors to derail the project, Gannon said.

With regard to community voices, Gannon says councils should be involved at the front end of the process where planning policies are being developed but not in the assessment of individual applications.

He says removing council involvement in this area would help underpin confidence and certainty for projects at a time when conditions in the state’s economy were not strong.

“At a time when South Australia’s jobless rate at 7.3 percent is leading the country, we would like parliamentarians to put party political lines to one side and to do what is right for the state economy,” he said

“We certainly believe council reform is a game changing economic policy.”