Want to build a new mixed-use commercial and residential development in central Perth?

If so, good luck navigating the planning approval process.

According to one developer who emailed a team charged with reviewing Western Australia’s planning system on February las year year, this would entail dealing with sixteen local planning policies plus a further five if you are on a heritage site. This is in addition to a new overarching local planning strategy and existing local planning strategies for activity centres and neighbourhood and for integrated transport. All these are separate to local area or structure plans and state policies such as R-Cods and design related state planning policies.

All up, policies which apply to this singular development stretch to 730 pages. These, the developer wrote, ‘don’t really help you know if your DA has any chance of success’, and ‘do very little to guide and facilitate desired or good quality outcomes’.

Such an experience underscores the complex nature of Western Australia’s current planning system. All up, the system involves 146 local planning schemes totalling 13,091 pages with 1,065 ‘general’ zones and 1,365 ‘special use’ zones. Most local governments have ten different zones; one has 22. In only 20 of these schemes, there are 278 different land uses – around 80 of which are used only once.

Partly because of this, the system is under review. A ‘Green Paper’ of discussion points released by the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage (DPLH) in May outlined several areas where change is needed. As well as being complex, it says the system focuses too much on process rather than outcomes, lacks strategic emphasis and does not have a clear framework to accommodate urban infill and consolidation.

It poses 78 discussion points for change around five areas:  strategic focus, improved legibility and understandability, greater transparency and accountability, greater efficiency and planning for smart growth in key urban infill locations and activity centres.

This raises questions about where ‘pain points’ exist in the system and what change is needed.

Lex Barnett, Managing Director of town planning and urban planning firm Taylor Burrell Barnett, says current challenges fall into several areas.

First, approaches to community engagement need a significant re-think. These are often poorly structured and the messages fail to resonate with the public. Especially around the Perth/Peel region where there has been significant infill development, Barnett says the narrative has focused too much around meeting growth targets and not enough about how densification can be delivered in a way which enhances liveability.

As a result, he says many within the community feel that densification is detrimental to their living standard, and is being imposed on them against their will. This, he says, is generating friction to the government’s infill strategy.

On a related note, he says there is insufficient emphasis on strategic direction and community involvement in up-front planning. Where community members are able to engage at a strategic level, Barnett says this promotes confidence and greater understanding of what to expect from development.

In turn, this promotes confidence among decision makers in approving developments which fall within agreed frameworks. Developers, likewise, are able to pursue such projects with greater certainty.

Next, there are challenges with resourcing and staffing within state planning following a number of voluntary redundancies and a consolidation of directorates. Simultaneously, past reforms have seen the Western Australian Planning Commission (WAPC) assume greater decision-making responsibility. This, Barnett says, has led to Department staff having to do too much with too little. As well, regular staff rotations and turnover has led to applications already in the system needing to be constantly reappraised. This slows things down.

Third, as the government pursues more growth through infill, Barnett says there is a need to improve policy settings aimed at managing cumulative increases in demand for infrastructure over time. Infill development, he says, happens on a piecemeal basis. Every new project has an incremental impact on public asset capacity. What is needed, he says, is a system through which individual projects make contributions to local infrastructure in a fair and equitable way. While developer contribution policy exists it is poorly suited to urban infill development.

Finally, there are issues surrounding structure plans: plans for the coordination of future subdivision and zoning for an area of land. According to Barnett, these were once legally enforceable but nowadays are no longer so. As a result, the certainty which these plans once provided has been eroded.

Going forward, Barnett would like greater community involvement in up-front planning and a more strategic planning approach.

Just as important, he would like to see a cultural shift within State Government planning agencies to be more open and responsive to change. Several past reform efforts, he says, have faded on account of inertia within state organisations. Instead, leaders with courage, conviction and authority are needed to drive reform forward.

Ray Haeren, WA Division President of the Planning Institute of Australia, agrees that there are issues with the current system.

First, he says there are problems with public engagement and communication. On this score, Haeren says a push toward greater flexibility in decision making has delivered benefits but has led to a lack of certainty in outcomes. This, in turn, has led to pushback from community members along with less assurance for developers.

In particular, he says many decisions by WAPC along with the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority happen behind closed doors with little opportunity for community participation. Greater clarity and transparency in how these are reached is needed, he said.

Second, the system needs a more strategic emphasis.

At the moment, Hareen says Western Australia is unique in that DPLH handles everything from strategic planning to individual subdivision approvals. Especially with larger local councils who are reasonably well resourced, Haeren says decisions on some smaller issues would best delegated to local government.

This, he said, would enable departmental staff to devote greater attention to city-shaping issues. These include strategic nodes where redevelopment and intensification need to happen as well as strategies to reposition important parts of the city in order to deliver adequate levels of affordable housing.

As for more local and routine decisions such as subdivisions, Harean says local councils may well be best positioned to deal with these.

Finally, Haeren would like culture change within government and greater collaboration and cooperation between agencies, different levels of government and the public and private sectors.

On the issue of certainty as opposed to flexibility in decision making, Property Council of Australia WA Executive Director Emma Thunder disagrees somewhat. Whilst acknowledging the need for certainty, Thunder says flexibility is needed to enable optimal outcomes. Without naming individual instances, she says there have been numerous high-profile cases where decision makers had been forced to apply an overly rigid approach. On occasions, this has unduly inhibited owners from deriving optimal use of their property.

Next, aspects of the referral system whereby WAPC and DPLH are required to refer proposed developments to other state based agencies (roads, environment, emergency services etc.) for consideration as part of the approval process can be unduly arduous and problematic. Instead, WAPC and DPLH should be empowered to apply rigour and discretion in their treatment of referral responses, she said.

Finally, Thunder would like to see a move toward electronic application, lodgement, tracking and notification systems as well as fairer rules and greater transparency in the charging of infrastructure costs to landowners and developers.

Local governments, meanwhile, support some of the proposed reforms but remain concerned that wording of many others remain unclear.

Moreover, the Western Australian Local Government Association (WALGA) would like action in several areas which are not mentioned in the paper.

First, WALGA would like a clear description about who is responsible for implementing each recommendation, the scope of the recommendations and how the success or failure of each recommendation will be measured and reported on.

WALGA would also like a review of local government planning fees and charges which are allowable under the Planning Regulations 2009. These have been frozen since 2013 – a move WALGA says has resulted in losses to local government of between $500,000 and $1.8 million per annum.

WALGA would also like a review of Development Assessment Panels – panels most of whom span more than one local council area and who determine applications which meet set thresholds. Whilst the paper makes some proposals in this area, WALGA says these are minor improvements to a system which needs a full review. It calls for a full cost-benefit analysis to determine the effectiveness of the current DAP system and the appropriate level of involvement of DAPs within the state’s planning system.

Of particular concern, WALGA fears an excessive role for DAPs could be eroding local decision making. Decision making, it says, should vest with local government and should move outward only where local government is unable to carry out a particular decision making function.

Western Australia’s planning system has many pain points.

For the government, working out how to clean things up will be a challenge.