Privatise planning assessment or as of right unit development – do we dare?

By Jonathan Halaliku

The Smart Planning program has acknowledged that over the past 20 years, Victoria’s planning system has grown significantly whereby the planning system now includes a massive 75,000 pages across 8500 documents and 15,000 PDF maps.[1] As acknowledged by the State Government, the consequence of planning regulation has become complex, inaccessible and inefficient.[2] Reform is required and I agree with this principles behind the program.

However with the Smart Planning program reaching the next stage of its roll out (VC137[3]) we as an industry should consider the difficult, and not so difficult, questions of wholesale reform – dare I say not just a cosmetic ‘nip and tuck’ to process. I believe transformative reform is required – and we need to be brave.

Year in review

According to DWELP’s planning permit activity monthly report[4], planning applications for alterations to a building, structure or dwelling, extension to an existing dwelling, single and mutli-dwelling totalled 23,281 applications across the state !! The sheer number of applications in our system is mind boggling and it is further reflected in the average gross days of Responsible Authority determinations of 121 days across the State. Worryingly, but no surprisingly, only 62% of all applications were completed within the 60day statutory timeframe. This is a system under immense pressure and steps need to be taken to remove not only the burden but the onus from the under resourced Local Government sector.

Given the weight of applications which have a residential redevelopment outlook, I believe our first point of call for reform is to the drafting of the residential provisions in the VPP’s.[5]

What should change - Rationale

We as constituents need to come to terms with the concept of change. Change in our cities, change in urban form, change in the way we experience, utilise and engage with our physical environment. Seldom do the masses spend the weekends tending to the quarter acre block. The once cherished quarter acre is now realised as being an asset not only to the land owners but as a resource for our broader needs of the City.

As our urban environment changes, the type of amenity we experience may change – not necessarily reduce. Where once we would marvel at expanses of freshly mowed lawns, now, the sheer pleasure of home ownership or the ability to house several generations prevails. The utilitarian benefit of urban consolidation has (and should) supersede the protection of underutilised land. So where I am going with this…?

Well, change in urban environment (often termed neighbourhood character), does not, if managed properly, equate to a reduction in amenity. It is commonly misconceived that changes in character negatively change amenity experiences. Hence, neighbourhood character is at the heart of most, it not all, planning stoushes. It is as much a ‘shield’ as it is a ‘sword’. It is a coveted mechanism of planning control, and I say, the defining difference between the planning and building worlds.[6]

Neighbourhood character, its identification, assessment and evolution needs to be forward looking rather than an exercise in preservation of the built form and amenity expectations of days gone by – character, like the intangibles of our city, should be allowed to evolve organically.

The assessment and consideration of neighbourhood character is, in my mind, the main difference between assessment of siting requirements under Part 4 of the Building Regulations, and the processes and delays of residential planning permit applications that we see today. What if we could design a test for neighbourhood character that allows assessment to take place within a confined siting criteria – a tick box assessment? Following this, I would then question why would extensions, single, dual occupancy or multi-unit[7] development proposals actually require planning consent?

Provided the test for neighbourhood character can be resolved, ResCode should return to its origin of assessment – as part of the siting requirements under Part 4 of the Building Regulations.

Granted there will be architectural expressions which won’t be as appealing as others they would nevertheless be an expression and provided mandatory siting provisions are met (i.e. confining unreasonable offsite amenity impacts), there is no reason for the enormous amounts of residential applications that we see in single, dual occupancy and multi-unit applications (of less than 4 dwellings) clogging up Council and Tribunal resources.

The takeaway – form an objective approach to neighbourhood character,[8] formulate a test for character performance that can be incorporated into a ‘siting assessment’ or similar criteria, and relinquish the burden of assessing thousands of straight forward applications by Local Government.

What could change - Zone Provisions

As an example, within the General (32.08-6) and Neighbourhood Residential Zones (32.09-6) each respectively trigger the requirement for a planning permit for the construction and extension of two or more dwellings on a lot. To release the pressure, and on the back of a well considered assessment framework, the requirement for planning consent for more than one dwelling on a lot should be removed, or, “as of right” for dual occupancy and multi-unit development of 4 or less dwellings on, for example,… “of dwellings less than two storeys on a lot size of 1200m²”.[9]

I acknowledge that a robust assessment framework must be established to release various densities of residential redevelopment to “as of right” status. The provisions and assessment (by private assessors or otherwise) would need to be grounded in mandatory requirements (with few areas of discretion). A suite of Planning Scheme amendments would need to be initiated from a platform of up to date character studies, needs analysis, landscaping and housing strategies for which ‘lock in’ preferred character expectations. Maybe it is wishful thinking however the concept of releasing the assessment burden by removing permit triggers is a reform strategy that could be employed if, and only if, the assessment framework is itself well resolved.

Essentially, extensive work on the ‘front end’ of Planning Scheme amendments could then facilitate a ‘tick box’ assessment phase for siting (similar to the new garden area requirements). Here, neighbourhood character can evolve organically rather than with the ‘detached, pitched roof and eave reproduction’ often forced as a result of responding to neighbourhood character concerns.

What could change – Assessment of applications

Privatised assessment of various planning applications should be considered.

The assessment of various classes of low impact, straight forward planning applications should be privatised, or at least, Council’s should be equipped with facility to refer to a third party assessor to make determination in place of the Responsible Authority. The legislative framework underpinning the authority to make a decision on planning applications should be extended to include privatised assessment for various classes of permit applications. I understand that determining such classes of applications beyond the obvious single dwelling, dual occupancy and multi-dwelling townhouse developments (without overlay controls) is beyond this piece, however the conversation about privatised assessment should not be intimidated by recent visible (although not relatable) examples such as Lacrosse[10] or Mount Waverley.[11]

Granted there are lessons to be learnt from our building surveying brethren, but where the appropriate assessment frameworks are in place, and the relevant professional standards and liabilities are accepted by privatised assessment parties, then Councils should have the legislative facility and discretion to refer assessment to a private assessor where deemed appropriate.

It is acknowledged that planning has intricacies of discretion that may not be prevalent in the building surveying comparison, nevertheless, the concept and principles behind privatised assessment, are, as per ResCodes genesis in Part 4, equally applicable if the provisions and development controls are correctly drafted.

Blue-skying change

Easing the burden on the planning system could be achieved by:

a) Elevating some forms of residential development to “as of right” status based on density and built form, and;

b) Privatising, or at least providing the facility for privatised assessment, of various classes of low impact planning permit applications should be considered.

Either or a combination of the above would initiate a shift in onus and burden from an under resourced public sector. Unfortunately I am a realist and I understand the breadth of work that is required, top down, and from all sides of the industry to put these concepts in place. Nevertheless, as per the 1989 classic - Field of Dreams - “if you build it, they will come”.


[1] https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/policy-and-strategy/planning-reform/smart-planning-program

[2] Above 1 consequences of these growing issues include:
  • lengthy approval times 
  • inconsistencies in planning schemes and decision making 
  • a system that is difficult to interpret and understand 
  • barriers to public participation 
  • higher compliance costs than necessary 
  • less effective policy implementation. 
[3] Which seeks to expands the Vic Smart fast-track planning process by changing the Vic Smart Planning Assessment provisions at Clauses 90 to 95 of the VPP’s. Amendment VC137 is required to implement an extension to the VicSmart permit process by transferring particular classes of application from the standard permit process to the VicSmart process.

[4] https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/publications/planning-permit-activity-in-victoria/planning-permit-activity-monthly-report

[5] Obviously governed by changes to the legislative framework.

[6] Understandably neighbourhood character is primarily concerned with fit, contextual design response and ‘looking out’ of a site, rather than confining consideration to the boundaries of a site.

[7] Up to 4-5 dwellings in a townhouse configuration

[8] Tainted by political platforms or grandstanding for a vocal minority.

[9] An arbitrary, but reasonable, threshold for planning permit trigger chosen for illustration purposes only. A detailed empirical assessment would be required to establish density and lot size provisions.

[10] Media release, “Lacrosse Building Surveyor to face disciplinary action”, VBA, 23 March 2016.

[11] Media release, “Mt Waverley Building Practitioner to face disciplinary action”, VBA, 29 April 2016.

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