Being a councilor is a huge task, and development issues have a tendency to pit residents against planning regulations – and you’re in the middle. So here are some lessons from previous Councilors that may be useful to you…
General guidance for dealing with planning officers on planning matters:
- Question & Challenge. Delegate Reports from a planning officer should be written so non-planning people can make judgment calls using them. Don’t let the Planning Dept baffle you.
- Summaries and conclusions can gloss over too much: “.. the plans generally comply with the planning scheme...” effectively means “they don’t meet our regulations, but we’re prepared to accept them”. Any exercise of discretion should be clearly and objectively explained, and can’t be justified simply because it is ‘balanced’ by the use of less discretion for another requirement – all the relevant planning guidelines for each proposal should be complied with unless there are good planning reasons for not doing so.
- Get it in writing. Officers can easily dismiss issues raised verbally, but ask them to confirm in writing so you’re covered – it’s always good practice for your own purposes and for transparency & the public record to have a written record of any contentious issues or decisions
- Make sure you get a specific answer to the question asked, and all the questions – see point 1. Sometimes minor issues can distract attention from more significant ones.
- Ask how the big picture has been considered – what about traffic and parking in the locality? If the proposal will set a precedent, what’s likely to happen to local amenity after five or ten similar projects are developed nearby. Planning is not done properly in isolation.
There have been 3 recent critical reports in the last 6 years by the Victorian Auditor-General on local government management of town planning and performance monitoring. They’re a real eye-opener and confirm what residents already know – that the permit assessment process can be flawed in practice, along with subsequent permit decisions.
For example, the first report above found that 78% of planning permit decisions were seriously flawed in terms of the requirements of the relevant planning scheme and the Act. Planning officers are not infallible and there are various reasons why poor decisions are made, ranging from overwork or lack of care and attention, through to “undue influence” and corruption. But without an effective ICAC in Victoria it is almost impossible to properly investigate these cases.
Our suggestion is for councillors to set up a s86 Special Committee of Council to oversee complaints and issues of probity or integrity that arise in the course of Council providing its statutory services, including town planning permit assessments. To be effective and able to uphold the interests of ratepayers and the community, this oversight committee would have to report regularly back to full Council and must include several independent external members such as representative of relevant community groups, planning consultants, etc. All members would be subject to the usual confidentiality and conflict of interest provisions and be able to deal with sensitive issues in camera.
Such a committee would be able to deal with sensitive issues internally but it would ensure that all councillors were aware of concerns raised by the community. Just the knowledge that this committee existed would engender better compliance by council as a whole.
If you have concerns about planning issues at your council, we can put you in touch with past councilors, or people with Planning skills, some with both!
OTHER DOCUMENTS OF POSSIBLE INTEREST: