AMONG the city’s residents there is an important group of people who suffer the ills of ACT government planning dysfunction not only because they live here like the rest of us, but because they are part of the city’s building and construction economy.
Talk to a builder, a building designer/architect or tradesperson working in construction and soon the conversation turns to the frustrations of having to work through development applications (DAs) with what is seen as a badly managed planning directorate. It is reported that this unacceptable situation has sunk to new low levels over the last few years.
The situation is so bad that the professionals, particularly those in small business, are having their flow of work seriously delayed to the point where employment of contractors and tradies has been thrown into doubt – even with much wanted work in the queue and ready to go.
There are reports of some throwing up their hands and heading away from Canberra – to be anywhere away from this planning directorate and how it conducts itself so badly.
Here are just some details that I have gleaned from several sources, including some communications with ACT Liberal planning spokesperson, Mark Parton.
When people say it has worsened in recent years they quote that in mid 2014 most DAs took an average of about 43 days to be processed and that around 80 per cent were being completed within statutory time frames.
Earlier this year it was documented that the average had blown out to at least 90 days (three months). And more damning was that only 30 per cent of the DAs are being processed within statutory time frames. So what happens to the other 70 per cent left waiting, waiting and waiting?
Project management timelines are thrown out and the unfortunate, previously booked contractors and their tradies are given the bad news that their jobs now have no definite start dates. All these people have costs – and when in small business – such impacts are damaging to people’s lives, their health and their overall wellbeing – and more broadly this inefficiency affects the city’s economy.
Then there are the stories of the encounters between the professionals and the planning staff tasked with processing the DAs. The growing perception is that there is not enough professionally trained staff available, too many professional planners are being shifted to other areas, good staff have departed and there is a culture developed of not responding to requests for updates on overdue DAs.
While many residents have a view that all the building industry is far too close to government, in reality when it comes to small businesses who need certainty on timelines and rely on delivering on these timelines to balance their finances, the opposite is true. Building and construction professionals are finding more and more that the planning agency has become harder to access for information, that they often get the run around and that the DA processing has become far too inefficient. People are seriously starting to wonder about the current skills of the planning directorate whose job it is to make planning decisions.
Questions have been raised directly with the Minister (that would be Mick Gentleman) and have been raised within the ACT Assembly. To date, the responses have been patronising at best. Apparently the planning chief is fixing this – but the reality for the small businesses is a different experience.
This crisis does not need to be considered by any committee nor be subject to any further investigations. Such bureaucratic processes take time. Meanwhile people’s working lives are seriously being affected. This crisis grows and desperately needs a solution. It is about the allocation of resources where they are needed the most.
It requires the ACT government to demand that its planning directorate changes priorities and starts to care for the city’s workforce. It is time to get those DA processing times back to some form of normal.
Paul Costigan is an independent commentator and consultant on the visual arts, photography, urban design, environmental issues and everyday matters.