Taylor Burrell Barnett

Making planning more accessible; what needs to change?


Jeremy Versaico
Graduate Consultant

11 May 2022

Where are the gaps in public understanding of the local planning framework? Will the proposed reforms address these issues?

In this article I discuss my experience with taking a reasonably simple project through the local planning framework, and ask why the public are not given accessible information to help them understand how, and why, planning controls development.

As planners, we are taught that the shaping of how spaces evolve over time is critical to the development and wellness of not only the broader area itself, but the people who live, work and play there. With an understanding of the scope involved, it makes clear sense why a comprehensive framework is in place which seeks to control land use development and built form outcomes. But how much is too much?

I recently assisted a client with obtaining a development approval for a simple carport. Something of such a small scale is not something I would normally deal with, and not something you would expect to engage a specialist planner in. The reason I was engaged was due to the amount of policy controls in place for this particular area. While the intention of these planning policies is to guide development, which is very reasonable given the suburb has a high heritage value, all it achieved for the public in this instance was uncertainty and confusion. In fact, before contacting me, the client spoke directly with the planning officers at the Local Government, who’s formal feedback was that they would not support the application.

So how did everything change when the application was lodged? And why did the initial feedback from the officers go from a position of refusal to a straightforward approval?

Well, after lengthy discussions with this client, and other contacts outside of the planning industry, there were two commonalities, being the structure and language used in the development of these policies, and an unclear assessment process.

Planning policies are normally written by the Planning Department for the Local Government, and for the most part, the primary audience reading these policies are planners. This can be problematic, as the language used, while second nature to a planner, is potentially unclear and confusing for a member of the public. How is someone supposed to address policy when they do not understand it?

How is someone supposed to address policy when they do not understand it?

Secondly, the public is not given a clear insight into how development applications are assessed. Take this carport proposal as an example. After meeting with the Local Government, the feedback did not advise the client of all the policy provisions that would need to be addressed, nor did it advise that if the proposal did not comply with the standards set in the policy, that they would assess the application against the objectives outlined.

While this doesn’t work in every context, for more simplistic developments, there needs to be a better understanding of the intended audience. From this, a framework can be put in place for members of the public to very clearly understand what development controls are in place, if there is discretion available, and what the process is if the development seeks to vary the provisions outlined.

Empowering the public in this way not only benefits them. The Local Government can benefit from providing a clearer framework to the public, as it will encourage a better standard of development applications lodged, through better public understanding.

I’m not suggesting that policies are written so that it is easier to get development approval for substandard proposals, nor am I suggesting that the framework is too comprehensive for more complex development. My key point is that there is a lack of contextual awareness for the varying degrees of complexity in developments, and while the framework is robust and appropriate for some development, it appears to be overwritten to the point that something as simple as a carport needs specialist involvement.

Small changes like these can seek to further legitimise planning, especially on a local level, where the general sentiment is that it is often bureaucratic and provides unnecessary red tape. A more accessible policy framework could foster a better public understanding of how local planning works, and potentially, more deserved appreciation. At the end of the day, is the public interest really protected in planning when we don’t make it accessible?

Thankfully, this appears to be an issue that has been identified at a higher level, with the State Government proposing changes to the planning system through its Planning Reform Phase 2. Some of the potential reforms include clarifying the use and function of local planning policies and bringing in better consistency across development assessment. It will certainly be interesting to see if these changes to our planning system will provide a framework which seeks to solve these issues.


Jeremy Versaico
Graduate Consultant