Taylor Burrell Barnett

Planning Reforms – 2.0 – Is this really eroding local democracy?


Lex Barnett
Practice Fellow

04 Apr 2023

What I love about the planning profession is the predictability of action and reaction, particularly when it comes to the State making announcements about planning reform initiatives.

In this blog, Lex shares his response to the reactions from industry and the community to the latest reforms, including his views on why not all parts of the planning process are meant to be democratic.

Since coming to power in 2017, the Labour State Government has embarked on an in-depth review and reform of the states planning system.

Anyone in the planning profession and allied development professions would now be aware of the State Government’s latest tranche of planning reforms, which was announced by the Premier just over a month ago. An impressive launch, with some fanfare, lots of media coverage, and some predictable reactions from various sectors.

Of course, the overall reform package has been analysed to death by every advocacy group and industry body, as well as engaged professionals including TBB (read our TBBReacts piece here).

Local Government – through WALGA – has reiterated its dislike for the whole concept of Development Assessment Panels (DAPs) and so the latest reform proposal to widen the remit of the DAPs, and continue with the State development assessment pathway, is seen as further eroding the power of local governments to determine the fate of development proposals in their own back yards. And of course WALGA’s advocacy on this has been publicly backed by a number of Councils (and unlike the Premier, I will avoid pointing the finger at the western suburbs).

Community groups say that DAPs are an undemocratic process, and so the widening of their reach is a further erosion of the power of local democracy; and the media, of course, laps this up.

It makes me angry and frustrated, not because people might feel that way - that is their absolute right - but because the notion goes largely unchallenged. As a planner with many years of experience in both local government and the private sector, I don't agree with the narrative that the reforms are disempowering local democracy. So here is my response:

  1. Not all planning should be democratic.

No, not the words of Joseph Stalin. There is an indisputable need for the community to be engaged in deciding its future.

However, there is an equally compelling need for us to ensure that planning serves the needs of all of our citizens, not just the more vocal ones. This requires objectivity and balanced judgement, not political expediency.

  1. Don’t forget about our future communities

Town Planning has many purposes, but one of its most important responsibilities is to plan for the communities of the future – to guide growth in housing, employment and amenities for families who don’t yet exist – while preserving, as much as possible the quality of life for those who do.

  1. Grass roots politics is strongly biased towards those who oppose change

In very simple terms, there are many people within a community who will not like change in any form; others who will embrace it positively, and the large bunch in the middle who range between mildly annoyed by, ambivalent to, or don’t mind, proposals for change. But it is the opponents to change who are the most motivated to speak out – and they do so, usually in civil and respectful ways, but sometimes the debate is more aggressive and intimidating. Local Government councillors will react to those who make noise, perhaps believing that they represent the majority view of their constituents, or just knowing that they are the ones who will be most aggrieved if they don’t get their way. Such is the nature of grass roots democracy

It is for this reason that grass roots democracy is not a sound process for making decisions on individual development proposals.

The planning process IS democratic – where it counts

Gabriel Metcalf – Urban Planner and former CEO of the Committee of Sydney wrote:

“Transportation and land use decisions should be informed by rigorous knowledge of demography, ecology, engineering architecture, economics, urban design and other disciplines.

“But no one anymore believes that technical experts should be empowered to make major decisions. The paternalism of the “technocratic” model that brought us urban renewal, nuclear power, and traffic engineering has been ruthlessly criticized over the past half century. What had been presented as simply technical work in the public interest turned out to involve subjective values and choices—the designation of winners and losers, the choosing among various possible paths for our society. It has become common sense that these major decisions require public debate, that they should be made democratically, rather than being left to the experts.”

Major decisions on land use and transportation are made through strategic planning. It is important that our strategic planning frameworks are a mirror of the values, goals and aspirations of our society – subject to one underlying non-negotiable condition: that ‘no change’ is not an option. It is a fundamental principle that the community should have a say in how our neighbourhoods, towns and cities evolve and grow, and it is for this reason that the community is always engaged in the strategic planning process.

Strategic planning is aimed at guiding growth to be as socially and economically beneficial and environmentally sustainable as possible – an enormous challenge because of the many conflicting pressures, not to mention very diverse community expectations (eg we need to reduce urban sprawl to save trees, but you can’t put those apartments here because it will harm my neighbourhood).

Strategic Planning is the democratic part of the decision-making process where it is important that societal expectations are known, mapped out and used to formulate planning frameworks. It is equally important that those frameworks are well communicated to the community and are broadly accepted as the optimum road map for growth.

Strategic plans provide, among other things, the basis for decision-making on individual development proposals to ensure that decisions are consistent and in line with community goals and aspirations. In this respect Local Planning Strategies, structure plans and local policies do much of the heavy lifting in guiding planning decisions on development proposals. And there is a correlation between the quality of those frameworks and the quality of subsequent decisions. Good strategic plans should have the following common features:

  1. a clear appreciation of societal goals and aspirations;
  2. a clear appreciation of local issues and pain-points;
  3. a clear appreciation of broader global, social, economic and environmental influences; and
  4. a plan that displays a well-considered balance of the many factors around the above points.

It is a complex process but importantly it should create a reasonable balance of the needs and wants of our whole society, and that is why it is important that development proposals are assessed against such plans.


Development proposals that are consistent with a local planning framework should, as a general principle, be supported. However, history has shown that, where planning decisions are left to local elected bodies, decisions are too often driven by the reactions of a small cohort of local objectors

(I should stress that not all of local government is guilty of this and there are many responsible councils that do respect the primacy of the planning system that they themselves put in place).

Understanding that those who live immediately adjacent a 5 storey development proposal may be understandably upset by the impact on their amenity, this will be the case wherever you go. When a local government adopts a growth strategy, it must accept that there will be people adversely affected and aggrieved in the course of its implementation – any change is going to have that effect. There is no point in adopting a planning framework if you are going to disregard it when the inevitable objections arise.

Much of the local criticism of planning decisions made by the DAPs can be attributed to one of three things:

  1. That they did not abide by the wishes of the local objectors:  And this is the importance of the DAP system; it takes the local political pressure out of the equation. Local elected representatives still have a seat at the table and can represent the interests of their constituents, they just don’t get to have the majority say over other technical considerations.

  2. The local planning framework lacked adequate guidance: This is where local governments need to stop the rhetoric about the loss of democratic decision making – Councils still maintain the power to influence development outcomes through well-constructed local strategies and policies. It is important that the democratically informed planning frameworks provide clear and precise guidance for the decision-makers; and while the ultimate decisions may still upset some, they should respect the plan that is designed for the greater good of the whole community – both existing and future

  3. It was simply a poorly considered decision: Yes, even with all of the right ingredients DAPs can make decisions that are difficult to comprehend. In my 40 years of experience I have never known a decision- maker that doesn’t make such decisions. There is definitively room for improvement in the DAP system, however, their decisions are generally more consistent and respectful of the relevant planning framework, and far less susceptible to the influence of a vocal minority.

So, in conclusion, the messages are:

  • People definitely have a role in defining the future of their community through local planning strategies and policies that are all produced by local governments.
  • There needs to be an acceptance that planning strategies must balance many complex factors; they should strive for the best outcomes for the environment and the community as a whole, accepting that the outcomes may not suit everyone at a personal level.
  • While the planning system is designed for the benefit of the whole community, not every part of the system is democratic – guiding frameworks are informed by the wants and needs of our existing and future communities, but localized decisions on planning applications should not be open to veto by a vocal minority view to the detriment of the wider community.
  • The DAP system is a valid approach to achieving greater consistency and quality, and removing local political interference, in planning decisions. It is still not a perfect model as yet, but it is good, and we just need to constructively work towards making it the best.


Lex Barnett
Practice Fellow