Cultural Change Intrinsic to Development Assessment Reform

Cultural Change Intrinsic to Development Assessment Reform

The Queensland planning system has undergone a number of legislative and operational reforms over the last 20 years. In this sense, the concept of ‘planning reform’ is not a new one for the state.

Some of Queensland’s changes to the planning system have included transitions between the overarching legislative framework – from the Local Government (Planning and Environment) Act 1990 to the Integrated Planning Act 1997 and now the Sustainable Planning Act 2009.

Other reform throughout Queensland has been occurring at a more regional or localised level, often responding to the changes at state level. Arguably, the most significant reform in planning has been undertaken in the development assessment space, particularly in South East Queensland led by the Council of Mayors (SEQ).

The Development Assessment (DA) branches within local authorities have experienced significant pressure from the private sector and state agencies to change their business models and operational functions so that they better align with the state planning reform agenda they operate under.

Reform in DA has largely comprised of process improvements in order to make it more efficient and cost effective. Some of the most noteworthy changes in the DA reform agenda have included the production of a number of tools, processes and operational reform programs, with an underlying focus on risk management.

This focus on risk management has been at the heart of cultural change in local government, and remains at the forefront of DA reform.

What has been done so far?

There has been a team consistently working with local government through the business planning, process change and cultural shift since 2005.  The team, consisting of business planning experts, engineers, and town planners, has been able to provide an independent perspective on their work and draw on their collective private and public sector work experiences. The centre of the cultural change dimension has included collaboration, innovation and adoption of best practice.

PD Online and RiskSmart were the first projects in the DA planning reform journey and represented the first major effort to create a regional solution to streamlining the development assessment process and integrate risk management philosophies throughout local governments.

PD Online allowed paper-based maps, applications, and planning schemes to be viewed online, changing the way planners view strategic planning documents and track development applications. It also introduced a landmark opportunity for the community to easily and freely access the same information and be informed about development activity in their neighbourhoods and suburbs.

RiskSmart has also had a major influence on the development industry, allowing some low-risk applications to be assessed and decided quickly. ULDA’s streamlined model was formed based on the RiskSmart setup, demonstrating the success of the project. Furthermore, the project team recognised the potential for this risk-based assessment methodology and secured funding through the Australian Government’s Housing Affordability Fund for the Target 5 Days (T5) initiative.

T5’s purpose was to improve housing affordability through the implementation of process reform activities for low risk residential development applications in SEQ. Specifically, T5 aimed to deliver a 75 percent reduction in assessment timeframes for 95 percent of residential applications in the region.

Working closely with councils and industry, the T5 project team implemented an assessment process and supporting tools that slashed assessment timeframes for low risk applications to just five days, and less than 20 days for more complex applications.

The success of implementing this risk management framework was due to the fact that quantity was not a substitute for quality. Supporting risk frameworks were designed to identify what needed protecting for specific and common types of development, something which planning schemes struggle to achieve.

The completion of the project coincided with the Queensland Government’s 2011 Building Revival Forum. RiskSmart and T5 delivered impressive results for low risk developments and offered huge economic and financial benefits to the struggling construction sector.

The project team recognised that these streamlined and risk-based assessment principles could be applied to more complex residential development types and the Development Assessment Process Reform – Operational Works and Large Subdivisions (DAPR-OWLS) project was established.

Led by the Council of Mayors (SEQ) and the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ), the aim of the project was to deliver a minimum 25 percent reduction in assessment timeframes for these application types whilst maintaining quality planning outcomes.

The DAPR-OWLS project team was set an ambitious 12 month timeframe to work with fourteen high growth councils and the Queensland development industry to establish a new approval process for large residential subdivisions (greater than 20 lots) and the majority of operational works.

After 12 months of effort, the team successfully delivered solutions that have seen three and 20-day timeframes (from an average of 365[1] business days) for at least two pilot subdivision projects in Townsville and the Gold Coast as well as a number of Operational Works applications approved in 2 days in Logan City Council.

The principles of streamlining development applications are consistent across different development types: speeding up decisions, lowering holding and processing costs, and ensuring all relevant information and risks are captured and addressed. The process to achieve these goals varies depending on the size of the development.

Unlike RiskSmart, which is modelled on checklists, streamlining complicated subdivision applications relies on a collaborative effort from all parties and early resolution of issues.  This is achieved by front-ending the application process and providing a formalised pre-application stage where all parties (applicant, council, internal and external referrals) sign an MOU to agree to the ground rules for collaboration.  They then set about systematically working through all the issues for the application before any hard and fast design decisions are locked in. By doing this early, Council and the applicant are able to solve issues early and with less difficulty than the traditional IDAS process.

What is happening now?

Capitalising on this previous reform activity, the Council of Mayors (SEQ) and LGAQ jointly funded a smaller team to continue the Planning Reform journey in Queensland Councils.  This team has worked with Industry and Councils to develop a Framework of Leading Practice which outlines an approach to describe and measure a leading practice Development Assessment business aimed at achieving outcomes that benefit Council, community and industry.

The Framework provides a structure to describe the DA business along with criteria that helps profile what an essential, advanced and premium level of service looks like. With this framework the Councils are able to measure their current operations against these criteria to determine where they are now, where they want to be in the future (at a certain point in time) and how they will set about getting there through a business plan.

The framework also helps normalise Councils of different sizes and complexity to provide a consistent view of different improvement approaches and solutions that can be shared across the state delivering efficiency and reducing the effort for Councils and industry to improve.

Through the numerous improvement projects funded by Federal, State and Local government, the Planning Reform team are able to help Councils determine which of these improvements will advance the Council to their target in the Framework without having to reinvent the wheel.

Outcomes of planning reform in Queensland

Our planning system in Queensland has grown to have an adversarial dynamic between Council and Applicant. We have created a culture geared towards refusal and non-standard applications, which is not reflective of the vast majority of applications.

In each of the projects above, the team has undertaken reviews of over two thousand development application files across Queensland. In a lot of cases, applications are straightforward and the vast majority are approved. With the facts, gathered through an evidence based approach of reading DA files cover to cover, we are able to determine where delays are, what causes them and how to remove them.

Debunking the myths in the DA industry has provided sound basis for planning reform in Queensland. Much of this reform has been about changing the perspectives of DA Stakeholders, understanding the reality of the application journey, and understanding the level of risk for different applications. Above everything though, changing the culture of the industry has been at the fore.

There is not a silver bullet solution for planning reform, but there are solutions.  Most solutions are process based, yet they only work if supported by the right culture.  Having a process to enable an applicant and Council to engage in a formalised Pre-Application stage (Development Partnership Process) works in theory, but if both parties are not willing to work collaboratively and share some level of trust and enthusiasm for the outcome then no amount of formality and process will help.

Applicant and Council problem solving in a Development Partnership workshop

The project team witnessed the attitudinal change between Councils, applicants and referral agencies in the pilot projects during DAPR-OWLS.  People became more positive and more engaged and a visible and mutual attachment to achieving a great outcome was evident.

In the T5 project, many thought a five-day turnaround was impossible, but it is now a reality and some Councils have now reduced it further to 48 hours.

So, while there is no doubt that these improvements have had a positive impact on timeframes and therefore more attractive for developers, the most significant outcome has been the fundamental change in the culture of all parties – Councils, Applicants and Referrals. There is a greater appreciation for the challenges faced by participants and a greater ability to deliver quality outcomes in an efficient and rewarding way.

[1] This figure was calculated by averaging the assessment timeframe from properly made to decision from applications surveyed in participating Councils.

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