Online planning tools a boon for NSW councils, residents

Few things are certain in life except death, taxes and the inevitable journey of misery and frustration that follows the lodging of a development application (DA) with your local council.

But new NSW Planning and Environment Department online tools  hope to address some of this frustration by making it possible to lodge a complying development application online, find out if your building work is exmpt, check planning and development controls and track the progress of any DA.

The Department has promised a faster approval process, greater transparency of the planning process and better access to planning information that is simpler to understand. Figures released by the Department show that more than 20,000 visitors have clicked on the new ePlanning tools in the first 30 days of them becoming available.

One of these visitors was Philip Graus from Cox Richardson Architects and Planners in Sydney who told Government News that he had road tested the ePlanning tools and had been impressed.

“Like everything, planning has become more complex and we are drowning in information. The things that work well is when there’s an intelligent way to found what individual users want from the information,” Mr Graus said.

“You can find everything that applies to your house and what sort of development you want to do and it brings up quickly and simply all of the rules that apply to you. I think it’s very good. The information is clear and accurate.”

Mr Graus said it should save people time having to visit council offices, finding the right person and accessing paper files and should mean that council planners could spend more time assessing DAs and planning.

He said the ePlanning tools could be improved by providing a checklist before submitting a DA, so that people could not progress until the application was complete, and also by giving people an overview of what was going to happen in their area.

“For example, the strategic plan presented simply and thoroughly (and showing) what’s happening in the next five years where you’re going to buy so that you have a sense of the future.”

Mr Graus said it was unlikely that making it easier for people to pinpoint nearby development applications would lead to councils being buried under an avalanche of objections. He hoped the ePlanning system allowed users to access documents relevant to a DA, such as traffic reports and architects drawings, but was unsure if this was the case.

“Objections are often driven by fear. If the information is quality it should help. Hopefully it will lessen some of the uninformed objections,” he said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Local Government NSW President Keith Rhoades who agreed that  ePlanning would fundamentally transform paper-based and face-to-face transactions in the future.

“Over time, more and more on-line information and lodgement activities will become the norm for customers and users of the e-planning system. There will be time
and cost savings with ePlanning through reduced red tape, online lodgement of applications and faster approval processes,” Mr Rhoades said.

But he sounded a note of caution: “For ePlanning to work it will need a sustained commitment of funds by the State Government not only for its initial set up, but also for ongoing maintenance to
ensure its ongoing viability, licensing, compatibility with existing systems, currency of data and ownership of intellectual property.”

 The most popular ePlanning tool so far has been the Planning Viewer, which shows the planning controls that apply to individual land parcels under Local Environment Plans. You can also search for properties that match certain planning controls.

NSW Planning Minister Pru Goward said Planning Viewer had already clocked up 12,000 visitors in one month.

“People using the Planning Viewer include homeowners interested in renovating, developers looking into opportunities in different suburbs and home buyers seeking a better understanding of a particular neighbourhood,” Ms Goward said.

“By investing in this tool along with the other ePlanning tools, we’re giving the people of NSW faster access to planning rules and information such as floor space ratio, minimum lot size, or the heritage considerations of particular areas.”

Ashfield was the most searched for local government area, followed by Canterbury, Camden, City of Sydney, Port Macquarie-Hastings, Parramatta, Ryde, Great Lakes, Hornsby and Marrickville.

Ashfield Mayor Lucille McKenna said she was interested that Ashfield Council had topped the list.

“Ashfield resident are a pretty tech savvy lot and we have incredible responses to anything we put out electronically,” Ms McKenna said.

She said that recent stoushes with a small group of people opposed to the number of conservation areas and heritage listings in Ashfield, as well as a recently adopted Local Environment Plan, could also have informed the high number of visits Ashfield racked up.

“The ePlanning tools are fantastic. It’s so interactive and people are able to check things much more easily. When you have something visual it makes it much easier for people to understand,” Ms McKenna said.

“I’m really looking forward to us being able to track Das, as some of the bigger councils are doing already. It’s potentially something that the community will really like.”

But although Cr McKenna welcomed the online tools she was less sure that they would ease the planning burden on local councils to any great degree. A faster approval process is one of the benefits the Department has promised from the system.

Ashfield Council is currently developing a DA tracker and the Interactive Buildings using government funding.

Another ePlanning feature is Interactive Buildings. This allows you to click on a 3-D image of a residential, commercial and industrial building and check the development standards for common minor building work where you don’t need a DA – classed as ‘exempt’ development. Users can also pinpoint the location of current DA’s that have been lodged from mobile devices, tablets and computers.

Interactive Buildings has notched up 150 visits per day, mostly from people enquiring about fences, car ports and balconies as well as commercial and industrial change of use.

Ms Goward said the tool offered a simple visual breakdown of low impact developments exempt from planning and building approvals.

“Where a homeowner might want to erect a new fence, pave a wider driveway or build a shed in the backyard – the tool tells you exactly what you need to do to comply with the existing planning laws and avoid having to apply for building approvals,” she said.

The Electronic Housing Code System (EHCS), another part of ePlanning, allows users to determine whether the work they want to carry out falls under exempt or complying development without having to visit council offices or spend hours on the phone.

So far it has been rolled out to 89 NSW councils and the remainder should follow by the end of June 2015.

A third ePlanning tool, Local Insights, gives people access to statistics and trends in a local government area.

The NSW planning system is definitely in need of an overhaul. The average time taken for NSW councils to process applications for new housing, renovations or commercial construction was 71 days, according to 2011-12 figures from the Local Development Performance Monitoring Report Planning.

The worst performer was Botany City Council at 136 days, followed by Hurstville at 117 days, Willoughby at 111 and Mosman and North Sydney, which both took an average 109 days.

EPlanning is being rolled out to councils and the full suite of products is expected by the end of 2015. The NSW Government has put aside $21.5 million over the 2014-15 financial year for the program.

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