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SA's chronic planning problems need to be fixed


The State Government’s planning reforms are needed to help out ordinary South Australians, not just the big end of town, argues David Homburg from the Australian Institute of Architects.

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In late 2015 the State Government sought to amend the Development Act to reform how planning policy and assessment is undertaken in South Australia.

Central to this reform is how and when people are involved in the deliberations about how their neighbourhoods might evolve, and so it was disappointing that the parliamentary debate ended without conclusion late last year.

There’s much to like about what has been tabled by Planning Minister John Rau, and as a package it will deal with some of chronic problems that currently beset our system here in South Australia.

The consultation process that led to the preparation of the new Act was comprehensive. The Australian Institute of Architects participated in consultations that took place over a two year period, led by the Expert Panel on Planning Reform.

During that time, we were working side by side with both community organisations, other professional peak bodies and development industry representatives in tabling and debating ideas and positions.

Many of the structures that are now contained in the legislation were a result of this process, including the idea of a Community Charter that is intended to guide consultation within the development system.

Our members and their clients are constantly frustrated by a process where the ‘rule book’ (Development Plans) permit a particular type of development, but the assessment panels make their own determinations, sometimes with only cursory regard to the ‘rules’.

One of the main objections from lobby groups during the Parliamentary debate was the removal of elected members from the development assessment process. It has typically been characterised as a blow to democracy. This needn’t be the case provided that community participation is robust, genuine and meaningful at the time when it can be most effective, that is during the preparation of planning policy.

If implemented properly, a Community Charter will comprehensively address this concern.

So what’s wrong with the current system?

The system is, quite frankly, policy development on the run. Debates that should be happening at a policy level are happening on an application by application basis, with the community ostensibly being represented by elected members. It doesn’t work, and it asks a lot of our local councillors.

Our members and their clients are constantly frustrated by a process where the ‘rule book’ (Development Plans) permit a particular type of development, but the assessment panels make their own determinations, sometimes with only cursory regard to the ‘rules’.

These clients range from large developers through to people simply trying to build an extension to their house. By far the most complaints that we hear are at the ‘mum and dad’ end of the spectrum, not the so-called big end of town.

What they are experiencing is akin to a professional team preparing for a game of “football” only to find out on game day that the rules are actually soccer when they were led to believe they were Aussie Rules. And that some of the officials have no formal accreditation in either code.

We have also been hearing in recent times that some metropolitan councils are refusing to discuss proposals with applicants until they have been lodged. This is disturbing. Good design requires discussion, review and refinement in order to arrive at the best outcome for everyone. To refuse to discuss proposals until they are lodged is to invite poor outcomes.

So what should we be doing?

What needs to happen instead is that we engage in a community-wide discussion at the time when planning and precinct policy is set. We need to become far more sophisticated in conducting these discussions so that we get the right outcomes for our cities and towns. After all, planning policy is a design process in itself.

The design of good policy should start at the community level through a robust design-based consultation processes. The Institute has been advocating for this throughout the review conducted by the Expert Panel on Planning Reform.

Any good design process starts with a design team guiding the initial thoughts in order to define the problem, engaging the input and opinions of stakeholders. This is then fashioned into propositions for testing with stakeholders, selection of a preferred option and refinement to a final proposal. It is an iterative process of Ask, Propose, Listen, Test, Listen and Refine.

We rarely do this in public consultation in city planning. Rather a proposition is developed to a point where any influence is tokenistic at best – it can only lead to cynicism in the system.

The key difference in design-based consultation is that input is sought and stakeholders are able to influence the outcome. But they are also exposed to the challenges and complexities inherent in design. To provide meaningful input, they are required to address the challenges as well as advocate their own thoughts.

This process should form the basis of the Community Charter.

Once the community as a whole has defined and agreed the policy for an area, it can then be implemented by appropriately qualified design professionals and planners, using the rules that have been defined during the policy development.

This is a far more robust process than having elected members interpret policy on a development by development basis (it is also arguably an unfair and unrealistic burden to be placing on them).

So rather than focussing on an apparent loss of democracy, and therefore blocking the passage of the new Development Act through parliament, the focus should be on ensuring that the community involvement and engagement is as robust, genuine and sophisticated as possible at the time that policy is set – this is the point where we as citizens can have the most influence over how our built environment is developed.

David Homburg is the President of the SA Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects.

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