It Takes a Pandemic

In times of crisis, political leaders can both surprise and impress (Morrison, McGowan) or shock and horrify (Trump, Bolsonaro). The latest impressive surprise from the McGowan government is to announce sweeping changes to planning rules affecting both minor domestic houses and large-scale commercial developments.

Whilst not law yet, despite the government’s best efforts to ram through the legislation in parliament within an hour of the press release, the changes are entirely sensible.

It is ridiculous to insist a property owner needs to obtain planning approval for small, insignificant improvements made to their homes such as the addition of a timber deck, a pergola, a garden shed or shade sail. Planning approval for such trivial matters delays the commencement of works and is unnecessarily costly; the ubiquitous KPI’s of local bureaucrats. For minor projects such as these, a building permit is surely sufficient.

Planning Minister, Rita Safiotti announced this week that once new laws pass, minor home improvements will no longer require planning approval from the local council.  As an insight into the government’s thinking, Ms Safiotti said, “you need planning approval, then the building license, so we want to eliminate planning approval where we can.” Many home owners will be buoyed by such comments. Many people may be keen to build, for example, a pergola but are put off by the expense and difficulty experienced in going through the rigid approval procedures at local councils. And some folk simply go ahead and build stuff without permission anyway, so reticent are they to deal with the local council.

Council time and effort would be better spent inspecting works completed to ensure they’re safe and built in accordance with the building licence. Local Government is generally unhappy about the changes (especially the planners) claiming a lack of consultation. To be fair though, these matters have been talked about for years and are an important part of progressing red-tape reduction.

What will worry some councils is the big ticket items such as commercial developments of greater than 20,000 sqm, projects valued at more than $30 million or residential developments of more than 100 homes effectively by-passing local government planners, going straight to the WA Planning Commission for assessment. Anti-density councils like Nedlands will be particularly concerned.

Another aspect of the proposed changes eliminates the need for small businesses to seek local government permission to change the use of a commercial space if the zoning allows for it. Changing a chiropractors into a book shop would no longer require lengthy approval processes all of which costs money and time.

Let’s hope the McGowan government continues to surprise and delight with measures designed to lift the WA economy off its knees in the wake of the corona virus pandemic. Now would be a good time to look at other impediments to economic growth and job creation by reducing the impost of stamp duty and getting rid of the abundantly stupid payroll tax.

The government is in an ideal position to make its mark on the modern history of our state. The pandemic, whilst both frightening and economically damaging, gives governments the necessary powers to make significant, meaningful and long-lasting changes that ought to be for the long-term benefit of all West Australians.

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