In this article, I'll explain the role of a town planning consultant and what you need to be asking yourself.
Town planning consultants are professionals with qualifications in town planning or urban planning.
Those in private practice have usually been employed by local councils or planning organisations for a number of years, meaning they know the process and understand how it works from the other side of the counter.
If in the past they have worked in the municipality in which you are planning to develop a project, they may also know some of the senior staff at the council as well as the elected councillors.
This can be of great benefit as they should know who is easy to get along with, who is going to be a problem and who is going to require special attention.
A town planning consultant will assist you with your project in the following ways:
1. Providing feedback during the design process
I like to get a town planner involved early in the process to view the plans and give an opinion as to their compliance with State government and local council regulations.
By getting involved early in the piece they will save you considerable costs in major redraws of plans and valuable time in assisting the process through the council maze.
2. Writing the development application
The town planner will try to pre-empt problems by addressing the council’s expectations right from the start.
They will ensure that you lodge all the necessary documentation, including a ResCode report that they produce to comply with Victorian planning regulations.
In other states, they’ll produce something like a statement of environmental impacts.
3. Handling further council requests and objections
While I prefer to tackle this role myself, I know some developers who choose to make their town planner the central point for all correspondence with the council, its planning officers and any objectors.
Council always requests further information and your town planner can prepare appropriate responses and advise the architect how to redraft plans accordingly where required.
If there are objections, your town planner can prepare appropriate responses and become your advocate, arguing the case for your project.
Some councils hold mediation meetings with objectors, the developer and council officers to try to find an acceptable solution to objectors’ concerns and in this instance, the town planner may agree to represent you.
With their in-depth knowledge of planning legislation and the rights of objectors and yourself as the applicant for the permit, they can handle the case efficiently and objectively on your behalf.
4. Handling your case in the appeals court
If your development hits a snag and ends up in the appeals court (in Victoria called VCAT and in NSW the Land and Environment Court), your planning consultant will become your expert witness and an invaluable ally.
The planning consultant will work on either an hourly rate or a set fee negotiated in advance.
Usually, they require a set fee for preparing and lodging the development application, including any written reports as required, which could be in the order of $3,000 depending upon the complexity of your project.
They may then charge an hourly rate to be involved in further negotiations with the council or objectors. Their appearance at a VCAT (court of appeal) hearing will cost you anything from $3,500 to $5,000.
- Which local authority/council will make the final decision regarding my proposed project?
- What is this council’s attitude towards development projects?
- What experience do you have with applications to this particular authority?
- Do you recommend a pre-application meeting with the council town planners? Why or why not?
- Do third parties (including neighbours) have a right to object to our proposal? If so, do you recommend neighbourhood consultation?
- How long will the Development Application process take?
- Do I have a right to appeal the council's decision?
- Do third parties (including neighbours) have a right to appeal the council’s decision?
- In the event of an appeal, where are the likely costs?
- Will there be a need for additional applications to other authorities and at what cost?
Getting Council approval often requires an enormous amount of time and patience and a diplomatic approach.
Regardless of whether you believe what you are prosing is a simple development that should have no “issues”, it can still take several months to gain approval.
If there are issues with your site or the neighbour's object, the process can become even more drawn out.
I try to resolve any planning issues early in the piece, so we will often have one or a series of pre-application meetings with the council planning officers before we submit our formal application for approval.
Note: Usually, the architect is present at these meetings, as well as a town planner for more complicated projects.
It makes sense to try to reduce the time spent on the formal application process and these more informal meetings can certainly address and resolve some issues.
They are usually held while the project is still at the concept stage and input from the council can be taken into consideration before the final plans are drawn.
This is different to the approach that a lot of developers who submit their plans to the council take, with the attitude, “I am a developer and this is what I want.”
Note: All this really does is get planners offside from word go and can make the entire process even more of a grind.
I find a better approach is: “This is what I plan to do and this is how it will be of benefit. What do you think of my proposal? Are there any suggestions or improvements you could make?”
The latter standpoint indicates your willingness to listen to the planners and take their ideas on board, rather than fight them tooth and nail throughout the entire ordeal.
Trust me, it is looked upon much more favourably and can make your life as a developer a lot easier.
While many people consider council planning officers to be lazy, difficult people who are anti-development, my experience is that in general, they are hard-working professionals who are underpaid and understaffed.
They have an unenviable workload and struggle with high levels of pressure from their senior officers and elected council officials.
If you develop a good relationship with them they can help you quickly navigate your way through the council application maze.
It is important to treat these professionals with the respect they deserve because they hold a lot of power when it comes to your development application.
Note: The key to the entire planning or development approval process is to make it as efficient and straightforward as possible.
Try not to ruffle too many feathers when it comes to dealing with the bureaucrats who can give your project the final seal of approval.
I have seen many developers burn bridges within local authorities and it is only ever to their own detriment and the detriment of their development career.
Tips: At all times remain professional, remain objective and most importantly, remain patient and open-minded.
In the next article of our small development series, Bryce will take a closer look at how to minimise risk by undertaking a detailed feasibility study.