1. The Department of Planning (DoP) releases annual comparative data on the development assessment functions of Councils. The report titled ‘Local Government Development Performance Monitoring 2007-2008’ was released on 3 November 2008 and provides comparative data for the 2007/2008 financial year.
2. The report showed that both the gross and net processing times for DAs at Parramatta City Council were well above the NSW state average. The NSW net mean processing time for DAs is 46 days compared with Parramatta City Council’s 75 days. Clearly this is unacceptable and needs to be addressed.
3. In light of this report, Council resolved on 10 November 2008 to set itself the goal of being the most efficient metropolitan Council in NSW in processing development applications.
4. Council staff and Councillors participated in a workshop on 19 November 2008 to discuss development application processing and administration issues with the aim of identifying ways in which processing times and customer service could be improved. A number of issues were discussed including internal process reviews, staff delegations, site meeting processes, notifications DCP, lodgement requirements and quality of DA submissions, better engagement with our customers such as developer industry forums and customer feedback surveys.
5. It must be stated that the development assessment process is a complex one and in the case of Parramatta City Council, not one single solution to the various issues outlined above, will necessarily address all problems satisfactorily. This report identifies some potential solutions as a package to improve both processing times and customer service. This should be an ongoing process of refinement. It should also be noted that paramount in the development assessment process is the imperative to ensure good governance. Good governance of the process should not be compromised in the pursuit of reducing processing times.
INTERNAL PROCESS REVIEW
Fast tracking of minor DAs
6. Council has committed to the timely determination of development applications for the construction of single dwellings where the applicant may be eligible for the First Home Owner Boost Scheme. Administrative changes and changes to delegations and the site meeting process have been made to facilitate this.
7. There is no reason why this approach can not be used for other minor applications such as swimming pools, garages, carports, awnings, decks, pergolas, change of use etc that are not heritage items, located in heritage conservation zones or flood affected zones. To facilitate the timely assessment of these applications, it is proposed to establish a new fast track service where determinations of minor DAs will be made within 35 days.
8. Applicants at the time of lodgement for these minor DAs will be asked to identify if they would like their DA to be assessed under the fast track DA service. To be eligible for this service, the applicant must ensure that all of the documentation required to assess the DA is submitted at the time of lodgement. Incomplete applications will not be accepted.
9. Applications will then be assessed on the information that is submitted at the time of lodgement. No requests for additional information will be made by staff nor will the applicant be given an opportunity to amend the plans if non-compliances with Council’s controls or other merit issues are identified. Determinations will be made on the basis of the information lodged to Council and within the 35 day time period.
10. Administrative changes will be necessary to facilitate the fast track service. Some changes may include:
§ Marketing and publicising these proposed changes to ensure potential applicants are made aware of the changes
§ Identification at lodgement of DA of ‘Fast track DA’ and file is marked accordingly;
§ Review by team leader within 2 days of lodgement to determine neighbour notification required;
§ Immediate referral of DA to a planner (following review by team leader) for assessment;
§ Site inspection is to take place within 7 days of lodgement of DA;
§ Assessment of the application is to be carried out during the 14 day neighbour notification period; and
§ Delegated authority apply to such applications even in the event of 7 or more objections being received.
11. The DA process is a complex one and often a range of expert advice is required to complete the assessment of a DA. However referrals both to internal and external stakeholders can impact on the processing time for DAs. Most external referrals are required by legislation and there are provisions to ‘stop the clock’ if these external agencies require additional information. However, there are opportunities for staff to manage the response times from internal stakeholders better.
12. At present, internal stakeholders are required to provide comments or conditions they wish to be incorporated into a development consent within 21 days. Often this time limit is not met, with assessment staff spending a lot of time chasing up these referrals. To address this problem, staff within the Development Services Unit will meet with all of the internal stakeholders and relevant managers and advise them of the corporate priority that has been set for DA processing times and that it is essential for any comments to be made within the deadline that has been established.
13. These meetings will also be used to establish what referrals are needed and where it is determined that referrals are no longer needed or are not adding any value to the development assessment process, advice will not be sought.
14. It is also proposed to reduce the turnaround time for referrals from 21 days to 14 days. A set of standard conditions will be developed with the internal stakeholders that will ensure that if the referral comments are not received within the 14 day period, the assessment officers can impose standard conditions.
Clearing House and Peer Review
15. A preliminary assessment of each DA is carried out within 7 days of lodgement at ‘Clearing House’. Clearing House meetings are held twice weekly and attended by the 2 development assessment team leaders, development support staff and technical support staff such as development engineers and landscape officers. It is in these meetings that notifications of DAs is prepared and major issues or deficiencies in the information submitted with DAs are identified. This process by no means provides a comprehensive assessment of the application, nor does it seek to replace the detailed assessment that is required, however, applicants are given timely feedback on whether there are issues and additional information is required.
16. There are, however, times when issues are not being identified until the end of the assessment process when applications are being peer reviewed by managers. The identification of issues late in the assessment process leads to time delays and poor delivery of customer service. To address this issue, the team leaders will identify all applications which have been considered by clearing house and which seek significant departures from Council’s planning controls and the applications will be reviewed by the service manager and unit manager to provide expert advice on the application. The meeting is not intended to circumvent the assessment process however, technical advice will be provided early in the assessment process rather than in the late stages.
17. It may also be possible to convert the “Clearing House” process to a pre DA type meeting where formal applications are lodged without payment and staff consider whether the DA is deficient in either information or has fundamental problems. If the application appears complete without fundamental problems, the applicant will be asked to make payment and the formal process can commence. Staff will further consider the feasibility of this in the coming weeks.
“Blitz” on DAs over 80 days
18. At the time of writing this report, 17% of all outstanding DAs awaiting determination have been in the system for 80 days or more (net time). The statutory requirement for determination is 40 days, after which applications are “deemed” to be refused and may be taken to Court for determination. Staff have recently commenced a process of prioritising these older applications to move them out of the system. As staff move systematically through these applications, it is conceivable that statistically, the assessment determination times may deteriorate before improving.
19. It is important for customer service reasons, that older applications be determined without further delay. In some instances, this will mean that some of these applications may be refused.
20. Pre lodgement meetings are an extremely useful way of ensuring that development applications are prepared which comply with Council polices as far as possible. Early feedback on development proposals seeks to iron out obvious problems before applications are lodged.
21. In attempting to streamline this important process, staff have commenced working towards achieving:
§ formal minutes of pre lodgements being referred to applicants within 3 working days, and
§ pre lodgement meetings being organised within 3 days of being requested.
22. These initiatives have just commenced and have experienced a few teething issues, however, staff are confident that these will be running more efficiently in the very near future and meet the service standards as outlined above.
Incomplete and Deficient DAs
23. Council staff have often assisted applicants, especially for “mums and dads” type DAs, to work towards approval. Sometimes this means being patient whilst additional information is submitted. This impacts upon processing times.
24. There is a need for Council to have a policy position on incomplete or deficient DAs to provide staff some guidance on how to balance customer service with the need to process DAs efficiently. It is proposed to prepare such a policy and report to Council early in 2008 seeking guidance on this issue.
25. Effective delegations are important in the efficiency of the development assessment process. It is necessary to delegate to staff the function of determining development applications because of the sheer volume of applications that Council received each year. However, it should be noted that whether a development application is determined on the floor of Council or under staff delegation, the application must be assessed under the same rules and is subject to the same legal scrutiny.
26. The Department of Planning report ‘Local Government Development Performance Monitoring 2007-2008’ identified that the NSW average for the referral of DAs to elected representatives for determination was 3.6% of all DAs. In Parramatta, this figure is 14.6% which represented 166 DAs. This figure is far higher than the state average and far higher than that of adjoining Councils, with Ryde Council being the second highest adjoining Council with 7.7% (70 DAs) of its DAs being referred to Council. The preparation of Council agendas and lead times required for determination at a Council meeting represents an additional 3 or so weeks to the processing times of DAs. Many of these DAs are adopted without discussion or debate. Council adopts the staff recommendation in the vast majority of cases.
27. The current triggers for a DA being referred to Council for determination are:
§ 3 or more objections received
§ Child care centres
§ Heritage items
§ Variation of more than 10% to a standard under the City Centre LEP 2007
§ Council (pecuniary) interest
§ Made by a member of staff or Councillor.
§ Section 82A reviews of determination.
28. As discussed above, many of the staff recommendations to Council are adopted without discussion or debate therefore, it needs to be questioned why these are being referred to Council for determination. It is recommended that the delegations be amended to ensure the triggers for referral to Council are:
§ 7 or more objections received.
§ Variation of more than 10% to a standard under the City Centre LEP 2007
§ Council (pecuniary) interest.
§ Made by a member of staff or Councillor.
§ Section 82A reviews of determination.
§ Demolition of heritage items.
§ Places of public worship, brothels, massage parlours, restricted premises, tattooists and sex service premises.
29. The proposed increase to the number of objections received from 3 to 7 is reflective of a slightly wider neighbourhood interest than the current 3 being required before being determined by Council. The current trigger of 3 objections catches too many small applications that can be adequately dealt with by staff.
30. It is also proposed to remove the current trigger of all applications that relate to a heritage item as they also catch fairly minor applications which are often adopted without discussion. In their place, it is proposed to include the demolition of heritage items as a trigger for referral.
31. During the Councillor workshop, a suggestion was made that places of public worship should be referred to Council for determination given the likelihood of neighbourhood impacts.
32. Brothels, massage parlours, restricted premises, sex service premises and tattooists have been challenging applications for staff to deal with given the innuendo surrounding the processing of these application following the 2007 ICAC enquiry into the Regulation of Brothels in Parramatta. For this reason, it is recommended that Council determine all such applications. It is noted that on 21 November 2008, the CEO directed that such applications be referred to Council for determination notwithstanding the current delegated authority of staff.
33. In addition to these delegations, it is proposed that applications for child care centres should not be referred to the Traffic Committee for comment. The Traffic Committee meets every 2 months and this creates a substantial delay in determination times for these types of applications. The Traffic Committee is not in a position to constructively comment on this type of assessment as this sits outside of the Committee's capacity to add value to the DA process.
Consideration of Objections
34. There has been much discussion about how objections should be dealt with. Of concern are issues relating to how:
§ “irrelevant” objections
§ objections from persons who live a long way away from the proposed development site
35. are considered and dealt with. During the workshop with Councillors, many opinions were expressed about how to deal with these types of objections. The problem with attempting to discern between relevant objections or even objections that are from some distance away, is that there is a level of judgement that needs to be exercised.
36. It is problematic to establish a set of rules that categorises objections and raises the potential to do objectors a disservice. Council staff should not be asked to discern between different “types” of objections. However, in the standard notification letter which provides advice to local residents about what are relevant matters to consider when making a submission additional advice could be provided which makes it clear that when a person is making a submission on a DA which is located a considerable distance from their residence or property in which they own that they need to establish the nature of the impact upon the amenity or disruption to the enjoyment of the neighbourhood.
37. Other suggestions included making people more accountable for their submissions or standardising objections by way of form that could be downloaded from the PCC website. It should be stressed that many people making a submission to Council in response to DAs, enter into a somewhat foreign process. Council should endeavour to facilitate views being expressed as easily as possible. There is no doubt that from time to time, submissions are received that may be irrelevant or even mischievous, however, staff’s experience is that the vast majority of objections received attempt to express a genuine view or concern. Council should continue to facilitate a process that makes it as easy as possible to make submissions.
38. Council has previously resolved to consider signatories to a petition as individual submissions. This is a matter for consideration for deciding whether individual DAs have triggered referral to Council by virtue of whether 3 or more objections have been made. Whilst it is arguable whether a name on a petition should carry the same weight as an individually written objection, it remains that individual signatories to petitions are expressing a point of view regardless of whether they have taken the trouble of writing an individual submission. Similarly, it would be far too subjective to require that staff determine whether the individual submissions have been collected without the signatories making a commitment to the essence of the petition.
39. A reform that should be considered is individual households being considered as single objections rather than individual occupants making submissions being considered separate objections. This way, an individual household with the requisite number of objections as the trigger for consideration by Council, cannot skew this trigger. For example, a single occupancy household with a particular objection should not have less weight than a household with the same objection, but which has managed, say 4 objections, because more people live there.
40. Site meetings prior to the determination of DAs have various benefits to stakeholders but they do cost significant time, resources and money to conduct. Between February 2008 and October 2008, 62 on site meetings were held. Attendance numbers are variable depending on the nature of the application and the issues at hand. Staff estimate that on site meetings delay the processing of DAs by at least 4 weeks.
41. At present the triggers that require an on site meeting are:
§ 7 or more submissions received
§ Master plan applications
§ Demolition of heritage items
§ Child care centres
§ Brothels, massage parlours etc.
§ All hotels
§ 2 or more Cllrs request one or staff organise request
42. This report recommends that rather than basing these triggers on types of applications, it would be sensible for the triggers to relate to community and local interest which is measured by the number of objections received. For example, there have been many examples in the last 12 months where staff have attended site meetings and because the site meeting has been triggered by one of the factors above other than the number of objections received, no residents or Councillors have attended. This clearly is not an efficient use of resources and delays the assessment of DAs.
43. This report recommends that the trigger for on site meetings should be 10 or more objections as this is likely to be a measure of significant local interest. It will be also recommended that the triggers for 2 Councillors require an on site meeting continue to apply so that in the event of the 10 submissions not being met and in the opinion of Councillors, an on site meeting is appropriate, the opportunity to arrange an on site meeting would still apply.
44. At present, Council requires that the date and time for all on site meetings be endorsed by the elected Council. This approach causes delays for applicants where the meeting can be organised more efficiently by staff once the triggers have been met. It is recommended that this current practice be suspended and staff arrange the dates and times for site meetings in accordance with the agreed days and times previously endorsed by Council i.e., Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. All Councillors will be advised once the meetings have been arranged.
CUSTOMER ENGAGEMENT & SATISFACTION
45. Regular industry meetings with local architects, designers and users of the development assessment process, were conducted some years ago but stopped over the last few years. These types of exchanges between Council and users of the system, provided a valuable regular forum to receive feedback as well as information sharing. These forums should be re-introduced to provide for this opportunity on a 6 monthly basis commencing in early 2009.
46. As with any improvement process, it is important to monitor performance and revisit to make continual improvement. There is no question that the improvements and initiatives outlined in this report will need review and refinement over time. In addition, there may be additional matters that Council may wish to test and employ to reduce processing times and improve customer service in the future. It is proposed that a report be prepared for Council in 6 months time to deliver an initial performance summary of the proposals described and allow Council to make further changes and refinements as required.
47. It is further proposed that staff prepare monthly reports for Council identifying number of DAs in the system, median processing times, trends over time and other statistics that will keep Council informed of key statistics in DA processing and administration issues.