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Less is more

By Ross Elliott - posted Friday, 9 March 2012


The failure of the Queensland Government's 'building boost' to stimulate much activity in the housing construction market proves how hopelessly distracted and flawed policy making has become. This paltry and temporary $10,000 grant to buyers of new housing was supposed to make up for stamp duty hikes and more than a decade of rising regulatory, planning and tax burdens on development which have pushed new home prices skyward. It was never going to work. But the question is, what will?

It's increasingly looking like a Liberal National Party Government will take the reins at the end of March, and when they do they'll likely be under considerable pressure to cut taxes in a range of areas - property development and construction included. But the state of the economy and Queensland's finances are unlikely to permit anything much in the way of big tax reduction measures. The state budget has in the last decade become increasingly dependent on property for revenue to the point that a now weakened property sector (itself the result of over regulation and excessive taxation) is having a magnified effect on the state's finances. This makes it harder to offer immediate tax relief, however deserved that might be.

There is another lever, though, and one I suspect could have a significant and immediate impact on stimulating development and housing construction, and injecting some mojo into the lacklustre economy generally. A quick and severe curtailment of the regulatory shemozzle that passes for development assessment in Queensland today might just do the trick.

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As The Pulse has noted before, it's hard to point to anything positive that's been gained over the last 15 years as regulatory and process-driven paroxysm enveloped the entire domain of planning and urban development. It now costs much more and takes much longer to do the same thing, in a much less certain (indeed now highly confused) policy environment, than it did 10 or 15 years ago. Simply knowing what can and can't be done on a particular piece of land is a harder question to answer than it used to be.

This extends even to people's houses. Relatively simple modifications can now be deemed 'impact assessable' under the Sustainable Planning Act, requiring applications to Council and public notification. The prescribed form of public notice actively invites people to 'Have your say'. There's one of these in my neighbourhood right now – a homeowner wants to knock down part of their house for an extension. I am invited, under SPA, to 'have my say.'

But is it any of my business? It's their house on their land, not mine. Provided they comply with whatever building codes apply, why am I being invited to comment on their proposal? Consultation on the planning scheme, when originally drafted, and the codes that make it work, would have been my opportunity to 'have my say'. It's absurd to think we have some right to have our say at every stage of the process – from regional planning to local planning and even to individual applications. Little wonder we're in the mess we're in.

Here's what The Act says about public notification:

The purpose of public notification processes is to inform the community and relevant stakeholders of the proposal and to give them the opportunity to:

  • make submissions, including objections, that must be taken into account before the application is decided

  • secure, for those that make a properly made submission, the right to appeal to the court about the assessment manager's decision if they disagree with part or all of the decision.

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Maybe we've been lulled into some sense of entitlement that we have the right to object to pretty much anything people propose to do on their land, even if it complies with the intention of the planning scheme. This is just one example of where processes within processes make outcomes so much harder, and costlier.

Cutting red tape in planning and development assessment is virtually a no-cost way to stimulate the development and construction sector. It's also been identified by the LNP as a priority, should they win the election in March. In theory, it should be relatively simple. We could start, for example, with a charter of plain English, such that planning schemes will spell out in simple, clear language what is intended in defined areas in the community. The tortured syntax which requires the expensive assistance of a planning consultant or lawyer to decipher can go the way of the waste bin. But doing things in theory is easier than doing things in the real world.

How would the community react, for example, if we committed to our planning schemes in plain English terms, setting out, unambiguously and up front what's intended and what's not? The community has their say, but once enacted, the scheme and its regulations are no longer subject to 'have your say' (again) opportunities on individual applications. If land has been 'zoned' (an old term, which ought to make a comeback in our plain English charter) for townhouses, for example, and someone wants to develop townhouses on their land, then they can get on with it. You can't have two bites at the cherry. If you don't like the plan and what it's producing, or you change your mind, exercise your vote at the next election.

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This article was first published on The Pulse.



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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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