To preserve and improve the social, cultural, economic and environmental well being of Inner South Canberra and the Inner South Canberra Community.

Outcry over broken planning rules

From the ABC 21 May 2013

Residents, planners and engineers are calling for changes to ACT laws that allow developments which defy planning regulations.

Under the current planning system, a house can be built in an existing residential area without development approval, provided a private building certifier checks it complies with certain rules.

The regulations are intended to ensure new houses do not have a significant impact on nearby residents.

But there has been a number of developments go ahead recently that do not comply.

Gary Kent from the Inner South Community Council says private certifiers are not doing their job properly and the system needs to be fixed.

“Our concerns are that exempt developments are leading to very poor outcomes for residents,” he said.

There has been a series of questionable developments slip through the system in the past few years.

In one case in Yarralumla, a private building certifier allowed the demolition of half a duplex to proceed in the exempt track, giving the adjoining neighbours no opportunity to comment.

The demolition work left gaping holes in the half left standing, forcing the family that lived there to move away.

Ted Streatfield from Resolution Planning says more than 50 per cent of exempt developments do not comply with the code.

“There aren’t enough checks and balances to make sure the things are exempt and to protect the interests of neighbours,” he said.

Questionable qualifications

The exempt track was introduced in 2008 to speed-up development approvals after the building industry complained that the ACT Planning and Land Authority (ACTPLA) was taking too long to give the green light to simple, uncontentious projects.

Mr Kent says the certifier’s role is important and should be controlled by ACTPLA.

“If certifiers are not doing their job, they should not be doing the work,” he said.

Jerry Howard from the Master Builders Association says errors are made occasionally, but it is not a serious problem.

“This is no different if it’s done by the private sector or the planning authority,” he said.

ACTPLA says most building certifiers are doing a good job and that they take action against those that do not follow the rules.

The planning authority says 10 per cent of every certifier’s work is audited and demerit points are issued for mistakes.

All building certifiers working in the ACT must be registered with ACTPLA and can have their licences suspended or cancelled as a result of transgressions.

ACTPLA also says certifiers caught not complying with the code can be sent for retraining or have the type of work they can do restricted to simpler jobs.

One such certifier, who has twice been caught signing-off on buildings that do not comply with the code, was responsible for certifying the Yarralumla duplex demolition.

Mike Hettinger from North Canberra Community Council says the process is flawed.

“ACTPLA doesn’t seem to be doing the regulating that we would expect them to do,” he said.

Peter Wurfel from the Deakin Residents Association agrees, and is calling for an embargo on exempt developments for three years until the process can be put right.

“A pillar to that is to ensure that building certifiers are properly schooled and trained,” he said.

The Institute of Engineers is also concerned about the issue.

President of the body’s Canberra division Andrew Montgomery says at the moment the legislation is loose.

“We need to make it so that people can develop, but not at the expense of neighbours,” he said.

No consultation

Under the exempt track, owners are not required to consult with the neighbours about their plans.

ACTPLA strongly encourages consultation, but the regulations only require that neighbours are notified that construction work will start seven days before it begins.

“The most important function of the planning system is to balance competing interests,” said planning consultant Jane Goffman.

In her view, the current system of allowing certifiers hired by the owner to sign-off on developments allows for conflicts of interest to arise and is leading to serious abuse.

“It’s all very nice and neat in theory to say that if the quantitative rules in the code are met that the development complies and will be acceptable,” she said.

“Of course what that’s ignoring is that unless there’s external scrutiny of the plans, there’s no one to say that the numerical controls have been met, other than the certifier.”