When performing well, land use planning can be highly effective in balancing our often competing social, environmental and economic needs. Its founding principles remain true today as they did over a century ago, with planning offering solutions to modern day challenges such as responding to climate change, or our shifting population demographics to deliver healthier and more effective communities.

But how effective is our current planning system? Is it delivering housing typologies that satisfy our evolving population needs? Are responses to environmental challenges such as bushfire risks appropriate? Are communities well served by employment and social infrastructure? How efficient is the decision making process?

Many would consider the answers to these and other questions indicate that our planning system could do better.

In late 2017, UDIA State Councillors met to discuss priority advocacy actions for UDIA in 2018. High on everyone’s list of issues was the need for reform of the planning system. The need for a planning system that delivers good outcomes, is fair, transparent and efficient is widely acknowledged. Therefore it is encouraging that the State Government has also recognised this with the Minister for Planning recently announcing the establishment of a planning reform team led by Evan Jones.

Before we embark on a journey of planning reform, it is worth examining previous reform efforts and identifying what lessons can be learnt. The last major round of planning reform began almost a decade ago in 2009, with ‘Planning Makes It Happen’ setting out 11 key strategic reform priorities.

A subsequent round of reforms, ‘Planning Makes It Happen, Phase 2’ followed in 2014 identifying a further 13 areas for action.

In summary, ‘Planning Makes It Happen’ set out to simplify planning approvals, increase consistency across local governments, deliver quality urban forms and improve the coordination of infrastructure. Very few would argue that these same objectives were no longer relevant today.

While ‘Planning Makes it Happen’ achieved some minor success, the current need for reform indicates that the program did not achieve all that it intended to. To a large extent ‘Planning Makes it Happen’ failed, quite simply because it lacked a clear vision and ambition. Whilst it attempted to tackle a broad range of issues, the reforms lacked a clear focus and many of its actions were adjustments to the existing system, rather than tangible reforms. Actions such as reviewing SPP’s, amending the R-codes, or simplifying model subdivision conditions, whilst well intended, only sought to improve the existing status quo. Similarly, of the 13 actions identified in phase two of the reform, 11 related solely to the planning system’s processes, one was a hybrid of process and outcome, with just one action specifically targeting improved development outcomes. As a result, rather than delivering reform, the attention given to improving processes within the planning system had the effect of solidifying the system and its complexities.

Another failure of ‘Planning Makes it Happen’ was the lack of commitment to achieving its actions. Key actions such as local government performance reporting, introducing an electronic application system and the improved coordination of infrastructure planning and delivery remain outstanding. It is clear that given that the need to deliver these actions has long been identified, addressing these issues should be a priority for the planning reform team.

Despite these failings, it is also important to recognise that ‘Planning Makes it Happen’ did have its successes. The introduction of Development Assessment Panels (DAPs), was bold, with the Government committed to its delivery, but more importantly, it properly considered the issue ensuring that an appropriate response was undertaken.

Recognising the commitment given to introducing DAPs, it is particularly disappointing that the reform program failed to deliver local government performance reporting. It is not the intention of reporting to result in a superficial league table ranking local governments, it should be a proper examination how efficient local government decision making is and how effective their policy settings are.

Reporting should be holistic, detailing outcomes and performance efficiency against the policy framework that local governments operate within and set themselves. For example it should be possible to determine the number and typology of housing delivered, the time taken to process decisions and who made them, and how local government policy influenced these decisions. Reporting should also examine local government management of development contribution schemes and other financial contributions. This would help to ensure that new home buyers and existing rate payers receive best value.

Performance reporting would enable the State Government to more effectively track progress towards strategic planning goals, share good practice examples, reward good performance and respond appropriately to any underperformance.

So as we embark on a new round of planning reform we have a number of key messages for the reform team:

1. Establish a clear vision.
2. Properly understand the issues.
3. Be bold when considering solutions.
4. Remain committed to delivering actions.

Keeping these ideals in mind will mean that hopefully we can achieve a planning system that we all can be proud of.