Time to give DAPs a good shake-up

BRAD PETTITT is mayor of Fremantle. Last week his council considered a motion to review the much-maligned development assessment panels, but in this week’s SPEAKER’S CORNER, he says simply scrapping them is not the way to go.

DEVELOPMENT assessment panels are a contentious issue in Perth right now.

You might have read about a growing campaign against them led by predominantly inner-ring and western suburbs councils. While they are getting lots of press and “Scrap the DAPs” is a punchy slogan, I am not convinced that the current anti-DAPs movement offers the best way forward if we are interested in creating a more liveable Perth.

Former WA planning minister John Day recently dismissed the DAP opposition as ‘cause célèbre‘ and I’m not sure this dismissal is quite right either. There are some real and concerning issues with the current DAP system that need to be reviewed and rethought. DAPs have been shown to be slower, more expensive and less representative than the previous approvals process – and that’s when they’re not approving developments that push the bounds of local planning schemes and good design.

In fact, a WALGA report in collaboration with the Local Government Planners Association conducted an analysis of DAP agendas and minutes between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2014. Analysis of the 520 development applications dealt with during this period revealed that:

• there has been an increase in applicant fees by 19 per cent;

• it takes longer than 100 days to process applications (on average);

• the process results in a high number of SAT appeals at great expense to the Department of Planning; and

• DAPs expended vast resources in determining a significant number of relatively straightforward and clear cut applications that could have easily been processed under delegated authority by local government officers.

While DAPs might not be performing as well as promised it is important to remember that they were brought in, in part, because Perth was failing to realise its urban infill targets and address suburban sprawl in a coherent and strategic manner, in part due to an overly localised, NIMBY attitude to new development and density in some areas.

While in a post-DAP world we are now seeing higher rates of urban infill and higher density development slowly emerge (we have gone from 27 per cent to 31 per cent infill in recent years) I am not convinced that this approach is working as well as hoped. For a start Perth’s urban infill rate of 31 per cent is still way off the 47 per cent target signed up to.

I am even more concerned the urban density we are getting is not the high quality, strategic kind of smart density Perth really needs. By that I mean density located in and around train stations and good transit, in activity centres and close to jobs and schools and shops.

Instead we seem to be getting haphazard density away from good transit and centres and often approved by DAPs. This dumb-density is angering local communities who can clearly see what this density is costing them in terms of their suburb’s amenity and character but cannot clearly see what benefits smart density could achieve in terms of a less congested, more diverse, sustainable and liveable city.

In other words DAPs have failed to adequately solve the problem they were largely created to address and are instead in danger of fuelling a new density hangover that will once again set back community support for density for decades.

I am increasingly of the view that we need to rethink DAPs and more fundamentally how we best achieve greater density in Perth. To do this we should consider turning the DAP idea on its head by returning power to local communities how and where they put density. But to avoid the NIMBYism that has plagued development in Perth so far local councils should be required to sign up to agreed density targets.

If these are met they should be rewarded with greater infrastructure spend by the state government.

This localises power and responsibility and with the right incentives to communities it should result in better-informed and strategic decision making. This is covered in part of the DAP item that came to Fremantle council last week which (along with other possible improvements) called for:

“Consideration of incentive based replacement for DAPs which rewards local government for setting appropriate density targets for their area (through community led design) and making strong progress towards meeting these targets. This should include a particular focus on development and density located in areas adjacent to transport and near designated activity centres. Local governments who are delivering on agreed density targets will be rewarded with infrastructure and other funding that will not be available to local government not meeting their targets.”

The DAP debate has a fair way to go but I’m pleased Freo council’s approach has been about more than a catchy slogan that says “no”. The Labor and Liberal parties support DAPs so this approach isn’t likely to generate change. That’s why we’re after a more sophisticated approach that is willing to work through the complex issues so we can then advocate improved and workable solutions to the challenges of development and density.

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