WA Introduces Major Planning Reform Bill To Drive COVID-19 Economic Recovery

Monday 25 May 2020 @ 2.21 p.m. | Legal Research | Trade & Commerce

The Planning and Development Amendment Bill 2020 (the Bill) was introduced into the WA Parliament on 20 May 2020 by the Hon Rita Saffioti MLA, Minister for Transport and Planning (the Minister). In a joint media release with Mark McGowan, the Premier, the Bill was described as including "major reforms to simplify Western Australia's planning system and boost the State's economic recovery from COVID-19."

Broad Objectives

The Bill's broad objectives are described in the media release as:

  • historic planning reforms that have introduced to help support COVID-19 economic recovery;
  • a "once-in-a-lifetime" reform for WA's planning system;
  • the enactment of urgent legislation as a key initiative of the Action Plan for Planning Reform;
  • a planning reform package that includes 26 key reform items;
  • allowing major job creation and major projects to be supported by streamlined assessments; and
  • reforms that will create a simpler, more transparent planning system.

The Government's planning reforms are said to be based upon three years of "extensive consultation" by the Government. The reforms are now being urgently brought forward to "support the wider economic response to the pandemic, protect WA jobs and create new job opportunities". The Bill is part of a series of amendments to planning legislation and regulations that are intended to simplify the planning system, cut red tape and increase support for small business.

Significant Development Supporting Economic Recovery

A key initiative that would be in effect upon the passing of the Bill is the introduction of a new development application process for significant, job-creating projects. The new process would apply for the next 18 months, and is intended by the Government to provide immediate support for the State's economic recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the short-term, the decision maker for such projects would be the WA Planning Commission, which would eventually be replaced by a specifically created new Special Matters Development Assessment Panel after the 18-month period.

To be considered a significant development a project would have to fall into one of the following categories

  • development proposals with an estimated cost of $30 million or more; or
  • residential dwelling proposals with 100 or more dwellings; or
  • commercial developments with a minimum 20,000 square meters of commercial floor space; or
  • regional or tourism projects that may not meet the criteria but are considered important to assist in the COVID-19 recovery.

The significant development approach, according to the joint media release "will ensure that large and complex developments receive a State coordinated approach with referral agencies and streamlined assessment processes to ensure job creating projects can start as soon as possible".

The reforms proposed by the Bill are to be supported by changes to the planning regulations and the State planning policies. The reforms add to the Design WA policies launched in 2019 which, according to the Government, "prioritise the importance of good design in planning and development".

Other Reforms

Other proposed reforms in the Bill are intended to provide flexibility for small businesses, improve community engagement requirements and increase the number of exemptions for approval.

The Bill includes planning reforms that respond to community and stakeholder feedback, for example:

  • the abolition of "change of use approvals" for a number of different types of small business, which is often required by local government to start up or adapt a business;
  • the exemption of a wider range of small residential projects such as patios, decks and extensions from planning approval;
  • the abolition of onerous requirements on small businesses to pay cash–in-lieu for parking shortfalls up to 10 bays; and
  • the improvement of community consultation by mandating consistent consultation processes across the State.

According to the joint media release:

"Most of the proposed amendments are part of the State Government's Action Plan on Planning Reform and follow three years of consultation to remove barriers in the planning system, provide greater clarity and consistency for users of the system and reduce the administrative burden on the State's 134 local governments."

Comment and Reaction

In the joint media release, the WA Premier indicated that the reforms introduced by the Bill had been "talked about for decades and were long overdue":

". . . [the] reforms will cut red tape, support small businesses, create more jobs and deliver an overall better outcome for our community. . . . The economic impacts of COVID-19 are devastating, we need projects that have investment certainty and are ready for construction and a planning system that lets business do business. . . .This Bill will support projects that shape our communities and provide innovative ways for business to grow and prosper."

The WA Planning Minister stated in the joint media release:

"The proposals within this Bill will bring a long-awaited overhaul of the State planning framework. We have a genuine opportunity to remove barriers and red tape for small business, local government and developers and enable them to get back to work."

According to a report in WA Today, the Bill has come at an opportune time. The WA Housing Industry Association (WAHIA) has just released new forecasting showing collapsing international migration and spiking unemployment would lead to a 40 percent fall in WA home building commencements by mid-2021, and have called for consumer incentives. Cath Hart, executive director of WAHIA, is reported by WA Today as saying:

". . . if nothing was urgently done WA would see more job losses, the exit of businesses from the WA market, and knock-on economic impacts. . . While other reforms are important for subsequent phases of recovery, with the long lead times for our projects we need to be careful not to park the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, . . . With a huge rate of WA projects being cancelled or put on hold and just a 13-week pipeline of home building projects from when COVID-19 hit - compared to much longer project queues on the east coast - construction work in WA will start to decline from late June or sooner.”

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