A number of local government councils in Perth are challenging Development Assessment Panels, making developers nervous and creating a hot button issue for next year’s Western Australian state election.

Development Assessment Panels were introduced to WA in 2011 to independently assess higher value and often dense urban developments, but in recent months a number of local governments and community groups have called for the state government to “scrap the DAP”, often referring to them as Development ”Approvals” Panels.

The Property Council of WA is concerned. It issued a media release earlier this month that said DAPs provided an important and unbiased role in planning and development across WA, supporting strong economic growth post resource boom.

Outgoing Property Council WA executive director Joe Lenzo said that before DAPs were introduced, “the development assessment process in WA was highly politicised and there was no certainty that complying and innovative development proposals would be fairly assessed for planning approval”.

“Now we have a modern and independent planning approval process with a mix of unbiased experts and local government representatives,” Mr Lenzo said.

However, according to a number of local governments, DAPs are not serving their purpose and are biased towards development.

The City of Bayswater is one of a number of councils in the process of appealing to the state government for a review of the DAP system.

“It is the City’s view that the system is flawed and has been designed in a way that circumvents local accountability,” Bayswater mayor Barry McKenna said.

“The system results in remote and unaccountable decision making, which in effect puts the wishes of developers before the legitimate concerns of local communities.”

Marten Tieleman, acting chief executive of the City of Melville, has concerns about the make-up of DAPs.

“The introduction of DAP’s has meant that for high-value developments, the decision maker is no longer the responsible local government,” he said.

“The relevance of the affected local community as a key stakeholder in the planning decision making process can be eroded through the DAP process, with panel membership skewed in favour of the expert professional members, who outnumber the representative elected members on the panel,” Mr Tieleman said.

City of Vincent wants out

At its meeting in March, the City of Vincent voted on recommendations to abolish DAPs on the grounds they are undemocratic, erode the planning powers of locally elected representatives and that their decisions do not properly consider the purpose, application or intent of relevant local planning policies.

Vincent further voted to lobby for reforms to DAPs in the event they are retained, including equal membership between local government representatives and independent experts on panels.

The City of Belmont will also consider a recommendation to appeal to the planning minister for a review of the operation and structure of DAPs at its council meeting later this month, while the City of South Perth has said it would join other local governments in calling for a review of the function and operation of planning system.

Incoming executive director of the Property Council of WA Lino Iacomella said that DAPs had limited discretion and “must and always do make decisions based on local planning schemes”.

A question of community

While the issue is partially one of local government control over planning in their jurisdictions, and mixed views on this responsibility, it is also an issue of the role of the community in decision making in WA.

WA doesn’t have third party appeals built into its planning system, which means communities have few avenues with which to oppose development decisions in their local areas. This becomes problematic when DAP rulings are at odds with the recommendations of their local government, who also lack a third party right of appeal, and who are in theory representing the interests of their constituencies.

Recently, the absence of a right of appeal led to a case going to the Supreme Court, which subsequently set aside a development previously approved by a Joint Development Assessment Panel in South Perth.

Vicki Redden, who took the case to the court, said “As this undemocratic process now stands – aggrieved residents have no right of appeal like developers do. A Supreme Court judicial review is all we have open to us.”

Former state planning minister, mayor of the City of Vincent and current federal member for Perth Alannah MacTiernan also has reservations about the current DAPs process, including the extent of their discretionary powers.

DAPs have led to “cemented opposition” and dumbed down planning

Though Ms MacTiernan supports DAPs in principle, she says that their “powers are so great” that the current approach of taking away responsibility from local governments has resulted in “cemented opposition” to major decisions and a “dumbed down” planning process.

Ms MacTiernan believes in creating cultural change, which would introduce sophisticated consultation instruments to build consensus on planning decisions and get “real agreement to the communities on town planning schemes because there is often such a difference between the vision that people come up with” and a final development proposal.

“They often don’t bear much resemblance to what people thought,” she said.

Dan Pearce, principal of RobertsDay planning consultancy, believes community engagement is key to building trust in processes and satisfaction with decisions and development outcomes.

While he supports DAPs as “one of the best and most major reforms coming out of the government’s planning reform process”, he said that it is vitally important to “bring the community along” and noted that the process in WA was not as consultative as in other states.

Mr Pearce also said that DAPs had removed the problem of bias in local government, arguing that the role of local government was to set the policy planning agenda in conjunction with its local community, and to let independent professionals decide on development applications within that agenda.

The issues surrounding DAPs in WA have very tangible impacts on communities and without engagement can result in approvals for developments being of a scale or type not anticipated or welcomed by the community.