Planning Free

Currently we follow a path of progressive intricacy in planning and building requirement. We all obediently comply. Is this just a mechanism to compensate for efficiencies everywhere else? Does it compensate or is it's natural conclusion, the screeching, crunching, grinding stoppage of the gears of industry? Is it reasonable to wonder whether reasonable justification is something we have outgrown in our rule-making?

Planning in Australia has gone beyond organisation for efficient dispersal of services and systems, beyond the motivation for equitable management of dispute related to environmental intervention, beyond the auspices of design for the creative interaction of varied spaces and uses and beyond even our concept of what constitutes Australian liberty, equity and justice and the place government has in integrating with that.

Development approval times have leaped in the last 5 years in Australia. Average times to approval in particular jurisdictions have climbed to 23 weeks for residential additions, 25 weeks for new homes, 44 weeks for medium density residential, 33 weeks for small commercial developments and 44 weeks for large commercial developments. With this, costs have also risen dramatically. The costs of consultants, of clients and of government. There may be isolated cases where the relative inefficiency we impose upon our system vis a vis the rest of the world can be justified in terms of environmental sustainability, culture  or freedom from civil unrest but these times are averages and are many times a satisfactory level. Planning fails us as a modern flexible state and it fails us as pretenders to world leadership toward liberty.

The failure of planning does not lie at the foot of planners themselves but at the collective side-shuffling feet of legislators. It is true that, largely, our institutions have turned out planners designed to fill job descriptions which seek to provide orderly control mechanisms or to police compliance with those rather than to fill larger picture planning goals. It is government, however, which has created those places to deflect the perception that it is it's own work and responsibility for guiding us to a more enlightened future. Government, in seeking to distance itself from responsibility for clashes related to environmental intervention creates 'expert' formed and policed controls. To divert attention from its task of creating a population of creative self-reliant individuals it forms vehicles which pamper the inclination for an artificially imposed sense of security. This security re-focuses liberty, it allows individuals to delegate their responsibility avoiding confrontation capable of building their capacity and it encourages conservatism in expression.

But it is not always like this (or has not always been so.)     

One of my more pleasurable design experiences came a few years ago. We encountered a little project in a little bush town in central New South Wales. Naturally the Building Code of Australia applied but at a planning level it was completely different, enjoyably.

I went to the Council desk. They only had one for all the Council functions. Actually, they only had a Shire manager, a telephonist/typist and one other character apart from their civil works outside crews. What a joy is that? An arm of government which believes that integral to it's job is the aim to save tax payer's time and money.

I went to the one little desk and the one technical office staff member got up from his organising of works crews and drainage and building and health and extraordinary matters immediately to assist. I explained the proposal. He said that it all looked fine but I would have to abide by the Council 'Planning Scheme'; the new planning scheme; the first scheme which this little town which every body admires for its grace and design and, yes, culture, the first that it had ever had. I thought, "here we go."

He bent down and from under the counter immediately brought forth a single page of photocopied text. Close inspection revealed that it contained three clauses; totally half a page of text. The first two were essentially administrative the last said something like: "thou shalt not erect a fence out of used, rusted corrugated iron like Mrs. So and So's down the road." I lie but you get the picture.

A delight. A happy community finding it's way through design without having to have serried teams of planning compliance creators and planning compliance checkers. Happy regardless of their increased money management responsibility from saved rates, their responsibility for their own actions and their responsibility to communicate directly with their neighbours not to speak of irresponsible drought and pestilence.

Yet, in more recent years the NSW planning behemoth has finally ridden into town with a bright new half a ream thick centrally designed, centrally achieved, centrally structured, planning scheme for the place. This so that it will enjoy the same rights and the same opportunity for environmental intervention as every other town, city or other Australian outcrop of humanity. The town's good fortune is that this allows it to direct its rates to employment of a planner or two and a heritage expert and who knows how many support and compliance staff.

It would be a terrible thing to be different, people might look at the inhabitants as in a zoo or pity them for the small amounts of rates they would have to pay.

Ah! almost forgot the 'punch-line.'

Back, in Tasmania, we prepared documentation and sent it off to the town's Council for approval.

Two days later, not two days after we sent plus the normal two to four day postal jaunt but two full days after we posted, the owner got a call from the Council's one technical staff member. The message was that the proposal had planning and building approval and could be picked up stamped when he, the owner, wished. No letter in the mail to take a few more days; no beating around the bush in case something objectionable may be able to be found and NO planning or building fee.

But I do understand that life was meant to be harder than that.

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