Dealing with town planners moving targets and shifting goal posts
The purpose and mission of councils across Australia are, in general, of good meaning. The reality of dealing with town planners however can, in our opinion, be horrid.
WOLF ARCHITECTS have a history of creating beautiful homes and our hope is for the suburban landscape to be dominated by architecturally designed homes as opposed to cheap and nasty cheeseburger style housing. These days we sadly see unit developments everywhere that all look the same. We call these cookie cutter type homes “cheeseburgers” because they are an unhealthy result of mass production for profits and doing what is easy. The reason they all look the same is because they generally conform to town planning requirements. You could look on the Bright side and argue that things would be far worse without our stringent town planning policies, but for most architects trying to make the world a better place the system is often a nightmare and promotes mediocrity at best.
WOLF Architects has multiple projects in council at any given time and over a period of 2 decades have probably dealt with most municipalities in Melbourne. Despite a perfect track record of having every project approved we can honestly say that there has never been an experience we could describe as easy, straight forward or even pleasant. There are literally thousands of codes with many changing daily. Thankfully they are normally available online so locating relevant codes is not as hard as it used to be. Then there is the matter of interpretation, as they range from being absolute to just a guide or open to the planner’s discretion. Amazingly they even seem to have the power to make absolutes into maybes and maybes into absolutes. At WOLF Architects, we call it aiming at a moving target or shifting goal posts. We have known planners to promise approval and then at the last-minute change their minds over something trivial or because of their own mistakes.
In all fairness, the system is remarkable for what it stands for and there is no doubt that its necessary, but what seems to be lacking is creativity within the organisation as well as respect for architects.
Architects are in general trained to enhance our living environment through sensitive, common sense architecture. Without disrespect, your average town planner does not normally come from a creative background, and that is why most of them won’t go beyond the square boxes that need to be ticked off when assessing applications.
As human beings, a town planner is equally subject to making mistakes or being slow as with people in other professions, and that is understandable. The problem is that unlike a bad meal in a restaurant that can be sent back, or taken off the bill, an incompetent planner will cost you a lot of money and time delay, without one word of regret or apology.
Often there is no choice as to who the planner will be for a project, and then, after a planner has been assigned, they can simply change overnight. The shocking news is that things are getting worse each year. As demand for housing increases each council has become choked to the brim with new project applications. New and younger planners are handling multiple projects, which they are not adequately prepared for with knowledge or experience. We’ve seen first hand with projects that look on track for approval suddenly turn into a shemozzle at the 11th hour. Many planners need days to respond to an email or phone call and even then, their feedback or advise can be quite misleading.
From our own experiences it feels like there is the unwritten policy of admitting and committing to nothing. In one instance, we even had a planner give us a whole load of wrong advice because he looked at the wrong outdated set of drawings. Human beings are not perfect but the worst part of the whole game is that there seems to be absolutely no accountability at all. Council will always find ways to deflect fault back to the applicant and be in the right. Most Architects are at least intelligent enough to know what we don’t know, and perhaps that helps us to be more adaptable and flexible.
With every council, there are some excellent individuals who are helpful, and interested in what a good architect brings. They tend to be very experienced individuals with some background in design or development. Such planners however are extremely rare and we would never advise our clients on the assumption that their project will land on the desk of such a planner. One must be prepared for an uphill struggle with planners who seem more eager to tick boxes than discuss your ideas. This article is not intended to put down town planners, but rather to recognise that there is a significant lack of flexibility with many town planners.
It’s not surprising that many developers and applications no longer even bother with pre-application meetings or trying to comply and compromise. It’s easier to take the time and money necessary to get things their way through VCAT. There are even people willing to rip out trees and cop the penalty fines as its just more efficient and economical than jumping through hoops with planners and arborists. All this just puts architects in a tougher position because all the bureaucracy and fighting to end up in VCAT is not an architect’s instinct towards making the world a better place.
Architects have it hard enough as it is to compete within an industry that is so dominated by mass produced design and construct companies. To then deal with a planning system that offers no special consideration to projects led by registered architects raises frustration to a whole new level. It’s not surprising that so many architects have decided to dumb down their abilities to just drafting up whatever is required to tick all the boxes for approval. The alternative is to simply refuse all projects that require town planning unless clients are willing to pay per hour or have an independent planning specialist on board. Council are certainly not going to compensate anyone for endless reiterations of design work, and clients must bear the pain of variation fees and time delays if they want something better than average.
In summary, we believe that town planning is, in general, imperfect and frustrating. From our experience, there is too much incompetency and greyness to accurately advise clients. The codes themselves can be difficult to navigate, but often it’s the planner’s individual interpretations that muddy things further. For the most part, there are only two options, go for the average cheeseburger, or head down that long arduous path of bureaucracy and frustration. The cheeseburger is a fast-quick fix but ultimately unhealthy and unfulfilling. The long road tends to be costlier, and fraught with danger and difficulty. The only silver lining is that with a good architect by your side, to guide and fight for you, you have at least some chance of getting that superior product you deserve.
As with all projects requiring town planning we remind every client that “There are no guarantees, though we will do our best”.