Almost every week I receive an email or phone call from a family, enquiring about the progress of their development application (DA). They are usually frustrated and often angry, desperate for some shred of information on when they will be able to commence building their home.
Their situation is both familiar and heartbreaking. They are often occupying rental accommodation (which is both unaffordable and in desperately short supply) or living with friends and family, watching helplessly as interest rates and building costs continue to skyrocket as their contracts with their development and/or builder creeps towards its expiry date.
Most are managing to hang in there, but some have had no choice but to forgo or sell their land and give up on their dream of home ownership.
When it comes to delays in processing DAs, Council often bears the brunt of the public’s frustration. But the reason for delays in DA processing is complicated and results from a myriad of intersecting factors. So here are some of the other reasons your DA is taking longer than expected.
1) Developers

When it comes to delays in processing DAs, the development industry has done a great job in making themselves out to be the good guys. Developers routinely blame Council for long delays in processing DAs, yet they see no problem in asking hopeful families for a deposit on a block of land, in some cases from a plan that has not even been approved for development (a practice I believe should be illegal).
Development comes with many obligations under planning law, such as the obligation to protect and sometimes regenerate areas of native vegetation, to provide essential infrastructure, including stormwater, roads, footpaths, playgrounds etc. These obligations exist for a reason.
The infrastructure that developers provide in greenfield developments eventually becomes the property of Council to maintain forever (using ratepayers money), so it needs to be up to standard. The infrastucture that developers don’t provide needs to be provided by Council, also using ratepayers money.
When it comes to native vegetation, widespread clearing for farming and residential development has left our Shire with the lowest percentage of native vegetation anywhere in the Northern Rivers. Unnecessary clearing or failure to comply with maintinence and regeneration obligations has serious environmental impacts and needs to be assessed carefully by Council staff.
Developers are entitled to take local Councils to the Land and Environment Court to determine a DA if they don’t respond within the stated timeframe (referred to as “deemed refusal”). If a developer perceives that they will receive a more favourable or quicker response in the courts, they can simply submit an incomplete or wholly inadequate proposal (knowing full well that Council lacks the resources to assess it) and elect for the court to determine the DA instead, thereby side-stepping Council altogether.
When this happens, Council’s planning staff have to divert time and resources to defending their decisions in court when they could be performing their primary role of assessing DAs, resulting in further delays. Even if the Court decides in Council’s favour, they are often only able to recoup a small percentage of the ratepayers money spent in the process.
2) NSW State Government 

Most people don’t realise that Councils in NSW operate in an extremely constrained budgetary environment, with most sources of income (including rates, developer contributions and a number of fees and charges, including for development applications) set or capped by the State Government. These amounts have not increased in line with inflation or the expansion of Councils roles within the planning system over the past few decades.
So while critics often suggest that Council should simply employ more assessors to meet demand, the reality is DA fees do not cover the full cost of assessment, which makes it almost impossible to scale resources up and down in response to spikes in demand. Not to mention the nationwide shortage in qualified planners (see point 4).
Adding to delays has been the new Planning Portal, which most applicants will tell you is a veritable nightmare, both difficult to navigate and full of glitches. This has created an even greater administration burden for Council staff, who spend considerable time on the phone to applicants, supporting them with their submissions or requesting information that has gone missing.
3) Huge increase in demand

The last few years have seen a huge increase in residential development and in turn, demand on the planning system. The COVID pandemic saw a huge “regional drift” as a large number of workers were able to work from home.

During the COVID 19 pandemic swimming pool sales skyrocketed as people shunned public spaces and retreated to the safety of their homes. The pandemic was also a popular time for homeowners to start other renovations, which resulted in a significant increase in demand for complying development certificates.

Recent bushfires and flooding across Australia has also contributed to the increased demand for development, placing additional strain on the planning system.

Some developers control the supply and demand for housing by “land banking” (the practice of buying land and leaving it vacant to create an illusion of scarcity, then drip feeding it to the market at the highest possible price) making it difficult for Councils to predict the resources necessary to cope with these unpredictable spikes in demand.
4) Limited supply of qualified planners

Australia is experiencing national shortages in a range of professions critical to development that are forecast to last well into the future, this includes civil and transport engineers, urban and regional planners, landscape gardeners, and construction project managers.
This is in part due to the extraordinary amount of development occurring in Australia at the moment, which is in part enabled by projects and policies designed to stimulate the economy and recovery from the recession of the pandemic.
Limited resources (refer to point 2) means that Local Councils find it difficult to compete with other levels of government and the private sector to attract these professionals. Most Councils around Australia have planning departments that are not fully staffed.
In conclusion, the planning system in NSW is experiencing unprecedented demand of applications and limited supply of planners, with Councils operating in an extremely resource constrained environment where their ability to earn income is capped at unrealistic levels.

The objective of this piece is not so much to shift the blame for delays in processing DAs from Councils, but to distribute to the blame more evenly across a range of factors, many of which are beyond the control of Local Government. One thing I am certain about is that our Council staff are working incredibly hard to keep pace with demand, amid significant resource constraints.