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June 2, 2023

Ballina Shire Council reports critical shortage of planning staff

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Worker shortages are impacting development across the Northern Rivers but a shortage of tradies isn’t the only problem, with five vacancies recently reported in Ballina Shire Council’s planning division.

There were 314 development applications in the council’s system as of January this year, leading Independent Councillor Rodney Bruem to ask if this was ‘the new normal’ for Ballina at last month’s ordinary council meeting.

Cr Bruem said people were complaining to councillors that they’d put down deposits on blocks of land and were already facing increased costs in the likes of interest rates while waiting for DAs to be processed.

Staff said they thought it likely the council would continue to have a monthly number in the high 200s of ‘outstanding DAs’, or those more than 90 days in the system.

The number of DAs lodged with the Ballina Shire Council has increased every year since the financial year ending June 2018, except for last year.

Staff say filling vacancies in the council’s planning division is critical if a recent improvement in its development application (DA) determination rate that has come partly thanks to state help is to continue.

The state’s planning department provided temporary workers to help councils catch up on overwhelming numbers of DAs after last year’s flood and landslide disasters.

Council staff also say their data excludes complying development certificates, which the former coalition government introduced to fast-track development approvals.

The ability of developers to potentially bypass local governments when seeking building approval means it’s unclear how many applications are being lodged in total compared to how many are determined and how many approved.

More than 1,000 DAs lodged in Ballina Shire each year this decade

The council received 861 DAs in the 2017-2018 financial year with the number increasing every year to 1,093 in the 2020-2021 financial year, according to a staff report presented to councillors last month.

The number dropped back to 1,020 in the financial year ending June 2022 and so far, more than halfway through the latest financial year, the council has received more than 500 DAs.

But Ballina Shire Council staff say there are still too many long-term undetermined DAs in the system and that reducing that number is necessary if recent improved rates of determination are to continue.

The volume of undetermined development applications with the council as of the end of February was consistent with numbers reported by councils in the Tweed and Byron Shires, the report said, and staff were encouraged by a higher number of DAs determined over recent months than the number of DAs lodged.

But both the Tweed and Byron Shire Councils have also complained of inadequate planning staffing and Ballina staff reported an overall reduction in the number of DAs received between November 2022 and January 2023.

Housing estates and subdivisions add to planning pressure

Luxury housing construction in Ballina Shire. Photo David Lowe.

Staff said sustaining the trend of faster development application determination periods would be challenging if the number of DAs lodged increased and vacant positions weren’t filled.

There was an increase of DAs lodged in February, but staff said it was too early to say whether it reflected a change in the recent trend.

Their report described continued pressure in the planning division thanks to high volumes of DAs lodged throughout the last two years, complexity of the applications, and a shortage of development assessment planners and building surveyors.

Ongoing management of several large development and subdivision projects was also contributing significantly to average processing times.

Staff said they had substantial ongoing work in relation to residential subdivisions, in particular planning and engineering resources applied to the Aureus, Epiq, The Crest, Lennox Rise, Banyan Hill and Ballina Heights housing estates.

Projects on private and council-owned land at Wollongbar were also demanding staff time.

Council staff said they were involved in key areas relating to oversight of civil construction works, assessment of assets to be handed over to the council, monitoring of environmental and landscape works and compliance with conditions of consent.

Required applications such as subdivision works certificates had to be processed and staff had to respond to community enquiries and document decisions.

Considerable council resources were also being applied to subsequent DAs for dwellings on newly created allotments, building construction inspections and certification, staff said.

Council relies on external planning support

Someone looking for work might want to consider getting qualifications in planning.

While a staffing shortage continued, the council had received some help from both the state planning department and the council in Port Stephens.

Staff described how the Department of Planning and Environment introduced a ‘Regional Housing Flying Squad’ program after last year’s flood and landslides disasters.

Two Sydney based planning consultancies took on the task of assessing DAs for 13 urban dwelling houses as part of the scheme, staff said.

A new program had been announced for 2022/23, with staff having applied.

The council in Port Stephens also volunteered to help after the disasters, assessing 18 Ballina Shire DAs for urban dwellings and secondary dwellings.

The council has reportedly been using external consultants since the start of this financial year, with 64 DAs thus determined and 51 still under assessment.

But councillors heard external agencies were also struggling to find staff.

A new online planning portal was helping, to a certain extent, with staff describing it as ‘pretty bread and butter’ for experienced planning consultants.

But staff said the portal required ‘quite a substantial amount of information’ that was sometimes tricky for inexperienced applicants, requiring them to seek council customer service help.

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