Perth is growing. Apartment towers and blocks are springing up to ‘infill’ the suburbs, to accommodate a population projected to almost double by 2035.
But in many ways, Perth remains a small town. And with a planning approvals system that relies on calling in industry experts, people tend to bump into each other.
Local councils of publicly elected members used to hold extensive powers over development approvals.
But in recent years the government has stripped much of this power from them and concentrated it in the hands of development assessment panels and a few key state bodies.
Many of these experts simultaneously maintain roles in private enterprise and public service.
They do so in a system with problems; a recent review identified that vague rules about the exercise of discretion was leading to inconsistent decisions.
It also identified a lack of transparency in the corridors of power, meaning the reasons for planning decisions were often hidden from the public.
A year on, the government has not yet implemented any of the review recommendations.
Meanwhile, it’s made controversial appointments of key industry figures to key government decision-makers.
All of Perth’s biggest planning firms have at least one current or former employee serving on a decision-making body.
David Caddy, straight from a 30-year career in premier planning firm Element (formerly TPG), was chosen to head the WA Planning Commission.
Lino Iacomella, straight from a long career as head of lobby group the Property Council, was chosen for the Statutory Planning Committee.
Jane Bennett and Kylee Schoonens, straight from prominent positions on powerful property lobby groups, were appointed to the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority board.
These bodies have assessed Perth’s most prominent and expensive development projects, its most high-profile planning system changes, and made controversial decisions.
There is no accusation of wrongdoing by any of these individuals and checks and balances govern their decisions.
Mr Caddy is not permitted to vote on matters concerning the company he founded and built over 30 years; board members must take leave from lobby group leadership positions; people in public service can do private consulting work for industry but must stay away from projects they’re going to be making decisions on.
But perceptions that the appointees themselves are individuals who are first and foremost loyal to the developer cause, and will forever be sympathetic to industry over communities in applying discretion, has added fuel to the fire of community opposition to developments.
That opposition has contributed to lengthy delays and big changes to major projects.
A Metronet apartment block in Bayswater One Foyle was delayed two years and cost a reported extra $300,000, with fewer apartments built than was planned.
Multiple luxury high-rises planned for South Perth have been delayed for years; the town centre is covered in huge vacant blocks.
A landmark twin-tower development in Scarborough, recently abandoned by the developer, has left an unsightly hole in a prime redevelopment area.
These areas were envisioned as hubs of vibrant new commercial and residential activity.
After being bombarded with letters from Perth residents full of distrust for planning bodies’ processes and membership, WAtoday created a map to illustrate some of the connections which may have sparked mistrust.
Urban Development Institute of Australia WA chief executive Tanya Steinbeck said industry experts knew how to separate their roles and responsibilities and complied with good governance principles in declaring any potential, perceived or real conflict of interest.
“Industry professionals are exactly that, professionals,” she said.
“They bring their knowledge, and in many cases years of study and on-the-job experience to the table.
“UDIA is an advocate of stakeholders from industry, government and the community working together to achieve shared outcomes.
“There will always be some tension, which is natural, given we all have our own views on what should or shouldn’t happen in our communities.
“That is why we have such stringent approvals processes, that require community consultation and engagement.”
‘Only the angry people come to the meetings’
Might the public trust a system reliant on industry perspectives, if the system was more transparent?
Curtin University sustainability expert Peter Newman says no – that Perth people would oppose high density development no matter what.
“This anti-density issue is an Anglo-Saxon issue,” he said.
“Density was seen as the cause of problems in cities, and the idea of spread-out garden cities was born. The English town planning [motto] of ‘nothing gained by overcrowding’ spread to the colonies.
“Wide roads, plenty of space, let the air go through … [was] based on the idea that health problems were caused by miasma floating in the air.
“We now know that nothing is lost in people living closer together. That it allows them to walk to things easily, that it creates knowledge-economy jobs … the new innovative high-paying jobs.”
Professor Newman thought systemic lack of transparency was more likely to be an effect, rather than a cause, of public anger.
That community opposition to development had made governments and developers gun-shy.
“The transparency is not there because there is this conflict over density,” Professor Newman said.
“At local level [councils have] tried to lower density as much as possible and you get people coming along to meetings all het up and angry … [it lacks transparency] because the only public who come along to the meetings are those who will be angry about it.
“The people who want to live there don’t come to the meetings.”
We’re becoming an unforgiving society that seems to play the person.
Planning director general Gail McGowan
But Curtin urban and regional planning expert Shane Greive thought lack of transparency did play a role.
He said the centralisation of power had had some positives. Industry experts understood the market, the construction and the finance of projects. But it was valid to question their detachment.
«[Perth] is a small enough tank that big fish bump into each other,” he said.
«Even if it’s not your project, it’s your colleague’s or your industry partner’s project.
«I see integrity in what they do, but that doesn’t mean the system is not open to abuse, and so increased transparency would help.”
Dr Greive said the slowdown in Perth’s population growth in recent years had given the city some breathing space, and it was the ideal time for reform to get the system right.
But he noted the possibility that the reform, having lain apparently dormant for a year, risked being lost to governmental budget and election cycles.
“The government needs to put more thought into this question of detachment, consider and respond to it – there are procedures [identified in the Green Paper] and it’s important that this happens,” he said.
Planning Minister Rita Saffioti said the government was “not too far” from releasing a comprehensive formal response.
“We believe we can implement some reforms pretty quickly but we need to do it carefully and make sure other agencies consent to some of the changes,» she said.
“There will be changes in respect to transparency by the end of this year.»
Department of Planning director general Gail McGowan said the reforms would also be about simplifying language in an effort to improve communication.
«Clearly the beauty of our community is that they don’t all think alike,» she said.
«One of the challenges is people, if they’re broadly happy or ambivalent, don’t actually get engaged in the debate – so we do tend to see the extremes of either side, either the pro-development or anti-development increasingly having very loud voices.
«I’ll continue to express concern about the extent to which some of that has become vitriolic and personalised, whether that be against local government administrators, whether it be against individual councillors, whether it be against public officials.
«We’re becoming an unforgiving society that seems to play the person.»
Hamish Hastie is WAtoday’s business reporter.
Emma Young covers breaking news with a focus on science and environment, health and social justice for WAtoday.