Builders say a lack of council planning staff is holding back projects. 

Builders across Australia are facing significant delays in gaining planning approvals for construction projects, with some local councils operating with little to no planning staff. 

The backlog in development applications has been created by a large volume of planning approvals during the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with rising land values, government-backed building incentives, and a lack of planners in many local councils.

Builders are reporting wait times of up to two years for projects gaining planning approvals. 

“We have heard different quotes, around 12 to 18 months or up to two years, quite lengthy delays, I think because of the lack of resources in councils,” says Megan Peacock, executive director of policy and media at Master Builder's Victoria. 

New South Wales recently set up a ‘Faster Housing Approvals’ priority scheme, with a target of 90 per cent of housing approvals to be determined within 40 days.

The backlog is adding to the pressure builders and clients are already facing amid a material shortage, rising material costs, and interest rates. 

“It makes it very difficult,” Ms Peacock says. 

“The builders are very understanding of the difficulties the councils are having in terms of the lack of resources, the difficulty recruiting staff, [which are] adding to the lengthy delays of these planning permits. But it's really having an impact on them in terms of delaying their pipeline of work, the impact of cost increases when those delays happen, and then trying to secure trades to come onto site when they are unsure when these planning permits will go ahead and delays in signing contracts.”

Sharon Smith, NSW president of the Planning Institute of Australia, says some councils have lost all their planning staff and are relying on the state government to help process development applications. 

Ms Smith said for those working in the planning sector, rate-capped local government was not always the most attractive career option, with the state government offering higher salaries and people preferring to stay in metropolitan areas for career progression.

The Indigo Shire Council in north-east Victoria has worked through a backlog of planning applications after being swamped during the pandemic. 

Trevor Ierino, council CEO, says; “At the same time though we have also had a struggle attracting and retaining staff, so we have had a situation where we had the doubling of planning permits and a halving of staff through that difficult period. But there's no doubt there's always ongoing pressure with planning applications and planning permits”. 

Backlogs came to light after a 2019 review by the Victorian Red Tape Commissioner to streamline state and local government building and planning approval processes and reduce delays, which produced 27 recommendations. 

The Better Planning Approvals team has since partnered with more than 30 Victorian local councils across Victoria to create greater capacity within local planning systems. 

Regional Planning Hubs have also been put in place to provide surge capacity and clear the existing planning application backlog, assisting 14 rural and regional councils to complete 472 planning applications since July 2021. 

More than 200 additional planning applications are currently or soon to be worked on by the hubs.