ePlanning was originally proposed in 2013 as part of the proposal to establish a new planning act in NSW. While the new act never eventuated, in July 2014 the NSW Government made a range of ePlanning tools available and in November 2015 the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 was amended to give statutory recognition to the NSW planning portal (Portal).
Services that enable users to identify the relevant planning controls that apply to a particular parcel of land have been available since 2015.
Since the middle of 2019, the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment has also made available new services relating to online lodgement, concurrence and referrals.
Since March last year, online lodgement facilities have been available through the Portal. The current functionality which allows for pre-lodgement, lodgement, assessment and determination to be completed online is now being trialed in 22 councils across the State.
The online lodgement service is providing benefits to both applicants and councils. Applicants are no longer required to attend council to lodge an application, application processing times have been reduced and application processes have been streamlined by the removal of some required forms.
Allowing online lodgement through the Portal has resulted in real benefits including improved determination times. It has digitised the application process and enabled efficiencies to internal processes by freeing up resources to be redirected to higher value work and other customer service roles.
Importantly it seems that the business case behind the adoption of electronic systems - that an initial outlay to develop the new systems and integrate them with existing in-house systems - has seen both a time saving for applicants and greater efficiency for council. The experience is that counter staff are being re-deployed to other needs within the organisation.
Concurrence and referrals
Around 15 per cent of development applications need to be referred to state government agencies because the development requires an approval under additional legislation.
The Online Concurrence and Referral system available through the Portal allows councils to refer an application to the relevant agency. This system facilitates applicants to make payments online if required and enables both applicants and councils to track the progress through the relevant agency. Agencies are able to use the system to manage requests.
Although not mandatory the service is being used by some 77 councils and almost all the relevant state government agencies. The system has reduced the processing time of those applications that need referrals by around 20 days, well over the 10-day reduction initially projected.
NSW Government said it will mandate online lodgement
The Premier has recently announced at a meeting of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia that in 2020 reforms will be introduced making ePlanning mandatory for metropolitan councils within the Sydney region. This will include mandating online lodgement for development applications.
The push to facilitate eConstruction through the portal
The recent Parliamentary Inquiry looking at building standards has suggested that building plans should be lodged and made available on the Portal. Certainly the technology stack to deliver those kinds of services are already in place. For a relatively modest additional cost these features could be enhanced to deliver on the NSW Government's commitments in this area.
The immediate challenges ahead
In order to mandate ePlanning services such as online lodgement, further enhancements are required to improve the functionality and the range of services able to be provided.
To achieve the full integrated functionality conceived of under the ePlanning platform, the existing software vendors need to provide integration points to allow for the exchange of information between their systems and the Portal.
To enable the ongoing reform and development required to facilitate the ePlanning platform long term, a stable funding source will need to be secured. The success of the services available to date, particularly online lodgement, make a good case for long term investment but the NSW Government needs to come out with a funding model to support the system.
A bright future
The success of the Portal is already evident from the high volumes of applications being submitted online, the large numbers of concurrence and referrals, statistics on the use of the Planning Viewer and the adoption of the web services.
It has been a long haul with considerable capital funds having been invested in providing services. The progress of the NSW Government is particularly significant in light of the low and fragmented ICT base it was coming off in 2015. The NSW Government should be commended for its investment and support for the various services.
Potentially by the end of 2020 we will see mandated online lodgement at each of the metropolitan councils, integration into council's in-house systems, and publication of lodgement data along with existing web map services.
The push to integrate eConstruction will enable public access to not only the planning approvals, but also the construction certificates and occupation certificates required to construct the building.
At that point, NSW will be able to rightly say ePlanning has a bright future and that the promise of the program has been fulfilled.
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