An aerial photo of a housing development.

Schedule delays as regional councils grapple with ‘impossible’ NSW online portal

The municipalities in Murray and Riverina say they are experiencing significant workload increases and delays thanks to a state government’s online scheduling system that was supposed to process development applications more efficiently.

Council representatives said they were forced to hire more staff to navigate the New South Wales government’s planning portal, leaving staff and regional residents in the lurch.

Delegates from the Riverina and Murray Joint Organization (RAMJO), which represents 11 municipalities in the region, will meet Thursday with NSW Planning Secretary Anthony Roberts to push for a more effective system.

“The reality is that it’s become an additional administrative level to navigate for both developers and the municipality, and it’s significantly increasing the workload and timelines for everyone involved,” said Berrigan Shire Mayor and RAMJO Chairman Matt Hannan.

Matt Hannan says the online system increases the workload of staff.ABC Riverina: Verity Gorman

Municipalities say problems include having to repeatedly submit the same information for a building application, requiring multiple passwords and not duplicating application data in local municipality systems.

The issues with the Planning Portal arose at a time when local governments reported a huge demand for their local planning departments.

“For example, development applications in the Berrigan Shire have nearly doubled, but the complexity of industrial investment applications has also increased,” said Mr. Hannan.

“Not only does this system make it nearly impossible to support business, it completely disappoints our staff.”

Councils have also reported difficulties in meeting legal deadlines due to the lagging system.

Staff feel the pressure

Karina Ewer, chief executive officer of Berrigan Shire Council, was scathing at the system, deeming the situation “dire”.

A wide road in a country town with two old-fashioned hotels.
Residents of Finley in the Berrigan Shire are among those experiencing delays in planning approval. ABC Riverina: Verity Gorman

She said local councils were on the brink of the problem and unfairly confronted by the bad sentiment of their communities.

“They have staff who don’t want to answer calls from the community at this point because they’re taking too much warmth from the community about what’s going on.

“It’s been a really tough rollout and it hasn’t been managed well.”

She also criticized the NSW Department of Planning and Environment (DPE) for not listening to the councils’ concerns.

In addition to a lack of housing options, she said regional communities struggled to recruit local city planners, who were in short supply.

A house with a sold sign in the front yard.
Regional councils say the housing crisis is making it difficult to attract staff such as urban planners. ABC News: Liz Pickering

“We’re trying to work with a system that’s very broken and it’s having some very bad effects on our community and our staff,” said Ms. Ewer.

System is effective, says government

But a DPE spokesperson said the system was effective.

“The Planning Portal modernizes and improves the process for progressing development applications and meeting development certifications, and provides greater transparency,” the spokesperson said.

“Since launch, we’ve made improvements based on user feedback.

The spokesman said the government had provided $4.8 million in funding to regional councils “to help them fund technical adaptations to move from the old slow and complicated paper-based system”.

“An additional $80,000 will be made available to each municipality to continue helping with their integration and automation,” the spokesperson said.

“We also invested $1 million to establish a team of planning consultants to help regional councils clear up development applications for new homes more quickly.”

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