The 7 biggest mistakes people make when submitting a planning application.

Posted by on Nov 4, 2012 in Blog, How to/ Tips, Planning | 5 Comments

Planning permit application. Three words that sends fear through people, turning them whiter than a minimalist interior. If you have a small block, more than one house proposed (commonly referred to as a “development”), or heritage controls, you need a planning permit from the local council. Yes the council. However, the role of a planning permit is an important one; it’s about being good neighbours. Planning permission guidelines are a set of rules to protect the amenity of your site from your neighbours’ proposals, and them from you. In Victoria the rules created by the state government which local council planning departments put into effect for residential properties, are collectively called ‘Rescode’. The process of lodging a planning permit application unfortunately takes time, anywhere from 3 to 12 months depending on what you propose. There are also additional costs for preparing the application drawings and the council fees. This is frustrating when you just want to get on with your project, it’s also understandable you will be fearful of the council not granting you a permit. However, let me share with you the 7 biggest mistakes to avoid, and you will maximise your chances, and minimise your frustrations. Having achieved a 100% success rate in obtaining planning approvals in the 11 years running my practice, I know what to do and what not to do.

Mistake 1 – Buying the wrong property.

The biggest mistake you can make, and very costly one at that, is buying a property not suitable for what you want to do. This can easily be avoided. Speak to an architect or plannerbefore you buy, they will discuss with you your chances of getting a permit for what it is you propose. Planning can be a minefield; it’s not as easy as buying any block and doing what you want with it. Get in an expert who has the knowledge and the experience to know what the local council will and won’t support, and if the block you are keen on is best suited to accommodate your vision.

Mistake 2 – Ignoring the rules – RESCODE.

The job of the council’s planning department is to scrutinise your proposal. If it’s too tall, too close to the boundary etc, you will be asked to change it or refused a permit. I see all to often people ignoring the rules. Don’t give the council ammunition to use against you; it will slow your application down considerably and you will ultimately have to change your proposal to comply, costing you time and money. A good design will accommodate your needs within the rules; push against them but not over them.

Mistake 3 – Over development.

If your proposal is out of scale or proposes an increase in density well above that existing in the street, you are asking for trouble. We can’t expect dramatic change to happen overnight, propose an incremental increase in density only; this will not cause detriment to the character of the street that its residents enjoy. This topic was covered in greater depth in my previous blog on inappropriate development.

Mistake 4 –  Creating reason for objections.

Your immediately adjoining neighbours, and any objections they lodge has a big impact on the council’s decision. Remember it’s their job to ensure you will not cause any adverse affect on them, so don’t give them reason to object. Put yourself in your neighbours’ shoes; create a design proposal sympathetic to their property. This is not to say the neighbours are dictating what you can do. It’s about good design. Position bulkier elements of your proposal further from their sensitive interfaces, like living room windows, by instead placing them alongside less sensitive interfaces like blank walls etc. Your neighbours were there first, work with that not against it.

Mistake 5 – Not speaking to your neighbours.

You aren’t obligated to, however if the first they know of your proposal is the advertising board on your fence, they will be surprised, probably shocked. This may upset them, which will only increase their suspicions and likelihood of objecting. Approach the neighbours before you submit to council. Talk them through your proposal together with your architect, showing them how the design follows the rules. Ask if they have any concerns. If you have designed according to the code their objections will have no grounds and no impact at council.

Mistake 6 – Not speaking to the council prior to lodging  your planning permit application.

Different councils have ‘local variations’ to Rescode. As the name suggests these are rules amended to suit what they feel will serve their municipality best. In addition there are more subjective elements of Rescode, relating to a proposals shape and aesthetics, which different councils will have different views on. Not showing your design in its infancy to the council is a recipe for disaster. Get their feedback early on, it will bring to your attention any concerns they may have so you can design accordingly. These are easy to change when at the sketch design phase, saving you money, and lengthy delays with council later.

Mistake 7 – Not submitting comprehensive planning drawings.

Rescode defines what drawings make up a planning application set. Also the information those drawings must contain. Miss anything and you will get the dreaded ‘Request for further information’ letter. The council planning departments are always dealing with more applications than they can handle, they will happily slow you down to give themselves a chance to clear some of their existing application load.

A final note.

Missing from this list is design quality. This is something the planning policies do not address and therefore don’t assess. In my opinion this is unacceptable, and the reason why so much of what is approved is such bad design, making no attempt to add great architecture to our streets, and  harming the quality of housing we have on offer. All the best with your project. Spend the time and money to get it right and you will contribute something positive to your neighbourhood, by creating great housing and yourself a more valuable asset.


  1. Patience Grace
    November 8, 2012

    It must really peeve you as a design professional to have to point out the importance of your skills in “a Final Note”. I know it peeves many a resident/ passer-by/ potential purchaser to also realise that design is of so little “value” for the attention of bureaucrats in the whole town planning and application process.

    But great suggestions to help people think beyond their own fence when they build their own dream. Well done Darren.

    (now if we can figure out a way of getting a similar message to the neighbours so they understand the “developer” and the “architect” next-door…)

    • Darren Naftal
      Darren Naftal
      November 8, 2012

      You said it perfectly Patience, it does indeed peeve me that good design rarely factors into the decision to grant a planning permit. With so many developers just out to make a quick buck, it should be the council and VCAT putting a stop to this. Buildings aren’t here for a few years, we usually have to look at them for at least 50 years. They must contribute on many fronts: good design, and offer a variety of housing types to cater for varying budgets and needs, whilst be sympathetic to their surrounds, and contributing to their streetscapes.

      I often wonder in 50 years from now, what will people do with these awful buildings going up today? We value the Victorian and Edwardian houses that we still have left from the early 1900’s, by restoring (and recycling) them and making them fit for modern day life; because of their design and beauty. Will we restore these terrible offerings we are seeing go up now, in 50 years time? No. They will be torn down. They won’t be recycled, but rather they’ll need to be replaced as they were so bad to begin with, and with that more energy wasted in needing to start again… We lose on so many fronts with these poor developments being allowed through.

      We keep pushing our cause Patience: more good housing for more people.

  2. John Motyka
    November 8, 2012

    Your notes are well thought and and relevant from a designers point of view. Yet many of our clients dont understand that they will only get approved what council deems appropriate not what they want to put on the site.
    Also from what I have seen some councils will accept drawings that look like they were drawn by thumbnails dipped in tar. The lack of information and the accuracy of it was so bad in one case that we had to redraw the whole application.
    How can councils accept this? At the office where I work we strive to present work that gives the whole picture with comprehensive and accurately drawn detail. I would be ashamed to put my name on some of the work that I have seen.
    We also endeavour to encompass the entire ResCode guidelines, yet councils planning officers are free to object outside those guidelines. How does that help our planning process?
    We feel constantly frustrated by the planning process, even when we strive to work through the 7 points you have set out.
    Not sure what would help it? Give planners a comprehensive course in plan reading? Give planners a course in building design as part of their planning course?
    Yet we still are succesful in getting permits in spite of these obstacles. Enjoyed reading your article

    • Darren Naftal
      Darren Naftal
      November 8, 2012

      Hi John,

      Thank you for your comments. It’s great to hear of the experience and thoughts on these matters from a fellow designer.

      Unfortunately a lot of clients are told by someone who isn’t fully informed what they might be able to do with their property. This idea is then fixed in their minds. It’s often then in approaching the likes of you and I to make this happen, that we are then in the difficult position of needing to explain what is appropriate and what is not. This can often be disappointing for the clients, which is understandable. However, if they have not been through the process before, it’s like anything, they begin to understand and learn more about it.

      As for the level of quality of drawings submitted to council, or lack thereof, I’m so often appalled and frustrated by the work of others i have seen. I put so much pride into everything that leaves my office, I’m glad to hear you do too. So after all my hard work, for the council to then make my path through the planning process so difficult for some frustrating little reason, when i am standing at the planning counter and see drawings of someone next to me that look like they’ve been done by a child and they somehow get a permit… very deep breaths. However, I sleep well at night knowing I operate with integrity, and strive towards making a positive contribution to my community to providing well designed housing.

      As for council’s resetting Rescode rules, I feel your pain here too. As you say it only hinders the planning process and frustrates applicants who are following the rules.

      I’ve always felt that design quality should be assessed in council by having an architect or two in their office judging this. Not planners or urban planners who have no design training whatsoever. Perhaps one day John…

      I really appreciate and enjoyed reading your comments.



  3. Town Planner Brisbane
    August 4, 2015

    Thanks for sharing this such an informative and useful post.


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