The objective of this audit was to determine if local government (LG) entities effectively regulate residential building permits (permits). The specific lines of inquiry were:
- Do LG entities adequately assess permit applications?
- Do LG entities effectively monitor and enforce compliance with permits?
We audited the following 4 LG entities in metropolitan and regional Western Australia (WA) that had issued a large number of permits, and the Building and Energy Division (formerly the Building Commission) within the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety:
- City of Albany (Albany)
- City of Gosnells (Gosnells)
- City of Joondalup (Joondalup)
- City of Mandurah (Mandurah).
A permit is usually required for construction or renovation of any building. This includes new houses, carports and sheds. The permit process is legislated under the Building Act 2011 (Act). In 2017-18, all LG entities in WA issued around 18,400 permits for residential buildings. Of these, nearly 13,500 related to new houses with a total value of more than $3.8 billion.
To get a permit, either a certified or an uncertified application must be lodged with the relevant LG entity, along with the fee prescribed in the Building Regulations 2012. A permit can be issued when building plans meet the requirements of the Act, the Building Code of Australia (Code), and planning and other required approvals. LG entities must assess certified applications within 10 business days and uncertified applications within 25 business days, unless the applicant and the LG entity agree in writing to extend the time. Figure 1 summarises the permit process.
If information in the application is missing or incorrect, LG entities can request information informally (via email or phone), or formally based on the Act’s requirements. LG entities can only formally request information and ‘pause the clock’ for up to 21 days, once. Thereafter, LG entities have the remainder of the 10 or 25 days to process the application.
If LG entities do not meet the timeframes or the agreed extended time, they must refund the application fee, but may still process the application. The clock stops when the permit is issued. A permit is valid for 2 years unless otherwise specified or extended.
LG entities are required under the Act to keep a public register of permits and records of approved plans for owners and relevant parties to inspect.
Construction in all states and territories is a regulated activity. In WA, the Act gives LG entities the power to monitor and inspect building works to ensure compliance with the permit, but does not mandate any particular level of monitoring or inspections. The Act also provides LG entities with the power to issue building orders to remedy or stop building works, and prosecute builders and owners for non-compliance. Failing to comply with a building order carries a penalty of up to $50,000 for a first offence and up to $100,000 and 12 months imprisonment for subsequent offences.
The Building and Energy Division (B&E), supports the functions of the Building Commissioner legislated in the Act. B&E administers the Act and provides advice to LG entities and the building industry. It also regulates builders and surveyors through the issue of licences, monitoring compliance with building laws, and complaint processes. B&E can investigate alleged breaches of building laws, take disciplinary action against builders, and refer building non-compliance matters to LG entities. We audited how B&E regulates builders and surveyors in our 2016 Regulation of Builders and Building Surveyors audit.
Since July 2016, B&E has collected permit information from LG entities such as details of builders, application processing times (including start-pause-stop clock and reasons), permit decisions, and conditions. This information is stored in B&E’s Building Permit Database (Permit Database).
All 4 LG entities in our sample adequately assessed applications and issued nearly all permits within legislated timeframes between July 2016 and June 2018. They also improved timeliness of approvals over the last 4 financial years. However, different approaches to when LG entities started, paused and stopped the clock raise concerns about the accuracy and comparability of these processing times. Key controls to promote transparent and accountable decision-making had also either not been implemented or were not effectively managed.
The LG entities monitored and inspected building projects to identify non-compliance but the limited extent of this work meant they do not confidently know if building works in their area comply with requirements of permits. All LG entities we reviewed relied on complaints from the community and others as the primary means of identifying instances of non-compliance. Resolution of these issues was not always timely with some matters taking years to finalise.
The LG entities assessed permit applications against requirements in the Act. Our review of 100 applications received between July 2016 and June 2018 across the LG entities, found permit processes were followed and decisions recorded in their systems. Permits were issued only when applications contained the required supporting documents and approvals.
However, we identified control weaknesses that could result in applicants receiving preferential treatment, biased decisions and permits that had not been properly authorised. We found:
- none of the LG entities recorded conflicts of interest related to applications. We note staff declare interests annually to comply with the Local Government Act 1995, however these did not cover conflicts of interest relating to permits
- at Mandurah, staff could approve and issue permits without being authorised to do so
- Joondalup had 9 different positions, including administration officers and personal assistants, authorised to approve permits.
The LG entities used different processes and interpretations of the Act to receive and assess applications. Builders we spoke with confirmed our observations and told us about the impact of this on their operations. These different practices can limit the consistency and efficiency of approval processes. For example:
- all 4 LG entities provided online application lodgement and tracking facilities, but Joondalup required one-off applicants to apply by e-mail or over the counter
- Gosnells reviewed all certified applications in detail while the other 3 LG entities only checked these applications for completeness. The Act does not require LG entities to check the Certificate of Design Compliance (CDC) or prohibit them from doing so
- Albany paused the clock for informal requests, which is contrary to the Act, and Joondalup stopped the clock after application assessments were complete, but before issuing permits. These practices can provide misleading information on the number of days taken to issue permits. Both LG entities advised they had adopted compliant practices as a result of the audit.
B&E received around $2.5 million of State funding to deliver an electronic lodgement and assessment system by 2017-18 to standardise the permit approvals processes. However, the system has not been developed. B&E told us that it consulted with large LG entities during the audit and found a lack of support for the system as LG entities had already modified their systems and processes to align with the permit approval requirements of the Act.
The LG entities issued most permits on time. Between July 2016 and June 2018, about 98% of applications were assessed within the required timeframes. Nearly all had a permit issued. This helps builders and owners to plan building works, and avoid potential losses and delays. We also found the LG entities improved the timeliness of permit approvals in the past 4 financial years.
The LG entities took around 3 times longer to issue permits when they received incomplete and incorrect applications and had to wait for more information from applicants. Most of the LG entities’ information requests we reviewed related to:
- missing or inadequate information in the CDC
- home indemnity insurance and other approvals such as owner builder approval, or water services notifications.
Applicants can avoid delays in permit approvals if they submit complete and correct applications.
LG entities provided limited building activity information to B&E, community and industry stakeholders. The limited use of the Permit Database amongst LG entities means comprehensive building data is not collected across the sector. For example, only 8 metropolitan LG entities, including Gosnells, report data online to the Permit Database. A lack of reporting makes it difficult for B&E and other stakeholders to assess performance against legislated permit timeframes and other building control activities.
The LG entities monitored and inspected building progress but this work was limited. Albany monitored permit expiry, Gosnells inspected footings, and Joondalup and Mandurah carried out one-off compliance activities on a small sample of building works. None regularly monitor or inspect at other stages of works. This is concerning given B&E’s most recent inspection of 337 new houses found that nearly 30% to 50% of key building stages did not satisfactorily comply with building standards. This included non-compliant slab, roof and bushfire area requirements that may lead to future building quality and safety issues.
The LG entities did not always resolve community concerns about building works in a timely manner. Our review of 43 complaints found 6 compliance matters were not resolved in a timely manner across Albany, Joondalup and Mandurah. These 3 LG entities often granted extensions to owners and builders to comply. Albany had 1 matter which took 7 years to resolve.
 A certified application costs 0.19% of the estimated value of building works while an uncertified application costs 0.32%. The minimum fee payable is $97.70
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