How to push the rules when getting council approval

When you’re creating a design for your new home or renovation, pushing the planning rules may be the only way to get the home and outcome you really want. So it’s certainly something that requires consideration when planning your renovation or new build.

Just how much do you push your local planning rules? How do you weigh up whether breaking or pushing the rules is worth the effort to build what you really want to? Is it possible to still get approval with a project that breaks the local planning rules? Or do you play it safe, build something not so contentious, and know you’ll get approval? Here’s my tips to help with your decision.

Ultimately your decision will come down to three things:

  1. risk

  2. time

  3. money

Let’s deal with each of these individually.

#1 Risk

If you choose to create a design that doesn’t meet your local rules, you need to understand that, at some point, you may be told ‘no you can’t build this’, and have to start again.

In each state, in each council, there are different levels of approval to seek, based on how much you are meeting the rules. Your ability to access these different levels can also be dependent on your home, street and suburb.

Exempt Development

The simplest path to council approval is when you don’t need to get it at all. This can be known as Exempt Development. There are certain types of projects that won’t need council approval at all or to meet any rules – and each state and council will have rules about what these are. If your project falls into their category, it means you can proceed straight to Building Approval.

Self-Assessable, or Compliant Development

This type of development can also enable you to skip the council approval process – as long as you satisfy all the rules laid down to meet the definition of this type of development. If your project fits this type of development, you can usually skip council approval, and go through to Building Approval.

Council Approval (Development Approval)

Once you get past Self-Assessable or Compliant Development, you then move into different levels of Council Approval. These will vary depending on the state and council area you are in, what you’re planning to do, and the age and character of your home.

Sometimes these council approval processes can be very quick still, and handled by externally accredited consultants. At other times, they’re long and drawn out, taking a year or more to achieve. Your council will need to advertise your project and give community members an opportunity to have their say about whether it should go ahead, as part of processing your approval.

Legal measures

You can imagine as you keep pushing the rules, you escalate your project through the various levels of approval available to you. At some point you may just run out of options to seek approval for your project via Council – and choose to argue for it at a court level.

At any point, your application for approval may be rejected, and require escalation to the next level to seek approval. And you may just run out of levels of approval and still get a ‘no’.

Determining how badly you want this design outcome that breaks or pushes the rules, is about weighing up the risk associated with potentially being told ‘no’ – and having to start again.

#2 Time

When working with clients, I usually recommend that we wait until we’ve achieved council approval before moving onto the next phase of the project. This avoids spending fees and time on moving the project forward (into further drawings and resolution), without certainty council will allow you to build it as submitted.

Of course, you can choose to do so – to keep moving forward on your project – whilst waiting for council approval. This goes back to your risk assessment however, and the confidence you have in getting an approval.

Each of those different levels of approval I outlined above can take various amounts of time. From zero time (obviously where they’re not required) … through to 12 or more months.

Some homeowners do not have 12 or more months up their sleeve to wait and before moving forward with their renovation or new home. They may have a block of land they’re paying a mortgage on, and can’t finance both their existing home and the block for that period of time. Others may just not want to wait that long.

So just how long do you have for your project? Remember – often your deadlines are self-imposed … but if you want to be in your finished home sooner rather than later, then that may impact your decision on how hard to push the rules.

#3 Money

The higher the level of approval you need to achieve, the more money will be involved. There’ll be costs in paying for consultants to assist you in preparing and submitting your approval – because seriously, don’t go it alone if you’re trying to break or push rules. You need experts on board (see further in this blog). You may need to provide more information for your approval, which you need drawn up by your designer and other consultants. There are usually higher application fees with your council for the longer approval processes. And of course, there are holding costs – if you’re paying interest on a mortgage for your land, for example.

How does this fit into your budget? Are these extra costs worth the outcome you’re chasing for your project?

Don’t assume

Whatever you decide, get good quality professional advice to help you make your decision.

There’s a home in west Brisbane. The story goes that the owner wanted to build a carport / garage, assuming they’d be able to demolish a tree on the footpath. They went ahead and built the carport. Council declined their application to have the tree removed. This is how things look now … I kid you not.


Don’t assume you’ll get approval because it’s something you need, or seems like a logical choice to you.

On the flipside, the home we bought and renovated in Ashgrove has the converse story. The previous owners wanted to renovate it, extend it, add a garage to the side, move it around on the block. However, given it’s a character area, they assumed (and got advice from somewhere) that it’d be too difficult, require lots of time and money, and so they sold the home instead. They were quite surprised (as they were living in the home behind us), to see we got our approval through in 2 weeks via Brisbane City Council’s RiskSmart program (where external consultants are accredited by the Council to provide fast-track approvals).

We worked with a planning consultant, took photos around the area of homes that had similar work built and approved, and mounted a solid argument as to why our project was in keeping with development in the area.

Work with professionals with demonstrated experience in your area, dealing with your specific challenge

Do you want to demolish an old home in a character or heritage area? Find a planning consultant and designer who have helped others do this already with your council.

Do you want to break the height limit? Find a planning consultant and designer who have helped others do this already in your area.

Do you want to build closer to the boundary than normally allowed? Cover more of your site than normally allowed? Build in materials not normally permissible in your area? Find a planning consultant and designer who have helped others do this already in your area.

Getting the picture?

If you speak with them early, you’ll get a good understanding of the risk, time and money involved in pursuing this for your project – and then be able to weigh up whether the outcome is worth it.

You’ll also get great insight into specific strategies that can improve your chances of approval.

Show your council a preliminary version of your design

Often you can book a meeting with the planning officers in your council that will be assessing your project – before you are ready to submit it. This can be called a Pre-lodgement meeting, and has other names too.

Sometimes you will have to pay for this – and sometimes that fee may come off your approval application fee.

Sitting down with these council staff members (and your planning consultant and designer) can help you see just how contentious your project is, and better understand your chances for approval.

Consider speaking to your neighbours

If your project is going to need a level of approval that means your neighbours will be notified about it, and invited to lodge objections, it can be in your interest to inform them prior to lodging your application.

Consider this carefully though. When you ask for someone’s feedback, and then do nothing to take it on, you can create more angst than existed in the first place.

And if you try to pressure or hurry them in reviewing your drawings, or play down the fact that your non-compliance with rules is not a big deal, they may become suspicious and take a lot more interest than they ever would have initially.

If you can be open, transparent and help them feel informed, however (and perhaps take your planning consultant or designer to help answer questions), it may just be the key to expediting your process overall.

So, do you still want to break all the rules when designing your renovation or new home?

You can see there’s a few things to weigh up and consider when choosing the strategy you’ll use.

Of course, preparation is key – as with everything in renovating and building. Prepare properly and get professional advice and support – and you’ll be better equipped to avoid major obstacles and headaches in getting your project approved.

Other blogs and resources you may find useful …

Want to object to a neighbour’s Development Application? Or anticipate what might happen with your submission? Read this …

If you’re in NSW, plug your address into this website to see whether your project qualifies as “Exempt Development” or “Compliant Development”.

If you’re in Victoria, you can find out similar info here …

In Brisbane City Council? Here’s what’s considered exempt development.

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