BY KERRY ANDERSON
OPENING any new business should be cause for community-wide celebration, but sadly is often marred by the frustration of dealing with local government.
As I talk to rural business owners around Victoria, it appears this is not an isolated incidence, particularly for those that are converting existing buildings to a new purpose.
Clearly this is not all of local government’s fault. Not only are councils being asked to regulate higher building standards, policy is forcing them to be more risk averse.
But could they do it better? In my opinion improvement could be made by both parties.
From a business perspective it is wise to do your homework before you start. Even then allow a contingency in your project plans for hidden costs and unexpected delays.
In one instance a group of business partners diligently researched other rural bakeries in preparation for their new start up. While allowing for the installation of disability access and modernisation of the premises they didn’t realise that even more stringent regulations apply to a building that changes purpose of business. This affected both their budget and their opening date. Ouch!
At the other end of the spectrum a business owner went through a lengthy application process only to discover that he hadn’t been required to do so. Double ouch!
Interpretation of ‘one-size-fits-all’ regulations and a lack of common sense is a huge area of concern for small businesses in a rural setting.
In the process of developing an old industrial site one developer learned that the standard answer to expect from council planning staff was "no".
A niche butter factory that recently relocated in order to expand was stunned to be told that a proposed car park would need to be sealed, something that they hadn’t considered in a rural context and beyond their already stretched budget. Ideally these extra requirements could be staged or enforced at a later date when considered necessary.
Delays in inspections and issuing of permits is a common complaint. While a business owner is counting the cost of mounting finance and lost potential income, council staff and contractors may only be allocated to this role on certain days and not replaced when on leave.
Keep a good record of all correspondence and conversations. One businesswoman resorted to visiting the council each week to try and progress her permit application and constantly received different responses from different staff members.
A funny story, if it only weren't so serious, is when a council planner asked why a businessman faced with a particularly complex site redevelopment had sent an email at 4.30am in the morning during another sleepless night pondering a lack of response and delays.
Know your rights. If Council doesn’t respond within a certain time period (ie. after 60 days in Victoria you can take the issue to tribunal); however, be warned that any request by council for more information can potentially reset this time frame.
For all these reasons some businesses are engaging a private town planner and this could be a wise investment if you don’t have the time and patience to deal with bureaucracy.
At the end of the day all the boxes need to be ticked by council so there is no point going on the attack. A good way forward is to make sure you keep your end of the bargain and negotiate common sense compromises where possible.
It is proven time and time again that the standard "no" answer can be turned around providing you can communicate your vision and demonstrate your goodwill.
In the meantime small business needs to keep lobbying government for more flexibility and increased access to council services.
KERRY ANDERSON: A businesswoman, philanthropist and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry Anderson is passionate about rural and regional Australia. She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace opportunities.
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