The below market overview was prepared for Doyle’s Guide by Julius Skinner and the team at Borrello Graham.
Perth’s, and Western Australia’s, planning and environment market continues to be serviced by a mix of global, national and local firms, reflecting the diversity of both work and clients in this area. It is interesting to note, however, that the size of practices and teams remains quite evenly spread across the very different sizes of firms, and leading practitioners can be found at all types of firms.
The market overview and outlook for 2016 is also best described as ‘diverse’.
The well-documented ‘bursting’ of the mining boom, together with the underlying transition from construction to operational phase of several major resource projects and a global decline in commodity prices, have combined to impact on legal work and will continue to do in 2016. This is likely to be felt both directly in relation to mining and resources related work and indirectly in relation to work associated with service industries, particularly accommodation and development in regional Western Australia. 2016 is likely to be a difficult year in this respect as many players in the mining and resources sector and in industries servicing that sector, struggle to ride out the current economic conditions.
At a national level, property, planning and environment has been highlighted in several forecasts as one of the top areas of growth for law firms in 2016, but this appears to be based on strong property and development markets on the east coast, whereas the Western Australian market is very different. Again, the bursting of the mining boom and its flow-on effects (in particular a decline in population growth) have had an impact and, together with other factors, have resulted in record reductions in building approvals and the highest Perth CBD office vacancy rates in years.
There have also been some high-profile ‘hiccups’ such as the failure of the State Government’s proposals for local government reform in the Perth metropolitan area, and the ongoing delays and uncertainty around projects such as the Perth Freight Link (particularly following the Supreme Court’s decision in Save Beeliar Wetlands Inc v Jacobs  WASC 482) and the future of Fremantle Port.
On the other hand, the past 12 months has seen an unprecedented increase in approvals for high-rise apartment developments in the Perth CBD and, increasingly, further dispersed through the metropolitan area. LandCorp, the State’s land and development agency, currently has a portfolio of 30 active redevelopment projects across the Perth metropolitan area and regions, with the potential to provide more than 14,000 homes. And Perth itself is changing, with the Elizabeth Quay and Northbridge Link projects changing the very orientation of the CBD.
The programme of planning reforms also continues, despite the ‘hiccups’ referred to above. For example, the past 6 months has seen significant changes to local planning schemes with the Planning and Development (Local Planning Schemes) Regulations 2015 introducing a risk-based approach to amendments and deemed provisions into every local planning scheme. The introduction of Development Assessment Panels some years ago has also been consolidated, with amendments to the Planning and Development (Development Assessment Panels) Regulations in April 2015 significantly broadening the scope of developments that proponents can choose to have determined by a DAP, rather than by a local government.
2016 will see further deemed provisions become operational in local planning schemes, to give effect to the State Government’s bushfire planning reforms set out in State Planning Policy 3.7: Planning in Bushfire Prone Areas and the Guidelines for Planning in Bushfire Prone Areas. These will guide land use planning decisions in designated bushfire prone areas.
Perhaps most ambitious in terms of the future direction for both planning and environment law in Western Australia, has been the release of Perth and Peel @ 3.5 million and its suite of sub-regional planning frameworks, which is expected to be finalised in the second half of 2016, and the Perth and Peel Green Growth Plan for 3.5 million, which is out for public comment until April 2016. The latter comprises a draft Strategic Conservation Plan and draft Impact Assessment Report for the entire Perth and Peel region under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and the Environmental Protection Act 1986. If this achieves its objectives, it will have a significant impact in 2016 and far beyond in terms of certainty for development – which of course will have both positives and negatives for a legal sector that relies as much on disputes as it does on projects as sources of work.
Finally, it remains to be seen what impact global developments such as the Paris Agreement at COP21 in December 2015 will have ‘on the ground’ for environment and planning lawyers in Western Australia. Much will, of course, depend on the response of both the Commonwealth and State governments in terms of policy, of which only the beginnings are likely to emerge over the time period of this overview.
Overall, the outlook for the planning and environment legal sector in Perth and Western Australia in 2016 is certainly not doom and gloom, although the mix of work is likely to continue to shift, as it has done over the past 12 months, as the counter-cyclical elements of the legal sector respond to the continued changes in market conditions.