Australia: Getting along with your local council - five golden rules

In brief - Arm yourself with information and follow established processes

No matter what business you're in, at some point you will have to deal with your local council. It's inevitable. Here are five golden rules to help you make the experience a positive one.

1. Know the limits

Council operates under a strict set of rules and regulations, so for example, there is a reason you can't add another level on top of your hairdressing salon. Unfortunately, no matter how compelling the case may be that a relaxation and wellbeing room would benefit your clients, the rules apply to everyone and council's job is to make sure that every decision it makes is consistent.

It may seem a simple thing, but actually clicking onto your council's website and exploring it can provide some real insight into what's possible in the local area. More importantly though, the council's website will have valuable information on zoning and use conditions - information that's critically important if you're thinking of expanding your cafe to have outdoor dining, for instance.

2. Know why the council does what it does

Your local council isn't a one-stop shop for all things occurring in your suburb with unlimited power and no accountability. More than anything, your council is a service provider that is focused on providing the best outcomes for its residents. That's why your development application to take up 90% of the space on the footpath with display boxes for your wonderful scented candles will be rejected.

The first thing you need to think before asking the council for something is, quite plainly: "If I lived here, would I want that to happen?" It's the residents who come first.

3. The councillors are there for a reason

Whether you live in the area, or have a business operating in the area, your local councillors are a terrific resource and a source of knowledge for all things related to council. As the direct liaison between the residents and the council, councillors are well equipped to assist across a whole range of issues.

4. Apply for things the right way

There is little point in trying to call the general manager of a local council asking for his or her permission to convert your corner block into a two storey parking complex for the supermarket across the road. Councils have processes. If your intention is to get something done, you are well advised to stick to the established process.

Most councils have an array of forms, FAQ documents and guidance notes on the best way to go about getting something done. Applying the right way will save the inevitable headache of having an application knocked back on a technical point - something that we see happen all too often.

The reality is that no matter how small the error may be, council can't vary its application of the rules on a case by case basis. The easier you make it for the council, the easier it becomes for you.

5. Pick up the phone

And finally we come to what I consider to be the most important tip of them all. Pick up the phone and ask.

Councils across the state are staffed by highly trained customer service officers who are a rich source of information on almost everything that council does. In the event that an officer can't answer your question, your call will usually be directed to someone who can.

The power of a phone call is something that can't be understated. The call will arm you with the information that you need to use rules 1-4 above better. An understanding of what is possible and what needs to be done to make it happen will make dealing with your council a whole lot easier.

Get along with your local council - do it right and save the fight.

Adam Brownlee Greg Skehan
Colin Biggers & Paisley

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