Changes to development contributions

Last year parliament made an amendment to the Local Government Act that has forced local councils to make changes to the way they charge development contributions. This is good news for commercial developers, but the benefits are less clear for those developing residential property.

Development contributions are a charge imposed by a council to recover some of the capital costs incurred by the council when providing infrastructure services for the development. When they were first introduced they were touted as a means by which councils could more fairly recover the cost of infrastructure by charging developers instead of ratepayers generally. The charges are imposed in six areas:

• Roading
• Reserves
• Stormwater
• Sewerage
• Water
• Community Infrastructure

While passing the cost of providing infrastructure onto those undertaking developments may have some merit in theory, true to form local councils have used it as a means to generate new revenue – they happily collected the development fees but made no reduction to general rates!

Quite simply, the fees became a racket, and still are, unfortunately adding significant cost to housing – typically between $20,000 to $30,000 per household unit.

The amendments to the development contributions followed a review undertaken by the Department of Internal Affairs in 2013. It found a number of problems with the way they were being used by councils, including:

1. Contributions from commercial developers were being used to pay for infrastructure that was not directly associated with servicing a development, including community facilities like art galleries, cemeteries, and aquatic centres.
2. There was inconsistency in the way councils were calculating the fees, and little or no transparency in how the fees were calculated and the assumptions being used.
3. There was little opportunity for those being charged the fee to challenge them.

That resulted in a number of changes which have just come into effect. Local councils were required to finalise the changes to their development contributions policies by 1 December 2014, with the new policies coming into effect on 1 July 2015.

The key elements to the changes are as follows:

1. Commercial developers will no longer be charged for infrastructure that is not needed to service their development.
2. There will be an objection process so those who believe they have been charged incorrectly will be able to challenge the council before an independent commissioner.
3. Council will be required to provide more detailed information about what a council is using development contributions for and explain how the costs of infrastructure projects are being apportioned between developers and the community. For example where a council adds a “financing” charge to a projects cost it will need to justify its position.
4. Developers will be encouraged to enter into agreements whereby they provided the infrastructure needed to service their development in return for lower development contribution charges.

Councils have reacted to the changes in different ways. To its credit, the Far North Council scrapped the fees entirely. On their website they say,

“As a means of encouraging development and growth in the Far North, Council has proposed to remove Development Contributions as an effective funding tool…Council is keen to remove any perceived barriers to potential development because it recognises that this is vital to the enhancement of the district…Council recognises that once conditions change, Development Contributions may once again be a useful funding tool but this is likely to be in a much more focussed manner.”

Well done, the Far North Council.

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