Council Planning Permission
Temples & Planning
‘How I stopped worrying and learned to love the Council!’
In the process of developing a monastery or temple, there inevitably comes a time when we must face the dreaded DA (Development Application). This little essay is an attempt to explain some of the issues and make the whole process less fearful. I must warn that I have no professional experience in Councils or Planning, and these comments are not meant as legal advice, nor are they policy of the ASA. They are the outcome of some experience dealing with Councils and planning issues in situations I have encountered as a monk in Australia. I’m sure there are many people out there with more experience than myself – we’d love to hear from you!
At a recent meeting in Liverpool, the Council officers said they knew of over 20 temples in their area, and only one had the proper approval! Please reflect what this means. If what these officers say is true, the remaining twenty or so temples are all operating illegally. At any time they can be inspected by the Council, and could be fined or at worst closed down. It is only because of the forbearance of the Council that they can operate unmolested.
So if you’re in a temple that does not have proper approval, don’t think that no-one in the Council knows about you! It’s quite likely that they know, but are choosing not to act. Like all of us, Councils have limited time and resources, and must make choices as to which cases they need to enforce. If a temple is operating without approval, as long as there are no complaints or major problems, the Council might just let matters be. The problem is, of course, that problems eventually arise. If you don’t have the proper approval then you will be in a very weak position. What happens, for example, if someone gets sick after eating in the monastery? Or if the neighbours complain about the noise from your ceremony?
It’s much better to get everything done properly the first time. That way, although it’s more work and more hassle, you’ll get on the right side of the Council, and they’ll be more inclined to help you out when there are problems. Even if you have already done things without proper approval, it’s still better to just let the Council know. Actually, people are doing things all the time without approval, and the Council knows this. What they want is to move to a better level of compliance. So if you’re just straightforward and honest, say what you have done and what you plan to do, they should usually appreciate that and work with you to get everything sorted out.
Change of Use
One thing we often don’t realize is that a DA may be required by the Council even if you are not actually doing any building work. If you buy a place that was previously used for a different purpose, then change it to be used for a Buddhist Temple, the Council needs to know. This is because development and planning considerations don’t just involve construction standards, but also what activities are going on in the place. For example, are there enough car parking spaces? Will it be safe for the amount of people in the space? Are there emergency fire exits? Will there be any noise impact on the neighbours? So if you’re starting a Buddhist temple, monastery, or centre, you need to find out whether you must apply for change of use.
Some of us may fear that, in a mainly Christian country, the local authorities will not look kindly on Buddhist centres in their area. I believe this almost never happens. From what I have seen, the local Council is usually happy to have some Buddhist temples around – it adds colour and variety to the area, and encourages tourism. Council also appreciates the valuable role temples play in providing community services. So if you are having difficulties, it’s much more likely to be just the ordinary difficulties that everyone has when trying to deal with Councils. Everyone always complains about Councils, so the fact that you are having problems does not mean they are biased against Buddhism.
Having said that, it is still a good idea to educate your Council as to the positive benefits a temple will have in their area. It may happen that the difficulties arise, not because of a deliberate bias, but because the Council’s rules were written in a different context – they were not thinking about Buddhist temples when they made their rules about ‘places of public worship’. So sometimes the rules may be inappropriate. The Council officers at the meeting in Liverpool admitted that some of their rules were too strict and needed revising. If this is the case, you need to work with the Council officers to ensure that the rules are applied in a reasonable way.
If you do feel that your Council has acted out of religious bias, and has not given you a fair go because you are a Buddhist group, then you should seek legal advice. Also, you can contact the ASA – we’d like to hear your story, and maybe we can help.
Buddhism is supposed to be all about peace and harmony – so if your neighbours start complaining about noise disturbing them, maybe they have a point. Try to keep your services quiet, with a minimum of bell-banging. Avoid amplified chanting and the use of PAs whenever possible, especially outdoors. If you are going to have a ceremony that will make some noise, take the time to visit your neighbours beforehand and let them know. If they make a reasonable request, such as to finish before a certain time at night, try to oblige them. This is just common politeness.
Noise is treated very differently in Australia compared with most Asian countries – there you can just let rip with a huge PA in the monastery and no-one minds. But Australians are very private people, and care a lot about having an undisturbed home environment. So see if you can use the temple to deepen the silence, not destroy it. One idea is to have big ceremonies, such as Buddha’s birthday or kathina, at another venue, not in the temple itself. Some temples hire the local Town Hall or community centre. This means that someone else has to worry about parking spaces, toilets, and noise pollution – you can just worry about Buddhism. Doing it this way also means you can use the occasion for community outreach, contacting people who would never normally go to the monastery.
For most Australians, Buddhist monasteries have a mysterious atmosphere, something exotic, fascinating, yet not really in touch with the everyday world. In Buddhist countries, of course, the feel is very different; there, the temple is the centre of community life. We can help bring the temple and Buddhism into the community by contributing to community work. For example, if there is a rubbish clean-up day, get the devotees together and go and help. Make an appearance at local celebrations and activities. By being seen to contribute to the local community, people will value your presence more and will want to support you.
For example, a local Tibetan group near where I live did some charity work sending medical assistance to Nepal. Then they made a nice display, with pictures, Buddha images and so on, in the local Council building. So the whole community got to see what they were doing, and to appreciate the help they were offering. These things spread about in unexpected ways. As it happens, at that time I had to go to our Council to put in our DA. I was feeling quite nervous and uncertain; but then I saw all the Buddha images and the positive image of Buddhism being projected right there in the Council building, so I became full of confidence – and the Council gave us all we asked for.
Having seen Buddhism practiced in a number of countries, I really feel that Australia is perhaps the best country in the world for Buddhism right now. There are tremendous opportunities for growth. Let’s try to put Buddhism on a secure and trustworthy footing for the future by laying the right foundations for development now.