The British Columbia Construction Association (BCCA) is encouraging the City of Vancouver to shift to digitized e-permitting and speed-up the development approvals process in light of the urgent need for housing and acute pressures put on the industry by the pandemic and devastating wildfires.
BCCA President Chris Atchison says an extreme backlog of permitting is adding risk, complexity and instability to the industry and greater digitization of the development approvals process would help.
“There is no building without permits,” he says. “This is not something an owner or contractor can just skip in order to keep things moving. Every construction project is already a complex ecosystem with many moving parts, requiring planning and finely tuned schedules.”
BCCA recently sent a letter to Vancouver city manager Paul Mochrie and Theresa O’Donnell, general manager of planning, urban design/sustainability, noting the backlog of permits is affecting the industrial, commercial and institutional construction industry across the province.
The letter notes skilled workers are facing layoffs as contractors manage project delays and insecurity, which pushes some workers out of the country, creates negative word-of-mouth for talent acquisition and retention, reduces apprenticeship and causes outflow migration to other regions.
Owners and employers facing cash flow and other financial challenges as a result of continued delays in Vancouver may seek to mitigate those impacts by cutting back on hiring and investment on their operations in other regions, the letter states, and trusted developers may compromise the integrity of their submissions because of the unreliability and inconsistency of the city’s permitting process.
In other words, the letter submits, “Why invest the time and resources needed if the odds of delay are so great that they outweigh the risks of compromises in compliance?”
Given the urgency of the housing situation, which has been heightened by COVID-19 and the summer’s devastating wildfires, the BCCA letter notes it’s crucial that industry and government work together to find solutions.
Andrea Law, general manager, development, buildings and licensing for the City of Vancouver, stated in a response letter to Atchison and other industry officials that addressing long-term changes to the development and building permitting process continues to be a top priority for the city, with council establishing a mandate for permit and licence modernization early this year.
“Expanded adoption and reliance of technology is a central dimension of our process improvements efforts,” she wrote. “Our work to date has been focused on shifting from a reliance on paper plans to digital plans, a current state mapping of key processes and increased reliance on our 3-1-1 Contact Centre team to provide timely responses to first-line support inquiries.”
Law said the city is undertaking a multi-year transformation program to introduce additional navigable, user-friendly digital services, operating on the basis of standardized and transparent business rules.
She noted the city is conscious of the need for robust and progressive change management and recently received a grant from the province to advance the implementation of an interactive digital development application that will be the foundational core for digital transformation of the city’s permitting and licensing services.
City council is expected to receive an update later this fall with more detail on the digital transformation program.
The B.C. construction and homebuilding industry has been flagging the permitting backlog as a significant problem for some time now. The Homebuilders Association of Vancouver has led the charge on the issue. The association has received positive feedback from the city but hasn’t seen any real movement or operational change to speed up the process.
The solution, says Atchison, is to shift to digitized e-permitting and greater digitization of the development approvals process.
“The process is still extremely manual, requiring high-touch processing and management. As a result, permits are slower to process, slower to follow-up, difficult to research, and subject to unnecessary errors and delays. It’s a black box.”
BCCA maintains it will also cut down on red tape.
“Speed in processing is part of it,” Atchison says. “So is ease of information flow and communications, including auto-communications to the applicants. Technology improves transparency and reduces errors. That cuts down on administrative support, which helps to ease the backlog.”
Although permits are under municipal control, it’s an issue across Canada and there have been no efforts made to improve the systems, he says.
“Where are the other levels of governments? While an administrative solution is likely technology, there needs to be the political and staff will to address this. Hire people. Train them. Get moving.”
There is lots of talk from everyone but no action, says Atchison.
“Enough talk. Enough acknowledging it’s an issue.”
Associations representing the ICI sectors of construction typically operate separately from those supporting the single-family residential contractors, he says, but both sides of the industry are now singing off the same song sheet.
“This issue of permitting backlogs has united the whole industry around an advocacy issue, including bringing provincial players to weigh in on a situation that might seem very specific to one geographic region. This speaks to the enormous impact that the City of Vancouver can have on a whole industry, province-wide, across sectors.
“With pandemic recovery on our doorstep and infrastructure investment a priority, time is of the essence.”