The April 2011 column considered the case of Joseph Street Pty Ltd v Tan, a decision at first instance reported at  VSC 586. The case has now been reversed on appeal, reported at  VSCA 113.
The effect of the Court of Appeal decision would appear to make the entering into of a s 173 Planning and Environment Act 1987 Agreement compulsory for developers in all circumstances where the municipal council is prepared to enter into such an Agreement.
The case involved a ‘villa unit’ style development of 6 single storey units in Box Hill. Units were sold off the plan with settlement to be after registration of the plan in accordance with common practice. The builder that the developer had contracted to undertake construction failed to do so and the developer was forced to find another builder. As a result, construction was not completed within the time allowed by the contract for registration of the plan (the sunset period) and the developer rescinded the contract.
The purchaser refused to accept rescission and sued for specific performance of the contract on the basis that the vendor had failed to use ‘best endeavours’ to have the plan registered. It had been established at first instance that this obligation consisted of both an express contractual obligation and also as an implied obligation.
The Full Court identified that registration of the plan could only be achieved when the council had issued a Certificate of Compliance, but that there were two methods by which the developer could obtain that Certificate and thus fulfill the contractual obligation to secure registration of the plan:
- the developer could complete all the building works to the satisfaction of all relevant service authorities; or
- the developer could enter into a s 173 Agreement with Council after entering into agreements with service providers.
Evidence given on behalf of the developer suggested that the s 173 Agreement option was limited to ‘greenfield’ developments and had not been contemplated by the developer as an option. However evidence from the council suggested that s 173 Agreements were common in ‘smaller’ developments and indeed the planning permit issued in respect of the development had referred to the possibility of just such an Agreement.
The effect of the s 173 Agreement is to give the council the ability to register on the ‘parent’ title (the title to the unsubdivided land) the requirement that the development be constructed in accordance with the planning permit issued in respect of the development. If council has the benefit of such an Agreement then, subject to the satisfaction of other relevant authorities, council is able to be satisfied that the development will be built in accordance with the permit and council’s planning responsibility in relation to supervision of construction is thereby satisfied. If construction is not in accordance with the permit, council is entitled to enforce thes 173 Agreement against the developer and all subsequent registered owners.
The s 173 Agreement process appears to be a shortcut to registration of the plan, as a certificate of compliance may be issued by council well in advance of completion of all construction and infrastructure works. The requirement that the developer enter into satisfactory agreements with infrastructure providers is a pre-condition to a s 173 Agreement and such arrangements may be tedious to negotiate, but once achieved registration of the plan can quickly follow.
This might cause concern for a purchaser if the only requirement on the vendor is registration of the plan. As can be seen from the above, this could be achieved well before construction is complete, but no purchaser is going to want to pay for a half finished property. Thus a purchaser needs to be satisfied that settlement will only be due after both registration of the plan and issue of a certificate of occupancy. Whilst there is much to be said against a certificate of occupancy being a true reflection that all works have been completed, it is at least an objective confirmation that most works have been completed. A better test is a satisfactory report from the purchaser’s building consultant, but few developers are prepared to countenance such a hurdle.
Whilst the Court of Appeal in Joseph Street may have identified a shortcut that was open to the developer, it is interesting to note that the developer was not aware of that possibility and there is no suggestion that the purchaser ever suggested to the developer that such a process was available, let alone that the developer refused to follow that course. Apparently, the mere fact that the option was available and not taken was enough to satisfy the Court that the developer had failed to use his best endeavours. A true case of ignorance is no excuse.
Whilst written for Victoria, this article has interest and relevance for practitioners in all states.