Council plans may ease health crisis

IN THE wake of criticism that council planning policies are part of the problem when it comes to doctor shortages in the city, Coffs Harbour City councillors will tonight vote to change the parking requirements for medical practices in the CBD.

Under the existing development control plan, medical practices are required to provide more parking spaces than other professionals.

"The recommendation will bring the requirements for medical professionals into line with other professionals," a council spokeswoman said.

"We have been listening to the issues raised by doctors and are looking at ways to adjust the inequalities."

She said the council had also created a forum for health professionals to discuss their concerns about the growing medical needs of the population.

"A strategic planning report on health needs is expected to be coming to the council at their July 19 meeting."

While these solutions may address some concerns, doctors such as consulting physician, Dr John Wenman, feel they are being constrained by council zoning restrictions.

Last year when proposed changes at Baringa Private Hospital required Dr Wenman to plan for the relocation of his practice, he bought 296 Harbour Drive.

Although aware the property was zoned residential, Dr Wenman believed his practice would be legal under existing use rights because a physiotherapy practice had already been operating there for 20 years.

"I was comfortable and confident I would get approval to practice," Dr Wenman said.

The council however said under the residential zoning he could only operate as a home occupation.

This would permit only one doctor and one staff member to work from the premises, which would also have to be the Wenman's home.

"No-one has been living here at the physiotherapy practice for 10 years it hasn't been operating as a home occupation for a long time," he said.

"I cannot run my practice with one staff member.

"All I require is approval for one part-time professional, which my wife and I would share, plus part-time support staff.

"The council are saying no to everything I propose it is incredibly frustrating."

A council spokeswoman said council staff had met with the Wenmans on a number of occasions but no development application or special legal advice had been lodged or received to date.

Dr Wenman said the whole saga had left him feeling incredibly embittered.

"I am at the point where I could pack my bags and leave," he said.

"I've been here for 30 years, raised my five children here and given my blood and guts to the job.

"If this is how they (the council) treat me, how will they treat new doctors coming to town?"

He said with no suitable areas to start up a practice in the city, the situation was getting very grim.

"This town has always had a history of doctor shortages.

"The severe zoning restrictions for medical practices outside the CBD mean when new doctors move here, they can't get the appropriate approvals and just move on.

"Our arch rival, Port Macquarie, attracts a lot more doctors their council is more facilitatory.

"Bureaucracy is fine but when it gets its claws in, it becomes inhuman, leaving the individual hanging by threads."

He said a petition was circulating among general practices in the area asking for the loosening of zoning restrictions for medical rooms.

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