They promised an end to the Kennett-era planning free-for-all. What went so wrong?
In December 1999, 1700 people packed Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne to be told how the new state Labor government would discard Kennett-era land-use planning. The meeting had all the hope of a religious revival meeting. Labor promised to reintroduce more planning prescription, greater local council control and more resident participation in decisions.
Today, this citizen goodwill has been lost.Advertisement: Story continues below
Illustration: John Spooner
The government is attempting the most radical change in Victoria’s planning history by shifting planning power from local councils to developers and the state. This is more fundamental than the deregulation imposed by the former Kennett government. Labor wishes to destroy an independent land-use planning system and privatise planning in all but name.
Local councils have traditionally had the central role in development approvals and administration of planning schemes. The Kennett government reduced regulation and undermined a strong council permit system. Most decisions became discretionary and contestable under weak guidelines.
Labor quickly reneged on its promise to reregulate planning. The battle over high-rise illustrates this process. There are no mandated enforceable height or density controls in the main residential zone or in other key zones such as business zones. A weaker code is in place for high-rise development than for low-rise. This has led to a bonanza with developers constantly trying the system on, shocking design standards and piecemeal destruction of heritage. Ad-hoc decisions unrelated to policy are the norm, and inconsistency and uncertainty the rule.
Large residential and other areas will soon be targeted for intensive redevelopment by being designated as fast- and slow-track development zones.
Melbourne residents would revolt if they were able to look ahead 20 years and see the accumulated results. But incremental, ruinous change is imposed stealthily for personal gain and to collective detriment.
The government now intends to finish the job of deregulating planning. Developers will be able to initiate and manage their own changes to planning schemes. Councils will be unable to abandon these amendments and will stand by impotently while their planning schemes are whittled away.
Councils will also lose control over most major developments through the operation of state-appointed panels. New “code assessment” approvals will remove council power over many other permits. Where an application conforms to a code, approval will be, in effect, automatic. Councillors will be barred from involvement in such applications.
Many codes cover major and complex applications and many seemingly minor applications have unforeseen and complex impacts.
These changes will invite state corruption. Secret deals between developers and the government will become common. Resident participation in decision making will be a distant memory, and council planning powers effectively removed.
Labor in government has maintained strong ministerial powers and used them extensively. In the year to April 2010, Planning Minister Justin Madden intervened in 233 matters, up 44 per cent. Of these, 55 were major development projects. However, in total, Madden is involved in approving thousands of new dwellings or uses.
Labor recently decided to allow higher-rise development near public transport routes. Many heritage strip shopping centres and residential buildings will be incrementally destroyed under this policy. A new Activity Centre zone will disregard heritage values and remove resident notification of development proposals.
Change leads to anxiety, and Melbourne is changing rapidly. Multi-unit approvals are running at more than 12,000 dwellings in the inner and middle-ring suburbs a year. Outer urban sprawl and inner urban high-rise are the two government-installed pillars of Melbourne’s future. Both are the worst options.
Melbourne needs to become more compact, but large areas of vacant and underused metropolitan land are available for redevelopment without the need to wreck Melbourne’s built heritage. A public process is needed to identify such areas and the rules for their development, and citizens must be included in the planning process.
This will require governments to cast off their phobic aversion to intervention, stop empowering vested interests, and rediscover a role for themselves beyond acting as facilitators for private sector investment.
Many cultures care for their heritage of buildings, see in them defining elements of personal and shared identity. People flock to such places to share this pleasure. City leaders elsewhere understand the economic value of retaining history. But we stand by while governments do deals with the wielders of the wrecking ball. One day we will wake up, too late, to what we have lost.
Madden recently said that his task was to “enable” development and adopt a “can-do” approach to approvals. These are the words the Kennett government planning minister Robert Maclellan used in 1996. Either the same speechwriter is still at work, or Maclellan has morphed into Madden. It will be interesting to see whether residents respond to this worrying new world of planning when they vote on Saturday.
Michael Buxton is associate professor, environment and planning, at RMIT University.