Farrah TomazinMarch 20, 2011
Matthew Guy says his biggest challenge will be housing affordability.
MATTHEW Guy has a tough task ahead. In opposition, the upper house MP repeatedly declared state planning a mess.
The Brumby government, he said, had brought ”more pain and division to the community through the planning system than any other government in Victorian history”. Councils were being bypassed, transparency was lacking, and the Windsor Hotel scandal eroded the public’s faith in the planning system.
But now that Mr Guy is the Minister for Planning, what’s his plan to restore the system’s credibility?
”In my view, the key thing about the planning system that was missing over the past four years was certainty and confidence,” he says. ”I’m committed to being quite active, quite interventionist, quite open, and a minister who wants to see those issues solved.”
Mr Guy has a reputation for being ambitious and is often touted as a future leader, and he has moved quickly. In his first few months, the 37-year-old has acted on key election promises and spent time meeting industry chiefs, who generally regard him as enthusiastic, smart, and accessible. He’s scrapped Melbourne 2030, Labor’s 30-year plan to manage population growth, and has begun work on a new planning strategy, although this won’t be delivered for two years. Planning laws that allowed high-density development along transport nodes have been scrapped. Two-kilometre buffers have been created around homes near wind farms. And under-utilised inner city sites – such as Fishermans Bend in Port Melbourne, the E-Gate site on Footscray Road in West Melbourne, or the Richmond train station precinct – have been earmarked for large-scale development.
But already the government has walked away from one election pledge: to scrap the Growth Areas Authority. Instead it boosted its powers to help with housing supply.
Mr Guy says he wants a planning system in which residents have a clear understanding about how their neighbourhoods might change.
He also says he wants to ”get away” from a system where the minister regularly ”calls in” developments, but this may be easier said than done. Asked what he sees as the biggest issue, he answers: housing affordability.
”The biggest challenge facing my generation in state politics will be affordability. It will be to ensure that people who come to Australia or live in Australia have the ability to buy a home and not go to a North American or European situation where there are two groups of people: those who own property and those who do not.
”And that is a real concern, because if we continue with a situation of high population growth and limited supply, we will end up in that space – and that’s a very, very poor outcome for Australia.
”Every day, it’s on my mind,” he says. ”My cousins, even some of my own staff, are in a generation which is being priced out of being able to afford their own home.”
It’s a challenge governments have faced for years – the question is what to do about it. Melbourne’s population is now growing by more than 2 per cent a year, and is set to exceed 5 million by 2020. Not even expanding the urban growth boundary drove down average house prices, which are now more than $500,000 in Melbourne and more than $200,000 on the city’s edge.
Mr Guy concedes the housing crisis can’t be tackled just by releasing more land for new homes, but he says it is an important part of the solution. He has set a target to release 50,000 new lots in one year – more land than any other government has released over a 12-month period – and has created a Housing Affordability Unit to report back to him regularly. About 363 hectares has already been released to create two new suburbs – Greenvale North and Greenvale West – about 20 kilometres north of the CBD, while in the Latrobe Valley, a further 300 hectares has been released.
But creating a liveable city doesn’t happen overnight; it requires vision and long-term plans. Mr Guy’s vision for Fishermans Bend – ”Australia’s first inner-city growth corridor” – could be a turning point.
While most of the growth has previously been accommodated by expanding outwards, Fishermans Bend- a mix of light industrial factories and vacant lots in Port Melbourne – could accommodate up to 15,000 dwellings in the inner city. But the project won’t start for another four years (there are likely to be costs to decontaminate land) and, as the Docklands experience shows, success isn’t always certain.
Still, it’s early days. Planning Institute of Victoria executive officer Stuart Worn says the sector is looking forward to seeing the government’s new planning strategy, while Property Council executive director Jennifer Cunich says it’s too soon to judge, ”but there’s a sense that decisions are being made on election promises”.
As for Mr Guy? He accepts the expectations are high. ”I know it’s a big job,” he says, ”but I’m very confident that the planning system I’ll leave in four years’ time will be a better one than I inherited.”