Election promises are slow to develop | Planning | The Age

Chris Tolhurst

September 17, 2011 –> 

 

Construction hats

The Baillieu government is yet to deliver the bulk of its planning strategy.

There might be little difference between the Brumby and Baillieu planning regimes.

It’s 10 months since the Baillieu government took power in Victoria promising a community-friendly and less combative approach to urban planning.

However, the new government is yet to flesh out much of the detail of its planning strategy and offer a big-picture policy to replace the previous state government’s controversial Melbourne 2030 plan.

There might end up being little discernible difference between the Brumby and Baillieu planning regimes in any case.

Although the new government has been careful to publicly stress the role of local government, neither Premier Ted Baillieu nor his planning minister, Matthew Guy, has shown any desire to return planning control powers to councils.

”If Labor in Victoria was the captive of developers, then the Baillieu government is likely to be equally or more so,” says Terry Burke, the head of housing studies at Swinburne University. ”So the new state government wouldn’t want to hand back more power to local government.”

The Baillieu government is keen to keep Melbourne’s suburbs low-rise, however. Within days of the election win last November, Mr Guy dumped Labor’s planning law facilitating higher-density redevelopment (more than three storeys) along major tram routes.

In opposition, the planning minister warned that Melbourne risked becoming dysfunctional and losing its character permanently unless the brakes were applied to suburban apartment construction.

Mr Guy’s new metropolitan planning strategy is to be informed by ”the most recent information on issues such as population growth and housing capacity”, according to the Department of Planning and Community Development.

However, it could be 18 months before this planning model is operational. This has left the planning framework in something of a limbo. Councillors say the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) continues to base its planning appeal rulings on Melbourne 2030 (which in 2008 was rebranded Melbourne@5 Million) rather than on the strategic imperatives of the new government.

Mr Guy is also drawing flak from councillors who claim Spring Street is being disingenuous in its consultation processes.

City of Boroondara councillor and former mayor Jack Wegman says serving councillors have been unreasonably excluded from an advisory committee, established by Mr Guy in July, to review the planning system.

Members of this committee include planning consultant Geoff Underwood; lawyer Tony Montebello; and Jane Nathan, a consulting adviser to councils who was the mayor of Hawthorn 20 years ago. Mr Guy hasn’t seen fit to include a serving councillor or mayor on this powerful committee.

”It is an egregious example of insensitivity on the government’s part,” Cr Wegman says.

”Where is the local community representation? How can you have a body reviewing the law that excludes those who are most affected by that law?”

Urban planning is always a problematic area for governments. The Bracks and Brumby Labor administrations were criticised for getting too close to developers and for using VCAT to ride roughshod over the interests of communities.

In an earlier era, the coalition Hamer and Thompson governments were electorally damaged by the land deals of the late-1970s and early-1980s.

Dr Burke says there has been constant to-ing and fro-ing between state and local government over planning powers for more than 50 years.

”In the 1960s, we got the six-pack blocks of flats around the inner suburbs,” he says. ”This was a function of removing planning control from the local government in the 1950s”

“Each time a state government relaxes the planning laws to create more development opportunities you get the development sector abusing the process, which creates a backlash.”

”The state government therefore needs to hand more control back to local government. That remains for about 10 years until the frustration with local government control brings about a reform of the planning system – and again the same thing happens: the development industry pushes the system to its limits and beyond.”

Many councillors would like to see the state government return planning power for basic residential services to councils.

Another clarion call is for VCAT to give precedence to local planning policy above all other factors when it is ruling on contested development applications.

But Cr Wegman says it’s naive to believe governments of any persuasion would hand back planning control to communities.

”There are economic imperatives for state governments and you can’t give total control to communities,” he says.

But Cr Wegman says the balance between local politics and the state government’s interests are deeply askew. ”Victoria seems to have only one industry, the development industry,” he says.

”The previous government would have done anything to ensure that that industry wasn’t put at risk. This new government has yet to demonstrate that it is any different, but the expectation of the community was that it would provide some relief [from over-development].”

Dr Burke says it is a basic planning principle to try to protect existing low-density residential areas by concentrating high-density development within specific activity centres. But Australian governments are reluctant to intervene in markets and compel developers to concentrate building in specific areas.

”In a market-driven society, individual property rights are more important than the social good,” he says. ”We are more consistent with the Americans – whereas the Europeans have traditionally been more willing to override individual property rights for the greater good of the community.”

By curbing suburban apartment buildings, Mr Guy has gone against a phalanx of planning consultants who have argued that Melbourne needs more apartments to remain liveable. There are plenty of tell-tale signs that the Baillieu government wants to see more apartments built in Melbourne but on specific sites close to the city centre.

Mr Guy has named several under-utilised sites where major strategic apartment development could take place.

These include the 20-hectare E-Gate site on Footscray Road in West Melbourne, the areas of land (and air space) around Richmond Station in Swan Street, and Fishermans Bend in Port Melbourne.

The expansion of Melbourne’s urban growth boundary is also on the agenda.

Mr Guy recently wrote to Melbourne councils asking them to nominate changes they might like made to the city’s ”green wedge” boundaries – farmland and open space areas created by an earlier Liberal premier, Rupert Hamer, in order to break up Melbourne’s suburbia.

Yet all his is happening in the absence of a revamped model for metropolitan planning – and it’s a concern to many.

RMIT University planning expert Professor Michael Buxton says land speculation is becoming widespread because the planning rules are unclear.

He says the common situation in which a council rejects a development proposal only for it be approved on appeal by VCAT is leading to developers paying higher prices for sites.

They fork out more money on the expectation that height controls will change and they’ll be able to erect taller buildings.

”Not having clear rules has been counter-productive,” Professor Buxton says. ”It has led to the ability to lift land prices based on an expectation that height controls are going to change.”

Cr Wegman says greater clarity is required from the Baillieu government on what constitutes state planning policy and what projects are of state significance so that councils can align their own planning policies with those of the state government.

One way or another, more high-density apartment towers are on the way. Leading architect John Denton of Denton Corker Marshall says people like high-rise living and the apartment culture is entrenched. ”It is a real part of the market,” he says.

 

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