"If you don't plan for what you do want, you will experience what you don't want."
This short quote from Stuart Moseley, head of the Victorian Planning Authority, captures Ballarat's most pressing problem.
The city's current unprecedented growth - one developer told The Courier this week it is a 'second gold rush' - brings challenges requiring long-term detailed logistical plans. As new housing estates push west and pressure grows to release former farmland in the north and north-west from Woodman's Hill to Mt Rowan and BWEZ, through Miners Rest and out across Brown Hill to the former apple orchards of White Swan: is Ballarat really prepared, socially, structurally and environmentally, for the changes, the new densely built, suburbs, coming?
The issue of planning and growth, says the City of Ballarat's CEO Evan King, is the single conversation he is repeatedly engaged in since taking the council's top job in January 2021. It's something he faces both as an employee of the city and a resident.
"There's not a person that doesn't want to talk to me about growth, and infill and what it means, congestion..." Mr King told The Courier earlier this week.
"I've lived in Alfredton for 20 years; I've seen it go from a dormant suburb to what it is today. I live and breathe it, and I'm totally aware of it."
Ballarat is changing rapidly, more rapidly than many people can comprehend and more than some people want. The idea Ballarat is an autonomous city with its own economic geography and identity is finished, and has been for some time, say demographers. It's not a country town, not even a regional city. It's becoming part of a greater Melbourne.
The new growth corridor to the west is now rivalling the old Ballarat in geographic size. The population of Ballarat is growing faster than predicted: estimates have it at 140,000 in just 10 years' time. It may be more. There is developer and political pressure to rezone land in every direction, and to manifestly increase the density of housing. Developers press for cheaper greenfield land supply ahead of the uncertainty of redevelopment in areas in the city which could carry medium to high density housing.
In the established areas of Ballarat, the vexed issues of infill, amenity and heritage will only intensify. House and land prices for larger blocks will push those wanting a home aside in favour of developers who can demolish existing buildings, replacing them with two, three, four, five or even more units. We are returning to a style of housing built closer together, almost like the terraces of the Victorian era.
One thing is certain: the era of the big backyard, the quarter-acre block, the backyard vegetable patch, orchard or chook run is gone. The remaining house sites of size in the city will come under tremendous pressure to be bulldozed and redeveloped, as sky-rocketing land prices and cash-laden investors drive genuine home buyers from the market.
How does a local government plan for these changes? One thing the City of Ballarat is not short on is plans. From the current draft Council Plan, the Smarter Parking Plan, the Ballarat West Development Contributions Plan, Community Vision Plan, Municipal Public Health and Wellbeing Plan, Revenue and Rating Plan, Historic Urban Landscape heritage Plan - there are more than enough plans. But are those plans delivering the best outcomes? Are they being followed?
The Courier spoke to three people with comprehensive knowledge of how future development will affect the city: Ballarat's CEO Evan King; Associate Professor in Sustainability and Urban Planning in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT Andre Butt; and the CEO of the Victorian Planning Authority Stuart Moseley. We also spoke to residents of the new Ballarat suburbs.
THE CITY OF BALLARAT CEO: EVAN KING
Evan King comes to the City of Ballarat at a critical moment. Previous acting CEO Janet Dore swept away all the council's directors, some who held unfettered sway within their departments. The Courier has heard some planning meetings went unminuted and unrecorded; the planning department was understaffed and overwhelmed. King is determined to address that.
The Courier: The speed at which Ballarat is growing, the direction in which is growing, and the physical direction which it is growing, is happening at such a rate of knots it seems to be outstripping not only council's but also the state government's capability to manage it completely.
Is that a fair assessment of what's happening: a struggle at the moment to manage and contain the development of Ballarat given the pressure to open new areas?
"It feels like to Ballarat people - I'm a Ballarat person - it feels like the growth is really significant. If you compare it to Wyndham Vale and some of those places, if you talk to the state government about our growth, they don't view it as being out of control.
"But for Ballarat, which went through a fairly significant period of time where there wasn't any any growth, it does feel like we are growing really rapidly. The challenge with any growing city is trying to ensure that you keep up with the with the infrastructure.
There will be areas of Ballarat that are more densely populated, and some of those bigger blocks, you know, will will end up with multiple residences on themEvan King
"It's the horse and the cart. Growth generates revenue, and the revenue is needed to invest in the infrastructure, but you really need to invest in the infrastructure upfront so that when the growth happens, it happens in an orderly manner, and you've got the infrastructure to cope with it.
"How do we make sure that we're investing in the infrastructure and doing the right planning to make sure as the growth happens, that it happens in a manner that is controlled? It's a lot harder to go back and retrospectively put infrastructure in once the growth's happened."
The problem that faces council and the state government is providing affordable housing versus providing sustainable housing. How is council is coping with that standoff? Developers are always going to want to put as many houses as possible on a block. And as we've discovered, the state government, building policies and planning policies, make that easier than perhaps is ideal in terms of local government desires. Is that fair to say that?
"I don't think sustainability and affordability has to be mutually exclusive. So I think there certainly is an ability to make sure they happen in concert. I think, unfortunately, both the state government and and council are playing catch-up with policies; we probably haven't done sufficient strategic work in this space to ensure that both sustainability and affordability can coexist in the end, and we're doing an enormous catch-up work at the moment ourselves, whether it be housing strategy, or looking at environmental sustainable design.
"We're working with the state government on a project at the moment, ensuring environmental sustainable design principles are included in planning schemes. We're doing a fair bit of of work on that ourselves. So there is catch-up required at the moment on the strategy, to ensure the next stages of growth, are better.
"With the new growth areas we're working on at the moment, we want to do that in partnership with developers and the VPA (Victorian planning Authority), to make sure we get the design right from the start, and we can address some of those sustainability priorities, so we can also address affordability and housing stock diversity. Housing stock diversity is really important as we go forward."
How is it that (The City of Ballarat) got to this point? You're the new CEO, so this is obviously prior to your time. But you are in a position where the strategy wasn't there for growth. How does that happen?
"It really doesn't matter what's happened previously. I've inherited what I've inherited, and I need to make sure that we learn from the past, and we make sure the policies are in place, because without the policy, then you lose control over being able to ensure that development is done sustainably.
"Why hasn't been done before? Local government has 100 different services, competing priorities. Unfortunately priority hasn't been put on doing the strategic work. And it is a clear priority. My KPIs are intrinsically linked to making sure we do the planning strategy work that sets us up going forward... I keep using the analogy and I'm open about it: I'm trying to build the plane while I'm flying it at the moment."
Does the City of Ballarat have adequate planning staff and facilities?
"Historically, we haven't had the resourcing. We are resourcing that area, restructuring it, upskilling it so we can deliver. The challenge is, in local government, you get so busy in the day-to-day all the time, it absorbs an enormous amount of your time.
"You get sidetracked from doing the strategic work that ultimately will take you out of running in the treadmill. I talk about 'working on the wheel' and 'working in the wheel', and we've got our work on the wheel.
"Planning departments, historically, and local governments, have been set up as statutory and strategic. Given our backlog of strategic work, I'm going to set up a third area, and also have a growth area focused on making sure work is being done.
Will that include new staff?
"It will include some new staff, some staff reallocated. There's a range of components to how I'm resourcing that; I've got to ensure value for money for the ratepayers. But it's imperative we do this, we can't lose our opportunities to make sure we get strategic work done. My role is to put in place an organisation that can deliver those those things. This work needs to be done and it needs to be done as quickly as possible, not impacting the quality, making sure that it's done right."
Let's talk about the Legislative Assembly Environment and Planning Committee Inquiry into Environmental Infrastructure for Growing Populations, where the MP Danielle Green gave her opinion, that she had been through Lucas and felt the developers were not doing a good job there. Ms Robertson (City of Ballarat director of growth and development) probably rightly objected to that, from her point of view.
But there is some feeling developers have got what they wanted a lot of the time at the expense of better planning in Ballarat. That's been expressed to me by former staff: sometimes developers have come in knowing exactly how to run the planning game, putting pressure on, using state government policy to leverage planning outcomes. I'm wondering, is that something that you're addressing? The way the City of Ballarat works with developers, but also maintains transparency so the people of Ballarat know exactly what's going on?
"If I take the inquiry, and the comments around around Lucas, there are some facts about Lucas that are contrary to that opinion. (The developers) have more than doubled the required greenspace. You might rightly say the original requirement was minimalistic. But they've more than doubled the requirements for for green space in there. There's water harvesting infrastructure in there. There's significant pathways to get connections in and out of the area. So Nick Grylewicz from Integra (the developer) would argue very strongly they've actually taken a significant role and taken the responsibility around sustainability really strongly.
One of the things that we are seeing disappear is the large home block. Unless you're very wealthy, you cannot hope to own a home block in Ballarat. People wanting to buy houses are getting beat out by developers who are coming in, demolishing the existing, often historic stock in many cases, and building three homes where they was one. Now that puts increasing pressure on parking, because three units or houses take maybe six or eight cars instead of two, maybe more. It puts pressure on infrastructure as we raise density again. But it also changes the way that we live, doesn't it as well? I wonder if the city of Ballarat has a point of view on that?
"I think once again, it comes back to diversity of stock. There will be areas of Ballarat that are more densely populated, and some of those bigger blocks, you know, will will end up with multiple residences on them. But we'll also still have stock out there that does have larger blocks. What it does mean is we need to be far smarter about our open spaces. And whenever developers build multiple residences on a block, subdivide them, there's a requirement for them to contribute to open spaces.
"We need to start always using those funds to ensure that you've got sufficient open space for those that, you know, choose to live in those more densely populated areas, but still have the opportunity to go to parks and gardens and have recreation facilities. Some people don't want a backyard and don't want to be maintaining it and are much happier just to go down to the local park."
I did write about this recently. How local governments build open space in the 21st Century. We are unlikely to get new, large parks. When I say large parks, not three or four hectare but 20-hectare or 50-hectare parks, That's one of the things which will exercise people mentally: where do people go if we're going to have this high density? Where are people going to go? Because if you put 150,000 people in Ballarat in 10 years, that's going to put a great weight upon the existing open spaces that we have.
I suppose there's two answers to that, in the end. We are incredibly blessed in Ballarat, that there have been some incredibly visionary people over the years.Something like Vic Park, which almost becomes a centre of Ballarat is probably one of the most incredible green, open spaces that is incredibly under-utilised. So I think we do have some enormous capacity to be able to cope with growth and still be able to offer, you know, a lifestyle where people have access to open space.
"I was up in Lucas on Monday when they were opening up the new playground. You stand here and have a look at the green open space there: I'm at the start of the playground, you can't see the end of the green space, it goes right back with an oval, right at the right at the back of it. So you combine that design, with the big parks, the gardens, the lake, all of the other green spaces.I think we've got the capacity to ensure we can cope with growth and offer good open spaces."
THE PLANNING SPECIALIST: ANDREW BUTT
RMIT Associate Professor in Sustainability and Urban Planning Andrew Butt has a quarter of a century's experience in planning and regional development issues.
The Courier: What planning pressures are regional areas in Victoria under? How are they coping? Ballarat needs to deliver somewhere north of 1000 homes a year at the moment. Some new developments have come in for pretty pointed criticism about the way they've been laid out. One of the problems is Ballarat is doing this expansion, and admits its planning strategy has fallen behind what is actually going on.
"Ballarat's growth is pretty high. It has been higher over the last decade, it's higher than the Victorian average. It's not as high as parts of Western Melbourne and the northern corridor of Melbourne. But overall, the numbers are high in historical terms, and the housing growth being experienced to match that is real.
"The questions are what that form and content and structure is, and whether the solutions presented are consistent; firstly, with the housing needs; and secondly, with options for designing good planning outcomes.
"The City of Ballarat has a strategic direction announced in their planning scheme, and they have a housing strategy which is being developed now. Whether they are adequate in thinking through some of the big picture items is another question. I think probably they don't achieve that as well as is needed. Matching housing, work and transport, which are the three big issues for a place like Ballarat, isn't done very well by doing discrete projects like a housing strategy, for example, in isolation.
"These tensions are the biggest issue in regional Victorian cities. One is the tension between the role as local places to live, versus the increasing development of places as affordable housing alternatives to metropolitan Melbourne. Ballarat is experiencing that tension, and has for about a decade now. Is Ballarat an affordable alternative to Melbourne; or is it a city with an economic geography of its own? That's not clear, and neither should it necessarily be.
"The second big tension a place like Ballarat has: providing affordable housing is important, and providing housing options is important but very difficult to do.
"You can drive around Bridge Street or Bakery Hill or wherever and see vast areas of centrally-located ground level car parks, which in another city, Melbourne, for example, would pretty rapidly be turning into other uses, possibly housing, possibly commercial, possibly both. And meanwhile you've got places out in the back of Delacombe taking up almost as much land as the former core of Ballarat in purely residential housing developments. That's probably not a good outcome.
"But that's the affordable delivery of a housing model that achieves the net outcomes of X number of houses being built in a year -1000 a year or whatever it might be. And that's what the industry can provide very quickly and easily. In the long run, we'd question whether that's a good housing outcome.
"Equally, you'd wonder how many people in more established parts of Ballarat would be willing to see significant change in their neighborhoods, given the housing needs somewhere else. Those tensions are all very real, and they're playing out. On the east side of Ballarat, both north and south of the highway, you've got areas that aren't suitable for residential development because of public land, forests, different landscapes.
"The big issue for Ballarat, which the housing strategy identifies, is do you go north of the freeway, north of Creswick Road and Mount Rowan? That's a big shift in Ballarat's urban morphology. This is where discussion about the absence of a planning strategy is very real. While housing strategy might talk about housing diversity and housing form, the bigger, broader planning issue is, 'what is the urban morphology of Ballarat?' Where are the jobs? What does transport look like? And what are the consequences of going up the Midland Highway, over the freeway? What are the consequences of pushing to the east and pushing to the west?
"They're big spatial questions, which aren't very well addressed by the housing strategy, which is about housing delivery and housing form, but not necessarily about city form. There's quite a bit of scope in Ballarat for increased density of housing, some of which will be politically unacceptable, but some of which will probably be acceptable once it happens. Again, the example I'm thinking of is car parks in the middle of town. There's a point at which a lot of those spaces will be acceptable housing options."
You've got places out in the back of Delacombe taking up almost as much land as the former core of Ballarat in purely residential housing developments. That's probably not a good outcome.Andrew Butt
Part of the problem here is historical, in that Ballarat for a very long period of time regarded itself as an autonomous place; that it had its own manufacturing, had its own businesses there, and that's no longer the case. In terms of housing and planning it's going to become bigger part of a bigger picture?
"I think that's been apparent now, in Victoria, it's been apparent for some decades. Talking about networks, cities and the nature of city networks as ways to understand regions rather than seeing them as discrete towns. I think, in the last decade, that's become really apparent for Ballarat. It's particularly to do with, for one people commute to Melbourne from Ballarat. The second is the growing western edge of Melbourne, where Ballarat becomes much closer to Melbourne physically, let alone in terms of time and access.
"Thirdly, because of housing affordability in Melbourne, which presents Ballarat and other similar places as being reasonable housing alternatives, because of the displaced suburban markets out of Melbourne. We've seen that in a number of places, though; they're very real issues and they've become more significant.
"I can go 20 minutes further and not have to live in Melbourne's outer fringes. And I'll go and live in either the country, in Ballan or something, or I'll go and live in Ballarat. And obviously the experience of COVID - I'm standing by the way in central Melbourne right now, looking across at Melbourne Central and the State Library in the window, and it's a significantly quieter place than it would be anytime in the last sort of five years, maybe with the exception of last year.
"So the the idea of place and work I think he's a little for many people is a bit in flux now anyway. I think there'll be attempts physically to Melbourne to have limits, maybe somewhere like Bacchus Marsh, particularly because of the value of things like irrigated horticulture. There'll be ongoing pressure from government to prevent that simply becoming part of Metropolitan Melbourne, structurally, but functionally Metropolitan Melbourne, the job economy of Melbourne, has already bolted.
"It already goes to Torquay; it already goes to Ballarat and beyond. It already goes out into Gippsland and, Phillip Island and wherever else. That's happened.
"So Ballarat itself has the sort of dual tracks: it has these market of people who want the sort of thing they couldn't afford in Melbourne, which might be like a heritage house close within walking distances, transport and retail and the lifestyle. And then there's market of housing for people who are looking for affordable housing, potentially on the fringe. And that's often what that housing to the west of Ballarat does. So there's dual markets within there.
"There's quite a bit of scope in Ballarat for increased density of housing, some of which will be politically unacceptable, but some of which will probably be acceptable once it happens. And the example I'm thinking of is those car parks in the middle of town. There's a lot of infill to go in. That's where having a very clear planning strategy, again, beyond the housing strategy, would be important, because then satisfies those questions.
"I don't think anyone thinks that Ballarat should turn every bit of land possible into housing because all it should be a dormitory centre for Melbourne. I think there needs to be thought given to where there are actual jobs in the city too."
THE STATE PLANNING BODY: CEO STUART MOSELEY
The Victorian Planning Authority is the growth planner for designated urban areas in Melbourne, with a clear mandate of roles it fulfils regarding the delivery of Precinct Structure Plans (PSPs),blueprints for urban structure setting aside land for open space, land for schools, land for town centres, road networks.
However in the regions, says CEO Stuart Moseley, that mandate is more flexible.
The Courier: are you giving the City of Ballarat assistance in developing more comprehensive planning strategies?
"We have worked with the City of Ballarat, and we're keen to keep working with them in relation to specific projects. An example we're very proud of at the moment is the Ballarat Station Southside master plan. We also funded council to prepare the Bakery Hill urban renewal strategy, which we're also pretty proud of.
"But we haven't had a role in the western growth areas. What I am talking with Evan about and what Evan is talking to his council about, is how we can help council moving forward, because there is a real spike in demand in Ballarat. That's a good thing in many respects, because Ballarat has good bones for growth and has an appetite for growth.
"We would be open - we would love - the City of Ballarat to invite us to help them with whatever they feel they need help on. If it is an overall strategic piece: happy to collaborate on that. Opening up new PSPs to meet demand: very happy to lead that work. If council invites us to help plan and unlock strategic urban renewal sites, we're happy to play that role, too."
We will no longer see the quarter-acre block, or house and backyard, development that we saw 50 or 60 years ago, will we? None of these new developments have backyards like that, virtually no yard at all.
"Look,1000-square-metre blocks haven't been developed anywhere in Australian suburbs since the 1950s. So the quarter-acre block is well and truly behind us. But the issue is: how do we grow? Do we grow up by building in our established areas? Or do we grow out by converting agricultural land into new housing? Wherever you go, there's a cost imperative. We are trying to give as many people as we can access to quality living environments that they can afford.
"There is real demand for smaller lots everywhere. The issue for regional towns is how do they marry that character with their existing character. Because you don't want to spoil the thing attracting people to regional towns. We want environments to be distinctive in our regional towns. But if we choose to do that, with lower densities, we are driving costs up, and therefore less people can access the housing. So there are good reasons for density to go up.
We would be open - we would love - the City of Ballarat to invite us to help them with whatever they feel they need help onStuart Moseley
"It also means you get critical catchments for things like schools and shopping centres earlier; you create environments that are more likely to be walkable. And to the extent that public transport is viable, you can make that happen earlier. So there are good reasons to make our greenfields areas denser. But like all these things, there is a trade-off."
We're not seeing in Ballarat the same kind of ability to rezone former industrial land to build medium-to-high density housing. The risk developers take there is much greater than the risk of developing greenfield land. How do we make rezoning brownfields easier?
"That is a really difficult challenge, because it's not just the risk for a developer. The risk is things like contaminated land; and communities don't always like change in established suburbs...
"In the end it comes down to a couple of things. One is a good planning framework giving developers certainty, because if they know, after the zoning is done, it's another two years to get a permit through, that's a disincentive. But if they know it's going to be quick, that's certainty. To get to that point you often need some sort of incentive from the local authorities.
"Some councils do land developments. They will buy sites and redevelop them and make them available and absorb some of the risks. Or they might choose not to accept risk on the site itself, but to invest in the area around it. They might invest in public realm streetscaping open space, creating amenity that makes development possible, when otherwise it wouldn't be.
"I think it's a bit of a new frontier for the regions. Probably the regional city doing it best now is Geelong. But that's obvious why: they've got greater market pressures, higher market values. But I think Bendigo and Ballarat are at that point now. We're very proud of the Bakery Hill strategy, which I would hope has given Ballarat Council a bit of a roadmap for what they could do in other areas in Ballarat as well. It's very much case by case. There's not really a formula for this stuff, but there are definitely things that can be done."
THE RESIDENT: ELISSE BURKE
What's it like living in the new development areas west of Ballarat? What brings people to the new estates?Elisse Burke's reason is straightforward: schools.
"We came from a growth corridor in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, where they had pretty massive gaps."
"I worked out there as a teacher and saw what it was like in the lack of services. So it's much better here in terms of access to high quality education. The gap isn't as wide; services here aren't overwhelmed.
"We struggle to get access to doctors and that sort of thing out here because of the big population boom. But the foundations that we have here are dramatically better than where we came from. So it's mainly doctors, that's the gap here, or that's what we're seeing."
Ms Burke says the infrastructure overall is good where she lives, with access to shopping centres, wider roads with shoulders - although perhaps too many roundabouts, and too few traffic lights.
"There's a lovely sense of community. Obviously anywhere you go, there are people who do and don't get along and with different values. But generally, if you go down to the local park, everyone's pretty positive. People generally pick up after their dog, and that kind of thing. There are lots of little positives you notice.
"There is construction, trucks and dust... but that's a finite thing."
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