"I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble."
Caesar Augustus's PR team coined this pithy one-liner for their boss around 0 AD, and politicians today still desire it as their epitaph.
For better or worse, our elected representatives will be always concerned with their legacy, part of which is the built environment: hospitals, railways, tunnels, casinos or public housing. Politicians love to be seen as 'future builders' - but is that future costing our communities in the present, as Victoria is gripped by a building frenzy? Is 'The Garden State' and its promise of verdant suburbs and tree-filled parks in regional cities a memory?
From the Kennett government's drastic deregulation of planning and cutting of council control over projects to the Brumby government all but abandoning the visionary Melbourne 2030: Planning for sustainable growth document in the face of an unexpected surge in population growth after 2010, both Melbourne and regional Victoria have faced exponential growth, unbridled development and a lack of complementary infrastructure.
Now Plan Melbourne: 2017-2050 promises 'a global city of opportunity and choice'. At the same time, spiralling increases in land values have led to increases in property speculation and developers buying up great swathes of of urban and regional land, pressuring councils and ministers for rezoning and release, while home prices are out of reach of many, rental markets dry up and social and public housing suffers duress from historically high demand and years of underfunding.
The state is seeing growth on an unprecedented scale, but serious questions must be asked about its sustainability and planning. Is 'opportunity and choice' equitable, or only for the well-off? Are we losing our quality of life in an poorly-planned development bonanza?
As the government removes planning obstacles to construction in an attempt to resecure and restart a troubled economy, the changes are promoted to the public with various euphemious advertising titles like 'The Big Build', 'A Better Victoria', and 'Smart Planning'.
Meanwhile a crisis - and it's generally agreed among interested and informed parties there is a real and pressing crisis - in Victoria's planning systems has been a long time coming.
In just the past week, the much-anticipated Victorian Planning Authority's Ballarat Station Southside Plan has stalled, despite the VPA making the project 'Fast Track eligible'. At the same time a housing shortage, driven by years of poor planning, is seeing homes being constructed ever-faster, on ever-smaller blocks, while prices increase and more citizens find themselves unable to buy or even rent.
But what is 'Fast Tracking' a planning project? Does rushing any job, let alone planning a state's growth, leads to undesirable outcomes and inequity?
Mary Delahunty, state planning minister in the Bracks government from 2002 to 2005, admitted developers had 'brutal expectations' in her 2010 autobiography Public Life, Private Grief.
'Well-heeled developers assume that their at-times substantial donations to the Labor or Liberal parties will guarantee ready access to the minister and a favourable planning decision,' Ms Delahunty wrote.
Professor Michael Buxton is a thorn in the flesh of successive governments. A long-serving academic and former public servant working in planning and environment, his grasp of the issues surrounding development and trenchant criticism of its failures is profound, well-known and respected.
He says those successive governments he has advised and criticised have progressively taken control over planning away from local government and transferred it to developers, causing a crisis in the planning industry.
"A lot of planners feel they're just a postbox for developers; they're just ticking boxes and turning over development applications," Professor Buxton says.
"Even if they refuse them, the system is favourable to developers. Developers will always win eventually at VCAT on appeal. This has caused a crisis of confidence and affected the morale of the entire local government planning profession. They feel they have no power, that the development industry is empowered by the system, and they're just there to carry out routine approvals. And they get sick of it and leave, and you can't blame them."
The crisis has worsened in recent years, he says, with the Labor government further increasing the trend toward deregulation with the 'Smart Planning Program' (which finished in June last year). A Victorian Auditor General's report in 2017 found the government and council planning schemes were successfully increasing density of housing, but not diversity or affordability.
Professor Buxton says the system has not improved with Smart Planning.
"The state government's been on a mission to further deregulate planning, even from its previous lack of regulation," he says.
"They're determined to go on until local government has very little power at all. They're nobbling the system, and they're doing it in two ways.
"Firstly they are transferring power to the development industry. Basically, the planning system is really a development facilitation system. DELWP makes no bones about this now. It's got a major development facilitation unit [Development Victoria]; its job is to take more control away from local government and issue permits without even advertising.
"It's not only local governments being nobbled, communities have less and less say. There's a drift to what's termed 'planning by lawyers', where litigation is used to push through development. The government is is giving more and more power to developers by removing permit triggers, getting rid of prohibitions, and basically increasing the uses that don't need permits - so called 'as-of-right' uses.
"The second way government is nobbling the planning system is by appropriating power to itself, away from local government. They've done this through a series of major planning amendments to the system over public and private projects. These are massive, and the government gives it wonderful names like 'The Big Build'.
"It's all related to 'Fast tracking'. When you look at government planning websites, it's full of this term 'fast tracking', everything's being 'fast tracked'. The government's fast tracking council applications by taking power away from councils, but it's fast tracking approvals, particularly by setting up dedicated project development authorities such as the Suburban Rail Loop Authority and the Level Crossing Removal Authority and so on."
To these can be added the Major Transport Infrastructure Authority, the Victorian Planning Authority, Development Victoria, Regional Development Victoria, the Geelong Authority, Rail Projects Victoria... the list is ever-growing, says Professor Buxton.
"So, in short, if you negate local government, and you even take power away from the Planning Department and you transfer it to these project development groups, then local government is completely cut out of planning," he says.
Natalie Robertson is the director of growth and development at the City of Ballarat. She says increasingly applicants for developments are coming to the city's planners with expectations they will get streamlined approval processes, without understanding applications must reach a stringent quality of documentation. This adds pressure on the planners, who must try to explain requirements to applicants while simultaneously coping with surging development applications. The stress levels are high and staff turnover is too.
"I can confirm it's been a particular challenge in recent years, particularly with COVID-19," Ms Robertson says.
"It can also be attributed to the fact there are a lot of state projects drawing these planners who might have otherwise worked for local government or privately. We recognised the shortage and a high turnover particularly in the last 12 months. I feel at the moment we're on the other side of that. We're getting through a targeted recruitment process and we're building a new team. From a statutory point of view, we've got two new coordinators coming on in March, we've got spaces for other managers and principal planners."
"Planning is more complex than ever. There are expectations it should be much quicker. That's the challenge: meeting the expectation of the developer or applicant. The concern for us is, 'Where's our power in this respect?' That's the most important component, from the very early stages. Not by the time a planning permit is issued, but from a strategy perspective.
"We have an expectation of ourselves to get our housing strategy out, because that strategy is the overarching document we can take to the state (government) and say, 'We're directing you: we believe here is a suitable location for rezoning for social housing, or a suitable location already zoned appropriately for social housing or other developments.
"We've finally got the growth areas decisions. We will wholeheartedly be focusing on pushing out our housing strategy this year, putting frameworks around that, so as these developments come on, we have little bit more power around where we direct them and where they need to be."
Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks says the onus is on local governments to be aggressive in the planning, and stop being compliant in the face of development. Not to do this, he says, is abrogating their responsibilities.
"Local government has to play a much more active role in implementing some of the planning code," he says.
"You're saying that developers are bypassing local government and going straight to VCAT. But increasingly local government has not had the courage to actually call up a project or to negotiate with developers to get a better outcome. They've simply not commented and let it wave through to VCAT, because they don't want to offend anyone. Local government needs to play a much more active role in looking very closely at development projects. If they don't think they're appropriate, then negotiate with developers to get a better outcome.
"That's what local government is not doing. They're either opposing outright or not commenting, which is even worse, and just letting it run through. That's a very poor outcome. It would help enormously going forward if we had local government playing a much more active role in applying the planning code effectively, and being an activist at a local level, rather than abdicating the responsibility."
Mr Bracks says he respectfully disagrees with Professor Michael Buxton's view that developers are finding it too easy to get their way through the use of appeals to VCAT.
"I don't agree that all developers are always getting their own way," he says.
"I think you've seen with the Planning Minister, he's intervened in a significant amount of projects to ensure there is appropriate development. There is pressure, and there's population pressure, I get that. But I think the state has a role. And I believe that the Planning Minister is doing that effectively."
The Planning Institute of Australia's (PIA) Victorian Division president Gabby McMillan acknowledges the pressure on the state's planners in a time when there are fortunes tied up in property development outcomes.
She says the huge rewards developers are winning must be balanced with social expectations of liveability.
"From the Planning Institute's perspective, we see the value of planning in delivering for the public interest," she says.
"We've obviously got a lot of activity occurring at the approval end of the process, which sucks up resources so they're not used at higher levels, such as setting up frameworks properly and strategic planning. It's a misallocation of resources.
"PIA's view is you should always be looking at the outcome. It shouldn't be fast track at all costs. In making planning decisions we need to bear in mind: what is the broader public interest? Immediate demand shouldn't override the delivery of other services. In a lot of the growth areas there is insufficient infrastructure or community services. Affordable housing is particularly pertinent at the moment. Fast tracking shouldn't occur at all costs; the decisions still need to be made in the public interest.
"The critical thing is good strategic planning. Obviously there's a lot of pressure in a heated market for (planning) activity. A lot of focus gets taken to immediate statutory approval and ongoing decision making, rather than focusing on strategic planning. The institute's view is strategic planning is critical to be able to have a system working in the interest of the entire community, not just one sector of it. Local government is central to that."
So what is 'strategic planning'? Ms McMillan says it's a 'whole of state approach requiring effective interaction between the tiers of government, planning bodies, communities, and developers.
"One aspect I'm talking about is rezoning proposals," she says.
"At the highest level, you have the state saying, 'These are the principles that should be adopted', setting policy directions and higher level directives. For example, building on flood prone land, as it's topical at the moment. The critical thing is taking those principles and operationalising them at the local government level.
"Strategic planning involves the updating of planning schemes so the controls and the maps in the planning scheme actually reflect what those higher level principles are. To take a basic example: the state government, after the Black Saturday bushfires, said we shouldn't be building in high-risk areas. At that time Marysville didn't have any bushfire controls in the planning scheme.
"That's just a simple example showing the filtering down and operationalising of the policy objectives requires a fair bit of effort in that strategic planning space, to flow through to the decisions made on the ground around what houses get built and where houses get built in the settlement patterns."
Ms McMillan says despite the expansion of state government planning controls, local government is essential in representing local communities, and must represent everyone in the community and not just the most powerful or vocal.
"Even in circumstances where a development authority is created for a special purpose, e.g. suburban rail routes, there is a critical role for local government. They need a voice in those processes because of their connection to the community.
"We recognise there is a shortage of planners, and one of PIA's key pillars from the national and state level is about building capacity and addressing the skill shortage in terms of planners able and ready to do good planning, who have a diverse range of skills and the ability to actually implement higher level policy objectives, operationalise and understand the system."
Planning Minister Richard Wynne was unable to be interviewed for this article, but in a statement he directed attention to Plan Melbourne: 2017-2050, which he says has implications for regional Victoria.
"We're striking the right balance between building for a growing Victoria, listening to the community and councils in decision making and protecting the environment and heritage that we all cherish," the Minister said in a provided quote.
"Victoria is leading the world in creating communities where people want to live, work and play. Our better apartment design guidelines are delivering more green space, more amenities and world class design into the suburbs."
In the statement, the minister's department says it is responding to increased housing pressure by launching the Regional Planning Hub program to support rural and regional councils streamline processes and approvals to deliver projects faster.
The department said it also setting new benchmarks for sustainable design and liveability of apartments, and mandated minimum garden areas, specifying a percentage of a housing lot set aside to protect the open garden character of Melbourne's suburbs.
In response to questions about the crisis in planning, the statement said local councils are responsible for ensuring their local planning schemes are up to date to protect sites with local heritage significance and resourcing the identification and protection of heritage sites under the local heritage overlay.
It is up to a council to investigate the merits of including relevant buildings or other places in their local heritage overlay, the statement said, including conducting studies and consulting with their communities to inform the development of interim or permanent heritage protection controls under their local planning scheme.
Under the Victorian Planning Provisions councils can apply for interim heritage controls when they receive an application for consent for demolition. This safety net is in place so properties can receive timely interim protections while detailed heritage assessments take place.
The planning system requires all subdivision for three lots or more to provide a 5 per cent open space contribution to councils - applied to the value of the site. Councils are then required use this money locally into creating new parks and open spaces for the community.
The statement said the government was committed to maintaining the Urban Growth Boundary as Melbourne's outer limit, and the Green Wedges and surrounding farmland are critical to Victoria's economic prosperity, providing environmental benefits for the community.
The statement noted the government established Homes Victoria to support Victorians finding it difficult to secure stable, affordable housing.
The department did not provide detailed responses to the following questions:
Does the Minister acknowledge that the Property Council and other developer lobby groups have too much power and influence?
In conversations with council planners, they have said essentially (planning) has been outsourced, and those with the deepest pockets and the best connections get the deals they want. How do we restore faith that the planning processes are not corrupted beyond recovery, and start to build sustainable, liveable, human-friendly homes on mandated, reasonably-sized blocks?
Acknowledging the impact of COVID, would it not be an opportunity for the government, in this time of real crisis, to take on the powers of developers and deliver autonomy back to councils and local planners by strong regulation and good design, as is the case in many cities in Europe and increasingly across the globe?
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