Posted 7/8/07

 

Victorian State Government Proposes To Reduce Councils' Planning Powers

(7/8/07 - SG)  Govt puts toe in water to test reaction to adopting South Australia's "centralized" planning decisions model.  MRRA says, hopeless as some Councils may be on planning, this definitely isn't the way to go.    

There has been pressure for several years from some quarters to eliminate local government from planning decisions, by sending planning applications to be decided by a government-appointed board or tribunal.  The latest convert to this thinking, it seems, is the Victorian government.  However, Planning Minister Justin Madden, after announcing the government was looking at introducing a tinkered form of the 'centralized' planning system used in South Australia, has since said Councils' participation would not be mandatory.  It seems, if adopted, such a system would only perhaps be used by some Councils, which could leave a reasonable person wondering, why bother? 

 

MRRA has looked briefly at the system in place in South Australia.  No ambiguity there - the Act governing land use is called the Development Act (in Victoria it is the Planning and Environment Act); it seems that in SA what we call planning schemes are called Development Plans; and "non-complying" use and development (Victoria's closest equivalent would likely be "prohibited" use and development) can be approved in South Australia. 

 

The 'centralized' concept seems to hinge on the Development Assessment Commission [DAC] at State level, and DA Panels at Council level.  The SA Government website at Planning SA www.planning.sa.gov.au claims 90% of applications are decided by Councils, while major developments seem to be automatically out of reach of Councils and are decided by the State's Governor, on the advice of State Cabinet.  The DA Commission meets twice a month in Adelaide.  Its decisions are able to be appealled to a higher (court) jurisdiction (a little like VCAT in Victoria).  But how does DAC work in practice?

 

Here's an insight MRRA received from "inside the tent" about how some South Australian councillors and community members see the South Australian experiment:

 

"Our State Labor government has recently changed our planning system forcing all councils to have a Development Assessment Panel.  On these panels, which must consist of 7 members (sometimes 9 allowed), elected councillors must be a minority and "independent experts" (viz. architects, planners and sundry hangers-on of the development industry) are in the majority.
 
The government's stated aim is to "take the politics out of planning".  Ha.   This move has caused much consternation among residents and councillors who care about local communities and the sort of dense development being rammed down their throats.  Our government is boasting that we are the most "competitive" State when it comes to development assessment. 
So be aware.  Other State governments will probably be looking to do the same thing, if they haven't already done so."

 

The DAC website provides information about the SA Development Assessment Commission and associated processes.  For more information, visit the DAC website on  http://www.planning.sa.gov.au/go/development-applications/assessment-processes-explained/assessment-authorities/development-assessment-commission-dac

 

It is interesting to note that current Commission members are a person with a Masters in Planning and Architecture;  a person with experience in local planning decisions, qualifications in building surveying and business management, and is completing a planning qualification;  a person with public service experience in major project developments and politics;  a person from the mineral resources sector;  a person with qualifications and experience in architecture;  and a current Mayor with a local government background.  With respect, it is perhaps not everyone's idea of a group of planning experts, or without some potential conflicts of interest.  For example, would most people really regard the mining sector as fulfilling the requirement for the Commission to have environmental expertise?

 

MRRA Says:

 

Without looking at all of the ins and outs of the South Australian planning system, that State's 'Development Act' and 'Development Plans' in themselves seem to point in a particular direction.

 

Many see the Victorian government's proposal for introducing a 'centralized' system that over-rides Council planning powers as undemocratic and unacceptable, and in principle, they are right.  Not all Councils in Victoria are as shabby at planning as Macedon Ranges; some Councils actually make planning decisions that balance community values against developers' aspirations by refusing greedy or damaging applications.  Some even defend local values in the face of State government criticism. 

 

So, how precious and hypocritical is the State government being in claiming it wants to take politics, uncertainty and costs out of planning decisions by introducing this system?  Hmmm... keeping in mind our community report from South Australia, and our own experiences, some might say VERY precious and hypocritical. 

 

For example, MRRA has called several times for the Victorian State Labor government to intervene in planning matters in Macedon Ranges, citing bad decisions and poor decision-making processes, and poor administration, as well as lack of community confidence in our Councils' performances.  Yet the State government has consistently declined to act, even to the point of saying there was nothing wrong in Macedon Ranges.  The last time MRRA asked for intervention, in 2005 - calling for the State government to provide Macedon Ranges with State planning policy protection - we were told by former Planning Minister Rob Hulls that the State government wasn't into "usurping democratically elected governments".  

 

Looks like the government is about to overcome its squeamishness and change its mind... as you might if fast-tracking development - rather than protecting principle, process, the environment and community values - was the primary objective.

 

Creating a(nother) remote, pro-development rubber stamp and adding a(nother) layer of complexity and potential agenda-setting to an already fragile and dysfunctional planning system won't fix what's wrong with planning in Victoria, but then that doesn't seem to be the purpose of this exercise.  It seems to MRRA that the only reason anyone would set up a 'centralized' decision-making body would be to ensure decisions are consistently going in a certain direction - that is, generally in favour of developers - and approvals are even more 'facilitated' (read, without rules, standards or other impediment) than they presently are.

 

For those of us who so often feel powerless to stop the ghetto-building and environmental destruction that often passes for "progress" in Victoria, the administrators of the current system (Councils and VCAT) may not be as deeply entrenched a problem as Victoria's development-biased planning system and the skewed pro-development policies and politics that underpin it.  This, and a seeming lack of governmental will to prioritize planning principles, and set high development standards, creates an ideal climate for Councils (and VCAT) to perform badly.  Residents can change their Councils, but the bigger problems aren't going to go away until the failed experiment that passes for a planning system in Victoria is changed, and only the State government can change it.

 

Victoria arrived at this point because the Kennett government hijacked and dismantled Victoria's "old" prescriptive planning system (the one that let locals say "NO") to get rid of 'rules' that might get in the way of developers' aspirations and soaring profits.  The Kennett planning system that we presently operate under - the Victoria Planning Provisions [VPP] - unashamedly puts personal wealth creation and 'anything anywhere, as-much-as-you-like' development before environment, community and broad public interests.  It also firmly puts 'environmental' and 'social' on the back burner, so has no real sustainability, either.

 

Associate Professor Michael Buxton (RMIT) discussed the Kennett government's attitude to planning in his 2003 paper, "The land use planning system: potential and problems for biodiversity" for the "Proceedings of the Conference on Ecologically Sustainable Agriculture":

 

"The [Kennett] government made it no secret that promotion of development was the primary purpose of its new planning system. The 1993 ministerial statement made clear the minister’s view that development facilitation was to be the focus of the new planning system.

 

The Perrott committee, which reported to the Planning Minister on the provisions of the new system, restated this concern, arguing that ‘Victoria’s approval systems are … an impediment to development (DPD 1997, p.2). The new emphasis would be ‘on facilitating, rather than inhibiting or controlling' (Maclellan 1993a, p.4) and ‘promoting a positive attitude (can do if … rather than can’t do unless …)' (DPD 1997, p.6).

 

The Perrott Committee and Minister Maclellan both argued that development could only be facilitated through a simplified statutory planning system which led to certainty, efficiency and lower costs. Planning schemes were too large and complex, and there was too much variation between them. This frustrated developers and gave ‘too much weight to the views of existing residents at a cost to … facilitation of economic development’. This led to increased costs, uncertainty and delays (Maclellan 1993a, p.13, DPD 1997)."

 

Unfortunately, although it has tinkered around the edges Victoria's Labor government has generally embraced the Kennett VPP planning system, and planning schemes which are awash with 'discretion' - which some seem to interpret as an ability to apply personal preferences to decision-making.  Such is the uncertainty the system produces, rational people are entitled to wonder if there's any PLAN left in PLANNING. 

 

MRRA's view is that centralized planning can be seen as another thrust to promote greed and advantage for the few, while serving to further dis-empower and dis-enfranchise the wider community, the thought of which should have developers smacking their lips.  Community values, residents' rights, transparency, the environment and common good are being pushed further and further out of the picture as standards and accountability are increasingly stripped from the system, and yet - still - developers cry hard-done-by, and will no doubt back 'centralized' planning to the hilt (some already have). 

 

It's hard to see how one arm of government, which allows politics and lobbying influences to direct its own decision-making can, with any shred of credibility, point the finger at other levels of government for doing the same thing.  Isn't it time State governments led by example, or is 'policy' too far into responding to donations developers make to party coffers to change course now?   How many more favours are developers going to get from governments that, ironically, also usually swear, hand on heart, to govern for everyone?  Will these "helping hands" for some only stop when there's no environment and nothing the broader community values left? 

 

People are sick and tired of the government/developer love-in, and of community views being belittled and bulldozed by an industry that only has one interest, its own.  To many, it seems this is the only interest that government listens to and acts upon.  How does this blatant government bias make ordinary people feel?   About the same as developers (or 'investors' as they are now euphemistically called) would feel if a State government had the gumption to set up a Commission comprised of community objectors to make planning decisions - they would feel like second-class citizens.

 

MRRA says it's more than time for the State government to show some improved commitment to democracy.  It's time it acted to even up the balance by making Victoria's planning system more prescriptive, reinstating 'rules' and high standards, putting back bucket-loads more transparency and accountability, reverting to sound planning principles and outcomes, and listening to and allowing the broader community have more say about and control over what happens - at all levels of government and decision-making.  That is, get back to planning for all the people, not just the favoured few.