Lately, there’s been a lot of media coverage on planning reforms, or lack thereof. Commentary has largely revolved around the State Government’s recent and lasting abandonment of the major planning reforms and their tenuous link to the social housing levy.
The dumping of the highly anticipated planning reforms coincided with the withdrawal of the proposed social housing levy that sought 1.75% of any development of three or more dwellings being paid to provide much needed social housing.
The Way Forward
Rather than dwelling on the political forces impelling the decision, we would rather focus on moving forward and what improvements could and should be made by future administrations to improve our planning system.
These improvements could assist in providing additional funding for social housing through the myriad existing taxes on property and development. Anna Cronin’s Planning and Building Approvals Process Review report from 2019 recognised the impact of delays within the planning system as being detrimental to both the economy and housing affordability.
Tinkering v Transformation
Whilst there has been some tinkering with the Planning Schemes to minimise conflicting policies and repeating objectives, very little else has changed in terms of real reforms or improvements to the planning system for several years.
Even the Residential Zones reform wasn’t considered revolutionary. Ratio certainly vocalised our views on the haphazard application of the new zones and many still question whether these were an improvement or more tinkering given the liberal application of the restrictive Neighbourhood Residential Zone (NRZ). It comes as no surprise to many that the areas where the NRZ was most liberally applied, such as Bayside and Boroondara, have seen a disproportionate increase in property values in the past decade.
Taking cues from the Underwood Report
We don’t know exactly what planning reforms the State Government was proposing before dumping the package other than these reforms relied upon changes to legislation to pass. Regardless, there was a notable lack of resistance amongst industry insiders opposing planning reform.
The colloquially referenced ‘Underwood Report’, released in December 2011 following involvement by now Ratio Director Catherine Heggen, recommended 67 specific changes including:
- Involving Planning Panels Victoria (PPV) earlier in the Planning Scheme Amendment process.
- Adequately resourcing VCAT to reduce wait times in the Planning and Environment List.
- Replacing the Current Planning and Environment Act 1987 with a new Act.
- A review of third-party involvement in certain planning applications.
The above recommendations remain as valid today as they did 11 years ago.
At a high level, some changes I’d propose to the Victorian Planning System could include:
Minimising Local Politics
As a town planner who has worked in both Local Government and the private sector, I believe that the single most significant improvement to the planning system would be to remove local politics from the equation.
Too often, an application goes through an extensive process ‒ pre-application meetings, requests for further information (RFI), a response to the RFI, advertising, community consult meetings, further amendments, ultimate planning officer support endorsed by other council departments ‒ only to be refused by councillors.
Add to this, the lead time before a council meeting is usually 3-4 weeks from the finalisation of the officer report to the Council meeting, even though Councillors rarely read the report so far in advance.
I’ve been involved in matters where an application had been through three full days of Compulsory Conference, where all parties signed an agreement in consent, only for the application to be refused at a Council meeting and a full hearing required.
I acknowledge that it’s impossible to remove politics from town planning, particularly when Council Planning Managers and Directors are directly employed by Councillors and are under short term contracts. However, we can take our lead, and improve upon, success stories.
The City of Moreland’s trialled Urban Design Scorecard sought to streamline the planning application process by ensuring that high-quality designed projects which provided a clear and genuine community benefit, would go through a slightly different application pathway. An application that qualified for the process would have pre-application meetings with Council Officers who would issue a decision on the application, rather than local Councillors. The scorecard meant the benefit of providing a genuinely excellent development, regardless of the number of objections, was that your application was assessed on its planning merit and community benefits, rather than political grandstanding.
Changes to Planning Scheme Amendments
As a planner looking at the Planning Scheme Amendment process, I’ve never understood why there is no review process if Council decides to abandon an applicant driven amendment.
It’s not uncommon for an amendment to be abandoned by Councillors due to significant submissions being made, despite the sound planning merit for the amendment. My suggestion would be that amendments should be submitted directly to DELWP or PPV to determine whether they should be authorised.
Alternatively, in the event Council decides to abandon the amendment, an applicant should have the ability to have their matter heard by PPV and the Minister who would ultimately determine whether the amendment has merit.
VCAT has made several improvements throughout the COVID period, including transitioning to online hearings and circulating Tribunal books and submissions.
As an expert appearing at VCAT, it’s almost certain the involved Member has reviewed the plans, read the evidence and submissions and, in some instances, viewed the site prior to the hearing commencing. To expedite the process, facts such as the application description, site and surrounds, and local and state planning policy could be agreed upon and accepted so the hearing can focus on the disputed issues.
As a keen advocate for the VCAT Compulsory Conferences (CC), I’ve observed that sometimes three hours is not enough time for a CC. Like the allocation of hearing days, CCs could be allocated either 3 hours or 6 hours depending on the complexity of the application to avoid an adjourned or disjointed session.
Lastly, I’d enjoy seeing Council Officers coming to CCs with an ability to settle the matter, rather than taking agreed positions between Council advocates, objectors and permit applicants back to a full Council meeting which requires unnecessary time and resources from all parties. This would no doubt require a change in Council’s Deed of Delegation and a level of trust between Councillors and their planning departments.
Updated Technology and Systems
Imagine the time savings for Councils if applicants didn’t need to call Council Officers to see if a planning application has been referred out, obtain comments and copies of objections received?
Imagine the transparency for the public if application materials were left online from the time of notice to decision making?
Implementing a consistent online system used by all the Victorian Councils could allow applications to be submitted and paid for, as well as enabling real-time access to applications. I understand that this is currently part of the planning reform process being undertaken by the Department so let’s see this uncontroversial reform rolled out ASAP.
Naturally, there are many more commendable planning reforms than those outlined above. To date, we have seen a lot of meetings, workshops and handholding but not much action. Perhaps it’s time for more doing and less looking back?
Certainly, the support for change is there from all sides of the industry.