Wheel – Photo: J Bailey

By Marcus Spiller
10 December 2010 –
One of our assignments as town planning students at Melbourne University in the 70s challenged us to devise a strategy to put “urban policy on the front pages of the newspapers.”

It was the time of the first Oil Price Shock; an energy conservation imperative gripped the developed world. Together with our lecturers, we understood that restructuring the cities was crucial to a sustainable future, but we were all frustrated that urban planning was a non-issue in the community.

Managing Melbourne’s vigorous growth was seemingly on auto-pilot, and the community appeared to accept what the urban policy institutions of the day dished out.

With the challenge of global warming, energy conservation and transformation of our spatial economies is now back at the top of the agenda. But beyond this, the similarities with the late 70s in planning policy are few and far between. Stories and news items about planning are commonly on the front pages of our daily papers. Strategies like Melbourne 2030 and its successor, Melbourne @ 5 million, are the focus of political debate.

The minister for planning routinely intervenes in development assessment processes which were once left to independent authorities. More than occasionally, communities organise demonstrations and advertising campaigns to vent their dismay with proposed changes to their neighbourhoods.

In this politically charged environment, opposition parties obviously see opportunities to differentiate themselves from the Government of the day, score points and build constituencies. Consequently, what should be a long term and consistent process of policy building for our cities is now subject to the erratic swings of the short term political cycle.

Institutionally, we are now in a weaker position to forge a sustainable future for our cities than we were three decades ago. So what changed and how can we repair the situation?

Prior to the election of the Cain Labor Government in 1982, planning governance in Melbourne was dominated by a quasi independent authority, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works. This body traced its origins to the Gold Rush period in the city’s development.

The MMBW had something of a democratic mandate in its own right; until 1978, the Board comprised 54 commissioners, all delegated councillors from the municipalities making up the metropolis at the time. After an Inquiry in 1977, the board was restructured to comprise a full time chair and six part-time members, four elected by area commissions or groupings of municipalities within the city and two state government appointees.

The Board developed a metropolitan strategy and an overarching development control scheme for Melbourne. In performing these functions, it operated at arm’s length from the government, though state and parliament ratified these documents with advice from other independent authorities such as the Town and Country Planning Board.

The MMBW delegated some planning scheme powers to its constituent municipalities but retained development assessment responsibilities for matters of “metropolitan significance”; for example, land release at the urban fringe, key employment locations and the major waterway corridors.

The Planning Minister of the day was “above the fray”: he was seen as the custodian of the processes set out in the Town and Country Planning Act and was rarely drawn into resolving individual development assessment issues. The state political reporters of the day had to look elsewhere for their stories.

Importantly, the MMBW also had responsibility for planning, financing and delivering “city shaping” infrastructure, particularly trunk sewers, which determined where and when land could be opened up for growth, and highways, which affected accessibility patterns and therefore location choices across the metropolis. In pursuing these responsibilities, the Board had its own rating powers and could issue infrastructure bonds.

The Board had many of the hallmarks of a “metropolitan government” not unlike the Greater London Authority. Just as the GLA made great strides in sustainability policy for London under the leadership of Ken Livingstone, the Board established strong planning credentials during its tenure.

While as young students, we might have been frustrated by the then seemingly slow response of planning authorities to the global energy crisis, hindsight tells us that some of Melbourne’s best planning was delivered under the auspices of the MMBW.

These include protection of the Melbourne CBD as the metropolis’s pre-eminent social, economic and cultural hub; enforcement of a corridor structure in outward urban growth to define communities and maintain access to food production and recreational resources; and development of an excellent network of metropolitan parks.

The Cain Government’s move to strip the MMBW of its planning powers and relocate these into a state department of planning seemed like a good idea at the time.

It was intended to make “planning more accountable”. In part, it was a reforming government’s decisive response to then recent land scandals involving the Housing Commission and efforts by some developers to convince the Board to approve a self-contained new town on Melbourne’s northern fringe, in a location at odds with the corridor plan.

This move set in train a polarisation in planning governance in Melbourne that now threatens to seriously compromise our capacity to deliver the sustainable metropolis.

On the one hand, there has been an inexorable centralisation of planning power and influence in the state department of planning and therefore the minister.

For example, the formation of the Priority Development Panel enables the Minister to “call in” a wide range of development applications, with advice from independent experts, but with the minister making the decisions.

Through the Growth Areas Authority, the minister now effectively directs land release and infrastructure funding policy on Melbourne’s fringe.

At the same time, the last three decades have seen a strong thrust to establish councils as independent planning authorities, with power to create and maintain their own development control schemes in keeping with local community preferences. This was given particular emphasis during the Kennett Government’s incumbency.

In short, metropolitan governance was abolished, the instrumental role of the minister was increased, and councils were, in one sense, invited to act with greater autonomy in planning matters.

This proved to be a recipe for institutional paralysis. Upon its release in 2003, the Melbourne 2030 strategy was rightly lauded as leading practice in a technical sense. But it was not embraced by the metropolitan community as something born of its own democratic processes.

Rather it was seen as an edict from Spring Street – something handed down by a remote sphere of governance which had no affinity with the local neighbourhood.

When local councils with clear mandates to represent local interests were asked to make policies and decisions in line with the regional interests set out in Melbourne 2030, resistance was inevitable.

Outright revolt was forestalled by protracted local planning processes supported by the state government including the preparation of activity centre structure plans and urban design frameworks.

But these merely papered over the inherent weakness in governance arrangements; local councils were being asked to perform metropolitan functions.

The result, as indicated by the Melbourne 2030 Expert Audit Group, is much slower progress on urban consolidation than what we need and what the government had hoped for.

Significant acceleration towards the vision of a compact city will require smarter approaches to urban design, particularly at the precinct level.

However, it is unlikely that we will simply design our way to credibility with the metropolitan community. A precondition is a rethink of planning governance in Melbourne.

This needs to be approached with the subsidiarity principle firmly in mind. In particular, it is vital that a metropolitan sphere of governance be reinstated, so that the inevitable tensions between neighbourhood self-interest and regional sustainability can be mediated in more constructive ways, without endangering sound long term plans for our metropolis.

Moreover, the interests of Victoria are likely to be better served if the state government were to be freed to concentrate on the state-wide issues of education, health, policing, industry policy, competitive taxation and regulatory regimes, national parks and Commonwealth-state relations rather than being dragged into what are essentially local or regional matters.

It must tell us something that Australia’s major cities are amongst the few in the developed world without metropolitan governments.

A practical first step would be to establish a regional planning authority or Commission with clear responsibility for those places and issues which are of metropolitan significance; such as, all the principal activity centres in the metropolis, all the public transport corridors which have major intensification potential, all the key employment nodes in Melbourne, including the CBD, the Parkville R&D complex, the airport zone and all development proposals above a threshold size or value.

Outside these areas and issues, local governments would have greater independent discretion than they have today to pursue localised planning solutions.

It is essential that any such Commission be seen to have an independent, albeit subsidiary, mandate to that of the State Government. We could do worse than re-instate the seven board member model with three including the Chair appointed by the State and four elected – directly or by electoral college – by sub-regions comprising the metropolis.

The Commission would be staffed by professionals transferred from the current State department of planning, and would be funded by its own rate raising mechanisms, some of which are already in force, such as, the Metropolitan Improvement Fund.

In due course, the Commission could become a fully fledged metropolitan governance institution with responsibility for highways, public transport and major environmental assets, while local Councils continued to provide local services. The State Parliament and its executive would remain the pre-eminent governance institution in Victoria, retaining control of more than two thirds of current budget programs.

It has been interesting to observe the subtle shift in the focus of the planning profession and, by extension, planning education, which has accompanied the gradual re-engineering of Melbourne’s governance institutions over the past three decades.

As planning has become more politicized, the scope of professional practice has tended to narrow, with far greater emphasis now being placed on negotiation, dispute resolution, development control and administrative process.
Educational institutions will need to play their part in reinventing our planning institutions.

They will need to equip planners with the theoretical frameworks, analytical skills and imagination required to recapture the profession’s original role as an agent of visionary change.

This article was first published in Atrium, by the University of Melbourne

Dr Marcus Spiller is a Director of SGS Economics & Planning Pty Ltd. His consulting experience spans land economics, regional development, housing policy, infrastructure funding and policy co-ordination systems. He has taken up secondments as lecturer in urban economics at University of Melbourne, adviser to the Minister for Planning and Housing in Victoria and senior executive in the Queensland Department of Housing, Local Government and Planning. He is an Adjunct Professor in Urban Management at the University of Canberra, a member of the National Housing Supply Council and a former National President of the Planning Institute of Australia.