Memo to the Victorian government and opposition: City of Melbourne wants its development approval powers back.
On his return from the UN emergency climate summit and other events in New York, including the meeting of the Global Compact of Mayors, City of Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle told The Fifth Estate there was no need for the Victorian Planning Minister to be the responsible authority for developments over 25,000 square metres, something he has been saying for the past six years.
“It is an artificial limit,” Mr Doyle said.
“When it was introduced, there were maybe two or three developments of that size a year, now there have been between 50 to 70 [of them] in the past year, and these developments need to be looked at in the context of the whole city. The minister has the power to step in anyway.”
Mr Doyle said current apartments being built were being purchased by workers in the knowledge economy sector, and that where those apartments were meeting the need for affordable dwellings, they would be by necessity smaller and of lower quality.
“We actually need affordable housing in the city,” he said.
He is, however, concerned that in some cases the bar is being set too low.
“What we don’t want to be left with is a glut of dog boxes.”
Mr Doyle said that a recent proposal put before the City was a good example, where the developer said the project included “flexi rooms” in the apartments. When asked what exactly a “flexi room” was, the developer explained it was a small room with no windows or natural light that could be used for either a bedroom, study or other purpose.
“We said, ‘That’s not a room; it’s a cupboard.’
“The trick will be drawing the line between affordability and the quality of apartments. We don’t want to be creating the ghettos and slums of the future.”
Due to the current high supply of apartments, Mr Doyle said rents were coming down, making them more affordable. However, this was not necessarily meeting the need for key worker housing for those in retail, service and other sectors where wages are lower than in the knowledge sector.
Under the current development approval arrangements, the planning minister asks the City to comment on proposals, and Mr Doyle said the council was recommending tough environmental conditions that were in keeping with its policy that all buildings must be 5 Star Green Star standard or equivalent. However, he said, there have been cases where the City’s recommendations have not been taken up by the minister and incorporated into development approvals.
Mr Doyle also said there were two trends he is very displeased with. First, the phenomenon of developers buying a site, getting approval for a tower, and then “flipping” it and selling at a healthy profit without actually building. Mr Doyle observed they make a “tidy sum for doing very little”.
The other trend he took issue with was when a developer asked for increased height in exchange for a range of sustainability measures, and then came back to council for approval to go ahead, but with all the sustainability aspects stripped out from the building’s plans.
As the city does not have the final authority to approve these big projects, and many of the sustainability aspects may not be mandated in the development approval, there is nothing the city can do to force these developers to make good on their green promises.
City focusing on liveability
On the topic of liveability, Mr Doyle said that he sees the term as a combination of sustainability and prosperity, and that it applied in ways that were potentially divergent from the usual policy measures. He said the pedestrian economy, for example, was something City of Melbourne is focusing on, along with measures around zero emissions, and resource re-use as opposed to standard waste management approaches.
The City of Melbourne’s tree planting program, which received major recognition in New York for its measures around sustainability, is an example of trying to do things better and differently: bringing together improvements to health and wellbeing in the city, enhancing the aesthetic, while also improving climate resilience and contributing to carbon mitigation and better stormwater management, capture and re-use.
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Mr Doyle said the tree planting program was lauded for its contribution to climate change resilience as it is “replicable, scalable and affordable”.
It was a response to the prolonged drought that led up to the Black Saturday bushfires, when the lack of water threatened the city’s iconic street trees and park trees, particularly the elms and plane trees. At the same time, council recognised that some of those trees being a century old or more were reaching the end of their natural lives.
The tree planting has multiple levels – to add 40 per cent tree cover to the City of Melbourne, which will reduce temperatures in the city by around four degrees; to add lungs to the city for increased air quality; to ensure the existing trees have mature replacements when they reach the end of their lives; and, to support it all, collect 50 per cent of the water required for irrigation from stormwater harvesting and reduce the need to draw on potable water supplies.
It’s a longterm vision. As Mr Doyle put it, “When you plant a tree you create a 100-year policy statement.”
Mayors at the coalface of climate action
Mr Doyle said that while he was in New York one thing was clear: “Everyone wants a piece of Melbourne.”
The visit gave him a chance to hold conversations with mayors from cities including Paris, New York and Sao Paolo in Brazil, and he said these conversations between mayors have over the years led to some major policy initiatives.
Melbourne’s 1200 buildings program, for example, came about as a result of comments made during a conversation at the Copenhagen climate with New York’s mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg, he said.
“When we [mayors] come together, we share what we do, and what is working in our cities,” Mr Doyle said.
“At the UN Climate Summit, one of the major points of discussion was how do we find financing solutions for the changes we need to make?”
At the Clinton Climate Initiative lunch he also attended, attendees wanted to hear about what Melbourne was doing, and in turn, Mr Doyle said there was great value to be had in listening to comparative views about cities and how they can contribute to the climate challenge and become more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
There was also a meeting of the C40 mayors, and the Global Compact of Mayors was launched. Mr Doyle said, again, the conversations were around strengthening the response to climate change.
“There is a quite powerful confraternity and consorority of mayors worldwide,” he said.
Mayors, he said, were also quite practical, citing an incident at a recent gathering where someone said “an announcement will be made” about a particular issue, and one of the mayors quipped, “And what difference will an announcement make?”
“Talk is good, but at the end of the day there has to be action,” Mr Doyle said.
He believes that whereas the federal government was large, and could therefore only be engaged with things on the larger scale, local government was hands-on.
“As a mayor you have to be nimble, practical, action-oriented and get on and do things.”