9 March 2011 – The Liberals  in Victoria – and potentially soon in NSW – have both threatened a new wave of urban sprawl, but planners say there is an opportunity for a new planning body to push through urban consolidation. Either way, prepare for turbulence.

A new government in Victoria and the likelihood of New South Wales Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell sweeping into office and reducing Labor to a rump could signal big changes ahead for planning.  Planning and property specialists say it’s a golden opportunity for some radical changes that could completely overhaul the way planning policies in both states are determined.

After his first 100 days in office, Victorian premier Ted Baillieu has flagged more development in greenfields sites. An urban renewal authority would be established. He also said there would be more development in regional towns with his government introducing legislation for a billion dollar regional growth fund.

Baillieu, a former architect and shadow planning minister, is passionate about planning. Victorians can expect new suburbs springing up around Melbourne.

“In terms of the urban growth boundary in metropolitan Melbourne, it moved very substantially over the last 12 months, courtesy of our predecessors, and that will obviously have some accommodation in the greenfields sites,” Baillieu told The Fifth Estate on Tuesday this week.

He says that cheaper construction costs will be a big driver of these changes. “The biggest influence on the shape of Melbourne has been the cost of construction because anything over three storeys means that the cost of constructing a home of a certain size will be two and half times more expensive than a single storey cottage in a greenfields site. Victorian builders and developers have become world leaders of single storey construction; they have reduced it to a very precise art.

“That’s why on a cost basis, we have seen more of that despite the best intentions of predecessors planning policies. Those intentions haven’t been realised because the cost of construction has more to do with shaping metropolitan Melbourne than anything else.”

He says the previous government had failed to put boundaries around activity centres in Melbourne. This needed to be addressed. “Communities have every right to be feeling a little bit confused about what the previous government wanted to happen,” he says.

The Baillieu government has flagged that it is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% over the next decade. But Baillieu suggests that this will not come cheap.

“I have always said that if we are going to reduce emissions, there is going to be a cost to the reduction of emissions,’’ he says.

“How that cost is translated and what systems are applied is yet to be determined in detail but there will be something out of Canberra, eventually, and my view is we shouldn’t be doing something that compromises the Victorian economy and the Australian economy against our competitors. We need to keep that balanced and we want to know exactly what the cost will be, what the impact will be on jobs and what the compensation will be. None of that is currently known.”

Baillieu has no shortage of suggestions coming his way to overhaul the planning system.

Urban economist and planner Marcus Spiller, a director of SGS Economics and Planning, says the Baillieu government should reinstate an overarching planning policy formulating body like the old Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works.

The Cain Labor government broke up the MMBW in 1983, stripped it of its planning powers and relocated them in the planning ministry and the Minister of Planning.

Spiller says it would fit in better with Liberal Party philosophy and would protect the government from the inevitable planning controversies.

“It has a greater prospect to be considered seriously by Liberal governments for a number of reasons,’’ Spiller says. “First and foremost, it does offer an opportunity to put a bit of distance between themselves and the political flack attached to the whole consolidation debate.”

He says that when the MMBW was formulating planning policies and introducing unpopular measures, like the redevelopment of Camberwell Station, the government could say, “this decision was made by an independent authority and we not going to interfere with that,’’ Spiller says.

It’s not just the government that would benefit. Spiller says it might even be attractive to councillors who are, by and large, elected by ratepayers to preserve the residential amenity.

“Councils might be interested in the idea as well. Many of the councils recognise the need for urban consolidation but are obligated by their mandate to have another agenda. They need the same protection the government needs. They can say to residents we want to support you local people but unfortunately the decision has been made in another jurisdiction and we can’t do much about it.”

He says an MMBW style independent planning authority would fit in with Liberal Party philosophy because “Labor governments have a tendency to draw power into the centre.” Hence the demise of the MMBW, hence the notorious Part 3A of the planning legislation in NSW which gives the Planning Minister, currently Tony Kelly, the final say on major developments including residential with a price tag of more than $100 million. Part 3A gives the state government the power to approve all large-scale developments. At the same time, it does undermine councils by overriding their planning determinations.

Spiller’s comments suggest O’Farrell could adopt a similar initiative in NSW for a body that was similar to the Cumberland County Council, also disbanded several years ago. Instead of centralising power with 3A, he can devolve power to an authority with members that he selects.

Still, there is some way to go. What is missing in both states is a process of community engagement where people can debate and put up ideas for planning and development, where they can actually own the process.

Victorian Government bureaucrats say the government is still trying to get its head around planning issues. Few are expecting massive change.

In New South Wales, O’Farrell says he wants to alter the residential development mix of the current metropolitan plan away from inner-city infill and towards greenfield areas. He has also pledged to scrap Part 3A of the Planning Act.

But like Baillieu, he has failed to spell out his plans for development. As for 3A, he has failed to reveal exactly what it will be replaced with.  Instead he has promised a planning “review” after the election

In the lead up the election, Ted Baillieu flagged his government would shift population expansion away from suburban infill to new growth areas farther out. The Liberals also vowed to cut the infrastructure charges on greenfield developers.
Since coming into office, his government has announced two new suburbs, Greenvale North and Greenvale West. The plans are house about 7000 people in 1570 houses on 363 hectares about 20 kilometres from the CBD. Construction will start later this year on the suburbs, bordering Craigieburn and Roxburgh Park. Residents will have a few infrastructure issues.

The nearest train station is almost six kilometres away in Roxburgh Park. If that drives them mad, then the closest police station is nine kilometres away in Craigieburn..

At the same time, the Baillieu government announced it will develop Fisherman’s Bend into what Planning Minister Matthew Guy has described as ”Australia’s first inner-city growth corridor”. There might be some problems. Because it is a premium location close to the CBD and the beach, retrofitting infrastructure will be expensive and the housing itself is likely to be expensive, way out of the range of first home buyers let along average income earners. There is the potential contamination of land.

A former Labor government environment minister, who did not want to be named, told The Fifth Estate that there could be planning problems down the track. “If you put a whole lot of houses next to industry, they will lobby to close industry,’’ the ex-Minister said. Furthermore, the government has yet to spell out how it fits in with its strategic vision for metropolitan Melbourne.

There are signs telling Victorians not to expect too radical a change in planning. Before the election, Ted Baillieu flagged abolishing the The Growth Areas Authority and replacing it with an Urban Planning Unit. He has since backed away. The future of VicUrban is also up in the air, although nobody at VicUrban expects that body to be abolished. When Baillieu announced the Fisherman’s Bend development, VicUrban’s acting CEO Sam Sangster was there beside him. “We might get a name change but that’s about it.’’ said one VicUrban bureaucrat.

However in December VicUrban lost its chief executive officer Pru Sanderson and here have been several changes at the top executive level prior to the election.

(An article in a local Docklands publication in recent weeks flagged the merger of VicUrban into a new a new urban renewal authority.)

The executive director of the Victorian division of the Property Council of Australia, Jennifer Cunich, says it is still too early to say which way the government will move. Still, she says Planning Minister Matthew Guy seemed committed to making things happen, “Time will tell whether it happens quickly or not,’’ Cunich says.
She believes there will be some action in the first term of government.

Cunich says housing affordability is a key issue and infill should be a key priority, and the opportunities in the inner city should be exhausted first. “We want to see much more consolidation of sites and more infill in the inner ring, getting more housing opportunities there where people have choices and they don’t have to go out to the urban growth areas unless they choose to,” Cunich says.

Echoing Spiller, she says it is time to create an over-riding planning authority. “There should be a Victorian planning authority with a metropolitan arm and a regional arm and what you could do is have these agencies sitting within that framework but you need an over-arching authority that is going to make it happen,’’ Cunich says.

“That way you can synchronise and bring together the issues and the infrastructure for regional and metropolitan, you can’t do one in isolation of the other. You can create these regional authorites and urban renewal authorities but what we should be looking at is a bigger picture of the strategic vision for the state as a whole.”

Whether O’Farrell or Baillieu overhaul the planning systems and change them for the better remains to be seen. A first step would be to establish a process of community engagement. That way, the government can defer to the process and community opinion if it runs into trouble. Which they will. Planning is like that.