A Victorian state parliamentary inquiry into apartment standards released on Tuesday has found the state lags behind NSW, SA and WA on several key areas, such as minimum apartment size and accessibility standards. It also calls for tighter sustainability rules around areas such as access to sunlight, ventilation and green spaces.

The report was released on the same day a separate inquiry, the Legislative Council Environment and Planning Committee, handed down its interim report looking at the sustainability, heritage and affordable housing protections in the Victorian Planning Framework.

The apartment standards inquiry also recommends that Victoria should follow SA’s lead by introducing a consistent statewide design review process.

But any reform proposals are likely to face an uphill battle. The Housing Industry Association is calling for the state to rely solely on the National Construction Code for building standards for residential apartments.

The final report of the Victorian Legislative Assembly Environment and Planning Standing Committee’s Inquiry into Apartment Design Standards was handed down on Tuesday. 

The inquiry looked into the adequacy of the Better Apartments Design Standards (BADS), which were added to the Victorian Planning Provisions (VPPs) in 2017, in response to the growing numbers of people living in apartments.

The inquiry recommends that the state government fix a number of issues with the code that were widely criticised by architects when the rules were first proposed. These omissions include the lack of basic sustainability standards, and minimum apartment sizes.

Victoria lags behind the rest of the nation

The inquiry found that Victoria’s apartment rules fall well short of the standards set in other states.

For example, it found the Apartment Design Guide in the NSW State Environmental Planning Policy No 65 had led to improved apartment design outcomes around minimum apartment size, daylight, and ventilation. 

Natural ventilation requirements in Western Australia provide for higher ventilation standards than those in Victoria.

Unlike in Victoria, Western Australia’s regulations set out minimum standards for separation between buildings, along with better ventilation standards for apartments.

The report also lauds South Australia’s new Planning and Design Code for its design review panels process, calling for a similar scheme to be introduced in Victoria.

South Australia has a design review framework with a separate Local Design Review Scheme which provides local councils a consistent state?wide approach to design review.

What the report recommends

When the apartment standards were first introduced, the then-planning minister Richard Wynne turned down a suggestion from the Office of the Victorian Government Architect that the state should follow in the footsteps of NSW by including a minimum apartment size.

Along with redressing this failure, the report recommends mandating a greater diversity of residential unit sizes, including larger apartments for families. It also says there should be minimum room sizes for kitchens and dining areas, along with adequate storage space – including for bicycles.

The HIA went so far as to say that Victoria’s planning codes shouldn’t set out any minimum standards for apartments at all, and the state should rely solely on the National Construction Code for its building standards.

On the sustainability front, the inquiry called for minimum statewide sustainability and net zero standards, provisions for electric vehicle charging, and for the responsibilities around maintaining green spaces to be clearly defined. 

Residents should have access to sunlight in habitable rooms, and the rules should clarify that lightwells shouldn’t be the main source of daylight.

Other key recommendations include:

  • increased guidance around communal spaces in apartment developments 
  • an investigation into ways to improve ventilation 
  • expanding the design guidelines to include a broader definition of accessibility

The HIA is pushing back

The idea of tougher apartment guidelines isn’t popular with everyone.

In its submission, the HIA said it is “not appropriate that regulations mandate a minimum apartment size”.

“Owners and occupiers of apartments have a diverse range of needs that must be catered for. This is reflected in an occupants need for a particular size dwelling, and the market will provide what the market needs. 

“Designers and builders of apartments are incredibly adept at producing a range of apartment product with good amenity that satisfy the varying price points within the apartment market.”

The HIA went so far as to say that Victoria’s planning codes shouldn’t set out any minimum standards for apartments at all, and the state should rely solely on the National Construction Code for its building standards.

“HIA does not support technical regulation being introduced into the planning system in any capacity. It is considered of vital importance that a clear separation is kept between matters governed by the planning regulatory environment and the technical, building environment.”

The HIA’s hardline stance isn’t universally shared by industry advocacy groups representing developers. 

For example, UDIA Victoria said that while it doesn’t support new mandatory requirements at this stage, it does acknowledge that BADS has helped to solve problems “at the lowest end of the market” and “probably shifted it to a greater degree and a little bit quicker”.

The report said that while enough time hadn’t passed yet to fully assess whether the BADS standards have lifted apartment standards, early evidence suggests that it has had a positive impact so far.

A principles-based approach with minimum guidelines

Another question the inquiry looked at is whether the design standards should set out mandatory “prescriptive” rules for apartments, or more of a discretionary principles-based “performance” approach.

The committee found that while “some prescription, including minimum apartment size, can lead to improved outcomes”, a mostly performance-based approach should be used to “acknowledge the likelihood of unforeseen circumstances in the development process”.

This is interesting, in light of NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts’ decision to drop his predecessor Rob Stokes’ principles-based approach to planning rules.

A second planning report handed down on the same day

Alongside the apartment design inquiry, a second planning-related report was also handed down by a separate parliamentary committee on Tuesday.

The Legislative Council Environment and Planning Committee handed down its interim report looking at the sustainability, heritage and affordable housing protections in the Victorian Planning Framework.

The committee said that was insufficient time to complete its inquiry before the 2022 state election in November, and that it should continue in the next term of parliament.

The HIA came out against new environmentally sustainable design standards being included in the state’s planning codes.

In the meantime, it has released its interim report, which looked at some of the key themes in the submissions to the inquiry so far.

“A common theme throughout the inquiry were concerns about the role of planning in managing population density and providing infrastructure to meet population growth,” especially in outer-suburban areas, the report said.

The report said a number of submissions from councils and community groups discussed the need for climate change and the urban heat island effect to receive more attention in the Victorian planning system.

Some submissions claimed that developers are routinely chopping down trees and paying the illegal tree removal fee before submitting their planning applications. 

“There was a dominant view that planning provisions prioritised development over

environmental considerations to a disproportionate extent,” the report said.

However, in its submission, the HIA came out against new environmentally sustainable design standards being included in the state’s planning codes.

“In considering the role ESD and canopy trees play in mitigating against the urban heat island effect, planning policy should not compromise the supply of diverse and affordable housing that must safely co-exist with canopy trees for the long term,” the HIA said.

“The NCC and not the planning system is the preeminent tool to determine ESD built form

outcomes.”

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  1. Interesting that the HIA want everyone to stick to the NCC. If the HIA do that themselves then they shouldn’t be complaining about the Livable Housing Design Standard for all new housing in the upcoming edition of the NCC. They are still fighting that issue too. Do they actually represent the industry I wonder? Or is it just a small section. They certainly don’t represent community interests. Housing is a community interest.