A better way to do development and bring the community along

Deliberative development could go a long way to replacing the more typical adversarial approach, argues Panos Miltiadou, managing director of Lucent, the first developer to be licensed as a Nightingale housing provider with its Lt. Miller and Nightingale apartments in Brunswick East, Melbourne, currently under construction.

As developers we would love to see a more consultative planning process. Currently, the planning system is just not set up to facilitate true deliberation between developers, community residents and councils. Instead, we have a system that fosters conflict where it could be encouraging cooperation or at least a respectful debate geared towards finding solutions.

It would be good to see more transparency and consultation built into the planning process – so that home owners have greater clarity around what is permitted, and therefore what they can expect, in their neighbourhood. Developers in turn would benefit from a deliberative process that supports feedback from potential buyers, leading to better design outcomes tailored to a specific community’s needs – thereby creating legacy projects the developer can be proud of.

A better way to do development and bring the community along

Currently, most people accept that Melbourne needs smart solutions to its population growth. The city’s populace is set to almost double, to eight million people, by 2050. Over 140,000 people moved here last year, requiring 50,000 new homes. Green field developments at the city’s farthest fringes cannot keep pace.

That is even if we set aside the issues concerning transport, infrastructure and community services – not to mention the diminishment of valuable agricultural and environmental resources –that are the traditional challenges of these kinds of urban expansion.

Even ignoring these crucial matters, Planning Victoria has suggested that only 30 per cent of that demand from population growth could be met by expanding the urban belt. This means that 70 per cent of housing requirements, or 35,000 new homes every year, will need to be built as infill in existing suburbs, and that’s assuming flat rather than exponential population growth.

Unfortunately, as things stand, the way infill is planned can be a recipe for conflict. Many ethical developers look only to purchase and develop properties that have been clearly earmarked within areas of intended growth. These zonings are created in tandem by the interaction of state and municipal government legislation and regulation.

The state government will usually define overarching plans for growth corridors, which are backed onto infrastructure plans. Municipal councils take guidance from this and then determine where they would like to see growth, usually before reporting this framework back to the state planning minister.

These developers are only interested in developing in these clearly defined areas but often home owners – or potential home purchasers, which would be better still – have no easy way of finding out how their area is zoned before a development is proposed.

Currently, developers usually begin with what’s known as a pre-application meeting with a council’s planners, which is a chance to share preliminary designs and find out if everyone is on the same page regarding what’s possible and expected for a site, including heights and set-backs.

Yet, the problem is at this stage it is difficult to consult with the community. Instead, developers are left to confer with a raft of consultants, from architects and interior designers to urban, traffic management and landscaping consultants, in order to come up with a planning application.

Residents hear about development proposals way too late – and the stage is set for an adversarial process

It is only at this point – when the die is to a large extent already cast – that affected residents are likely to hear about it. A sign advertising the application is often the first time community members discover that their neighbourhood is zoned for development. I completely understand their frustration. And from there onwards the process is framed in adversarial terms – rather than a process of “here is how you can find out more” it is put forward as “here is what you can do to lodge an objection”.

There is a more proactive ways to consult within communities, well ahead of submitting a planning application. It’s possible to erect signs telling people where they can find information online – frustratingly this process itself can sometimes become the subject of council objection. It’s possible to answer questions big and small – it might be about parking or how waste collection will be managed. It’s also possible to create surveys to ask the community and potential buyers what they want to see in a development.

A better way to do development and bring the community along
Panos Miltiadou

This enables the creation of a product that is right for the market, and which meets council expectations.

At Nightingale and Lt. Miller apartments on Nicholson Street in Brunswick East, for example, the consultation process revealed that sustainability and community were the highest priorities for that market. Purchasers wanted spaces where they could meet each other. Buyers (almost exclusively owner-occupiers) wanted seating near the collective mailboxes so it was possible to talk to neighbours. They wanted their communities –two buildings of 28 and 38 apartments – to be able to see each other and mingle when sharing laundry facilities and even when using bike parking, a repairs shed and storage in the basement.

They wanted communal gardens and the best possible ecologically sustainable development .. All of these things mattered to that particular community – and were aligned with the expectations of Moreland Council, which has made sustainability and energy efficiency key metrics for all new developments.

There were also arrangements made with a nearby primary school to offer traffic management around school drop-off and pick-up times.

A better way to do development and bring the community along

Currently, planning applications go through the council process, where planners weigh the application and objections but can’t make binding decisions. These votes are the prerogative of councilors, in what is often a politicised process. Ironically, if a planning application gets referred to VCAT (the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal), that is likely to be the first time objectors and developers are brought together, which is already much too late to avoid an adversarial system.

In a compulsory conference representatives of both sides work with a VCAT facilitator to discuss the application. Objectors might request more information, or there might be a list of design modifications to agree upon. Ultimately you aim to come up with a binding agreement that everyone can sign. Otherwise, it comes down to adjudication when often neither side is the winner.

But what if this process – where everyone gets together to explain what they want and are trying to achieve – was the beginning, not the end? A truly deliberative process that took place at the earliest stages of the planning process, at council level not VCAT, and which worked in tandem with much better transparency around zoning expectations. Until we can change the planning system itself, that’s what is worth working for.

Panos Miltiadou is managing director, Lucent

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