A new project in Gisborne, Victoria, heralded as a model for truly regenerative, carbon positive regional development may not go ahead. Instead, the town could end up with more suburbanisation to accommodate its swelling population.
Plans for a gold standard sustainable residential development in Gisborne have been derailed by a local government decision to keep the development out of its town growth plans.
This is despite overwhelming community support for the development, which allocated 50 per cent of the 210-hectare farmland site to open space and community assets. In a survey asking community respondents to rank the four proposed growth areas, 75 per cent picked Glen Junor as their number one preference.
The development, modelled on Serenbe in the US and profiled in detail by The Fifth Estate only a few weeks ago, ticked all the boxes on best practice thinking on regenerative, affordable greenfield development, and was the result of exhaustive work by some of the best minds in the business.
This included futurist and economist Brian Haratsis (MacroPlan), Mark McCrindle (McCrindle Social Research), Mike Day (Hatch RobertsDay), Brendan Condon (The Cape) and professor Sarah Bekessy (RMIT).
- See A regenerative housing estate at Gisborne that’s attracted a lot of savvy people and community buy in
The decision made on Wednesday night by the Macedon Ranges Shire Council represents a major setback for the development, with councillors voting to remove it from the Gisborne Futures Plan, a document that’s meant to “guide sustainable growth and development of Gisborne area over the next 30 years”.
The challenge for the local government is to find homes for more than 5000 people by 2036, with the Gisborne population forecast to balloon from 14,406 to 20,454 people in this time.
These growth plans are required by the state government in all Victoria’s regional growth hotspots, with Gisborne, a commutable train ride from Melbourne, identified as an ideal site for people seeking affordable housing and a quiet lifestyle outside the capital.
Central to the Gisborne Futures plan is setting aside enough land for this growth, effectively drawing up a new boundary.
Anything outside this boundary will be subject to the usual zoning and planning system. For Glen Junor, not being included within this boundary will mean it can only be developed as low density residential as it is currently zoned for.
This will see the farmland carved into one-to-four-hectare blocks, and none of the landscape regenerated for native wildlife nor community assets built, such as a huge community garden and a youth innovation hub.
Not all hope is lost for the development. As Councillor Geoff Neil, the councillor who motioned to remove Glen Junor from the growth plans, suggested, it could still attract the direct support of the state government as an exemplar project, or it could go ahead as standalone self-funded planning amendment.
Trent McCamley, who is developing the land alongside investment partners Tiverton Rothwell Partners, led by Nigel Sharp, hasn’t given up. He told The Fifth Estate he will pursue other means, including taking the plans to the state government.
How did this happen?
The final vote came down to a four-way split, with Mayor Jennifer Anderson voting twice (once as a councillor and again as mayor) to break the tie.
Even the councillors who voted against its inclusion in the plans recognised the merits of the development. They also admitted that it had amassed serious community support.
The problem, according to some of councillors who voted against it, is that the council doesn’t have the bandwidth to deal with it as part of “mammoth” Gisborne Futures project, and that it will put pressure on existing ratepayers.
“Glen Junor can happen in tandem with Gisborne Futures, and not as part of Gisborne Futures, and not at the expense of all current ratepayers,” Councillor Neil said.
“The public infrastructure burden is already apparent and the financial resources to continue to consider Glen Junor inside the boundary will be significant and can’t be borne only by the land owner and will need to be borne by all ratepayers,” the mayor said.
The burden on existing ratepayers is something the Glen Junor developers have thought about.
The plan is to set up $3.5 million community endowment fund to ensure the natural and community assets are maintained in perpetuity. The fund, which would be operated and invested independently, is designed to take the pressure off the local council to maintain the abundance of open space.
The councillors voting against the project noted that the development wasn’t originally in the Gisborne Futures project (it was voted into the growth planning process by the council in mid-2020), and that the site is too far from the existing town centre, exposing the lower density outer areas of the town to overdevelopment.
The site also doesn’t seem to be much further from town than any of the other zones earmarked for future development. It will also be connected to the main town with bike and walking paths, and there’s also a plan to install an electric bike share service and a dedicated public transport service to take people to town and the train station. The plans also include a lot of the social infrastructure it will need to function as 20-minute neighbourhood.
Providing a variety of lot sizes is also part of the Glen Junor plan. The idea was to offer a variety of housing types to suit people at all stages of life, with higher density living in the centre with blocks getting larger as they get closer to the perimeter.
Those who voted to keep Glen Junor inside the boundary pointed to strength of the project, the overwhelming community support, and that the decision to remove it was being done prematurely before the full community consultation process had taken place.
Mayor Anderson was contacted for further comment but declined to add more to her initial statement made at the council meeting.
Getting community buy in
The Gisborne Futures project for managing growth, and others like it, are meant to be done with of plenty of community engagement so that existing residents of these towns don’t get short-changed on the liveability and character of their towns as they expand.
The Gisborne community seemed to have several opportunities to make themselves heard on the town’s future. In an early engagement process conducted by Ethos Urban, the planners selected to prepare Gisborne Futures, as many as 800 residents voiced their concerns about how growth is typically handled in semi-rural towns, with strain put on services and infrastructure and the “look and feel” of these places degraded, such as loss of tree cover.
“Balancing these concerns with the need to accommodate housing growth is a major challenge/opportunity for council, community and this project,” the report stated.
In the same report, prepared in July 2019, several respondents expressed their enthusiasm for Glen Junor as a model for development they could get behind.
“This commentary stands in contrast to suggestions that other housing estates reflect poor design practice and are not contributing to affordability and choice within the region,” the report stated.
Before the vote on Wednesday night, a group of 350 ratepayers signed a petition to keep the development inside the dotted line for higher density growth.
There are also accusations that more community consultation in support of the project had been deliberately held back until right before the vote on Wednesday night.
The development’s Facebook page also has an active membership of 847 followers, with many people expressing their support for the new model for greenfield development that offers triple bottom line benefits. It’s even attracted the praise of award winning director of 2040, Damon Gameau, who called it a “sensational initiative”.
Despite the wealth of community support, Mayor Anderson made it clear that councillors have the final word on such matters.
“All councillors decide how much weight they wish to place on community consultations results that include surveys, petitions and officer recommendations,” she said at the meeting.
McCamley, the site’s developer, said the council failed to take into account the community’s wishes fairly and transparently in their decision.
“My point to that is how can you expect the community to advocate for the future they want if you give them no choice, and it’s a matter of ‘it will be up to me if I will put any weight on what you have to say’.”
When the council has to accommodate thousands of new residents as part of its growth strategy, McCamley says cancelling Glen Junor will only transplant the problem elsewhere. And those houses, by contrast, will most likely follow the usual suburbanisation, car dependant greenfield development model.
This is bigger than Gisborne
Liveability expert Dr Iain Butterworth, who provided some policy analysis on the Glen Junor project, suspects that there’s a lack of understanding about liveability on display.
While most of the world is chasing compact, walkable 20-minute neighbourhoods to house a growing population sustainably – preventing sprawl into agricultural land and dwindling natural landscapes – somehow Australia still ends up with low density development.
“We’re in a climate emergency, and a biodiversity emergency, and having a global population explosion, and the reality is this low density development on the edge of a township is not sustainable.”
Butterworth is acutely aware that this issue is bigger than Glen Junor.
“The reason we keep having these debacles is that the Planning and Environment Act or the Climate Change Act does not require developers to prove how their projects will protect and enhance social, environmental and economic capital.”
He says there’s plenty of talk about the “triple bottom line” and other lofty ambitions in planning documents but the final product tends to fall short because of an absence of onus of proof, with development in growth corridors defaulting to suburbanisation.
For Butterworth, getting better outcomes hinges on serious state and local government leadership through enabling, reinforcing and integrated legislation.