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Not all going to plan in tale of two cities

Date

Karin Derkley

This is a tale of two cities. A Melbourne of proud, heritage streetscapes. And another of streets ''ripe for renewal''.

Both are the focus of Plan Melbourne, the Napthine government's signature planning policy, which wants to defend the first from ''inappropriate development'' and ensure in the latter the continual supply of new dwellings - essential to house our growing population, to the state's economic growth, and to ensure a more sustainable city of jobs and access to services without endless sprawl.

Launched in May, Plan Melbourne cannily took some of the heat out of the vexed area of planning by giving local governments the power to decide where in their municipality high, low and no-development zones should go. It was canny because any anger residents felt about what happened to their neighbourhood could be directed away from the government - despite the fact Minister for Planning Matthew Guy retained the ultimate power to approve or reject those amendments.

Darlene Reilly of the Sunshine Residents and Ratepayers Association, at terrace houses on Benjamin Street, Sunshine.

Darlene Reilly of the Sunshine Residents and Ratepayers Association, at terrace houses on Benjamin Street, Sunshine. Photo: Paul Jeffers

That's how it looked on paper. The execution, however, has been a good deal more confused, with many councils still waiting to hear whether their requested amended zoning will be approved, while others have had theirs waved through.

Despite the government's boast the new zones would give greater certainty to residents and developers, the new regime kicks in on Tuesday with 24 councils yet to hear if their amended zones will be approved. Their entire residential areas will default to the general residential zone (GRZ) - which permits development up to three storeys - while an advisory committee or the minister consider their proposed amendments. Some fear a rush of applications to take advantage of the interim measure.

Meanwhile, some experts worry the ''flexibility'' still permitted under Plan Melbourne means suburban developments will continue to be decided at contested Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal hearings, leaving the scheme vulnerable to accusations it is ad hoc, inconsistent and just as lacking in certainty, transparency and fairness as the old regime.

Over the past two weeks, The Sunday Age has analysed how the planning scheme will work, and who will be the winners and losers. In the final part of the series, we examine how the politics of Plan Melbourne will play in an election year. Will it be seen as one of the government's crowning achievements or ''courageous'' decisions?

The answer depends on which of the two cities you live in - heritage or humble Melbourne. These cities are described not only by municipal boundaries and architectural lines, but by politics, observers say. The politics of the ballot box and political parties, and the politics of social class and economic clout.

In August last year, Liberal MP Georgie Crozier was quick to boast when the City of Glen Eira, which falls within her upper house Southern Metropolitan Region seat, was the first to benefit from reformed residential planning zones.

Announcing Plan Melbourne, Mr Guy promised 50 per cent of suburbs would be protected from development. Glen Eira got much more. Nearly 80 per cent of the city, which includes Bentleigh, McKinnon, Ormond, Elsternwick and Carnegie, would be protected from apartment and unit-style development, Ms Crozier declared, setting an ''enormously positive example for other councils to follow''.

Meanwhile, Liberal member for Prahran Clem Newton-Brown berated Melbourne and Stonnington councils, parts of which fall into his seat, for their ''recalcitrance'' in failing to take up the tools they had been so generously offered by the Planning Minister to protect their suburbs. In response to concerns voiced by his constituents, he ''grieved'' on their behalf in Parliament, calling on Mr Guy to ''find some mechanism whereby the views of my community can be properly considered prior to any final discussion being made''.

It was an early harbinger that the government would be quick to claim the credit for those zoning decisions residents were happy with, even while it has been just as keen to shift responsibility to councils for zoning decisions residents did not like.

Mr Guy told Parliament last year his government's new zones were providing metropolitan areas with the protection they had been denied under the ''wrecking ball approach'' of Labor's Melbourne 2030. The new Neighbourhood Residential Zone ''is the strictest zone for controlling inappropriate development anywhere in Australia'', he said, and would be offered to all municipalties to ensure neighbourhood character would be protected "once and for all".

Since then, Melbourne's councils have been lining up with their bids to protect neighbourhood character in their suburbs. Some have already been successful, including Boroondara, Bayside and Monash.

Others are still waiting to find out if their requests to protect their suburbs will be approved by the minister and the standing advisory committee established to help streamline the process.

Several municipalities have been told in the past week their applications are still in process, and after July 1 they will automatically go into ''neutral conversion'', meaning their entire residential area will be designated GRZ until their amendment has been approved.

Councillors at Kingston, in Melbourne's south-east, have been told by the general manager in charge of planning that this neutral conversion will mean the council's planning team is likely to face '''a slew of [development] applications'', Fairfax Media reported last week.

It is unclear what has been the criteria by which some councils have had their zoning approved and others have had theirs delayed.

Timing may be one issue. Moreland for instance, which has had its approval delayed, admits it did not get its application in to the standing advisory committee until two or three months ago.

However, Kingston made its application last September. ''We were told that going via the standing advisory council would be a fast-track process,'' Cr Rosemary West said.

One commentator has suggested that councils who had their amendments promptly approved were those who took advantage of the opportunity for a "ministerial approval" rather than resorting to the standing advisory committee to assess their application. This was an opportunity open to all councils, but those that took advantage of it have tended to be municipalities in the eastern and bayside areas.

''Perhaps other councils didn't feel quite as welcome to apply directly to the minister,'' the commentator suggested.

Whatever the reason, 24 councils have applications still not approved by the minister and these are largely in the north, west or outer suburbs. This has made it difficult for some constituents to accept the notion Plan Melbourne is not a politicised document.

Melbourne University urban planning professor Richard Tomlinson said: ''Every metropolitan strategic plan in Australia is guided by the interests of state governments in being elected or re-elected.''

Nick Economou, a political scientist at Monash University, points out that Melbourne has been a divided city since the 1850s, when industry and its workers were sent to the north and the west of the city, leaving the east and the south for middle-class suburbia, and electoral behaviour and, consequently, planning decisions have tended to follow that pattern, too.

That has been complicated in more recent years by the gentrification of the inner north and west, where vocal and increasingly well-resourced residents have started to agitate to protect their low-density streetscapes and their property values, following the campaigns of residents in historically wealthier south-eastern suburbs. There are save-our-suburbs groups in Darebin, Moreland and Yarra as well as in Boroondara and Bayside.

Rampant apartment development occurring under Labor's Melbourne 2030 was one factor in the downfall of the Brumby government, said Ernest Healy, senior research fellow in the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University. ''Labor was beginning to realise it was on the nose in terms of its urban planning policy, and was coming around to this idea of doing more to protect to the suburbs in its dying months. The Liberals came in on an attempt to correct that discontent.''

Shadow minister for planning Brian Tee is a convert to the notion of protecting Melbourne's backyards, which he claims are under threat as a result of the new zones. He said: ''The process has been so distorted by the Planning Minister's political considerations no one can be confident that Melbourne's liveability, its way of life, and it suburbs will protected - let alone enhanced - by these changes.''

The Greens, too, have recognised the wisdom of bowing to community desire to protect neighbourhood character. ''We all love the heritage aspects of Melbourne and, yes, we believe they should be protected'', Greens member of the Victorian upper house for the Northern Metropolitan Region Greg Barber said. The Greens say all Melbourne's future housing requirements can be accommodated in ''brownfields sites''.

The Liberal government is all too aware of the pressure from residents who resent the intrusion of ugly apartment developments in their streets, but at the same time the Planning Minister is faced with the problem of housing up to 3 million more people over the next 25 years - and the ambition of developers to build those dwellings.

That has compromised the party's ideological desire to let the market determine how such development will play itself out, suggests Michael Buxton, of the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT. ''This is a neo-liberal government that wants to get rid of rules and regulations altogether,'' he said. ''It actually doesn't believe in planning. But they've come up against strong resistance in the middle suburbs from people wanting to protect their streetscapes, so they've had to throw something in about protecting heritage and neighbourhood character at the last minute.''

Mr Guy's job has been made all the more difficult by the fact that he announced the residential zone reforms last year, well before projected dwelling numbers were announced. With the government having approved early many of the more conservative councils' amendments to protect as large a portion of their suburbs as possible, Professor Buxton suspects planning officials are now panicking that they may not be able to fit in the targeted population requirements, in what is left to allocate to the General Zone.

Dr Healy said in one way Mr Guy was clever to handball the decision-making to councils, reversing the previous government's fairly heavy-handed centralised approach.

''That takes the heat off him, and leaves local government to take the flak,'' he said.

However, he added: ''Guy is still the puppet-master at the end of the day, even if it appears to the public that local government is doing it.''

What that also means is that the extent to which suburbs receive protection is largely up to the activism of each council, and the residents who lobby them. Those who are well organised, vocal and have a sophisticated understanding of how the system works are more likely to keep higher-density developments out of their streets.

''In Boroondara they've got QCs on their anti-development organisations,'' Dr Healy said.

Moreland is a more complex example, he said, where residents in its wealthier suburbs such as Brunswick and West Brunswick have mounted vociferous campaigns against development in their streets - gaining the highest protection zones, while those in the working-class areas to the north have been allocated as GRZ, allowing development of up to three storeys.

''A lot of people in those suburbs don't even really know what's going on, let alone how to fight it,'' he said. ''They've been told they'll be able to unlock the value of their land with development, so they think that's going to be OK.''

The government now is playing a double game by holding up some councils' amendments, trying to work out where they can make up the extra supply, Professor Buxton said.

Mr Guy did not respond to Fairfax Media's request for comment.

With Labor heading to the state's November election well ahead in the polls, Mr Tee said his party had no intention of tearing up Plan Melbourne, ''so if we win the election we would look at the entire Plan Melbourne policy and, obviously, any government would want to see what works and change what doesn't''.

For the government, what happens in the north and west, where up to 900,000 new dwellings are slated to be built in the next 35 years and seats are uniformly Labor, is unlikely to be of huge concern. Resident concerns in electoral seats within the Stonnington and Kingston municipalities may be more pressing. Mr Newton-Brown holds his seat on a margin of less than 5 per cent, explaining no doubt why he has been so keen to demonstrate to residents his concerns about protecting neighbourhood character, even while their council may have not.

The so-called sandbelt suburbs in Kingston are also swinging seats that more or less decided the last election for the Liberal government. Sitting Liberal member Lorraine Wreford holds the seat of Mordialloc with a 1.8 per cent margin, while Bentleigh's Elizabeth Miller is on just 0.9 per cent.

Brimbank

Darlene Reilly is a seasoned Brimbank activist.

President of the Sunshine Resident and Ratepayers Association (SunRAA), she is concerned about the lower levels of protection the western suburbs area are getting relative to the south-east.

She says well-resourced anti-development groups in areas such as Camberwell have achieved their goals at the expense of disadvantaged areas, which will have to accept more high-rise apartments and townhouses. ''The [Brimbank] community doesn't have the skills, the time or the resources that other parts of Melbourne have,'' Reilly says. ''It's hard for them to be involved - many migrants are scared of authority, of speaking out.''

The problem is compounded by the fact administrators are running the municipality after the previous council was sacked. Elections for a new council, directly answerable to the electorate, have been delayed until 2016.

Despite opposition to the consequences of Plan Melbourne, SunRAA is not planning to campaign against local member, Liberal MP Bernie Finn, at the state election. ''Labor's plan is just as bad,'' she says of the previous government's policy. ''Concentrating density in disadvantaged suburbs is only going to breed more disadvantage.''

In doubt

Certainty is one of the major issues trumpeted by the Planning Minister as guaranteed by Plan Melbourne. But the delay in providing approvals for 24 of the councils has created more uncertainty that ever for those municipalities.

The so-called ''neutral conversion'' means areas that had more restrictive development under the former residential zoning system, can now theoretically be subjected to applications from developers wanting to build apartment developments of up to three storeys in suburban streets.

But even once the zones are finally confirmed, there is doubt on how much certainty they will truly create. Kim Dovey, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Melbourne, says none of the zones is secure. ''I don't think anyone can have confidence that what is being approved now will not be subject to change in the future.''

The zone descriptions support that view. Only the NRZ has a mandatory height control of eight metres, and even that can be varied with approval from the Minister of Planning. Councils can vary maximum building heights for both the GRZ and the highest-density Residential Growth Zone.

 

With Gina McColl, Christina Zhou, Larissa Nicholson

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