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Carolyn Whitzman is a Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne, and a partner in GAMUT, the Australian Centre for the Governance and Management of Urban Transport. 

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Fixing the planning system in Victoria requires more than “discussion”, says Dr Carolyn Whitzman.

At the moment, the Victorian planning system is under attack from several sources.  Expansion of urban growth boundaries into protected ‘green wedges’, announced this month, call into question the basic purpose of Melbourne’s regional plan (Melbourne 2030), which was to contain new development.  At the same time, local councillors and community organizations are calling for a protest on June 10 over the state government’s appropriation of planning decision-making rights.

Yet a basic question is not being asked: whether the planning act in Victoria should be transformed in order to improve a system that clearly is not working.

At the moment, the Department of Planning and Community Development is asking for submissions on a “discussion paper on opportunities to improve the Planning and Environment Act 1987”.  Note the verbs “discuss” and “improve”.  Not “decide” or “transform”.  In 1987, global warming was not part of the popular discourse.  Gas prices were cheap, and a limitless supply of fossil fuels was considered a given.  With that assumption, the goal of a quarter acre block for every household seemed attainable and desirable.

Twenty two years later, we know different.  We need a transformed, streamlined and decisive new Planning and Environment Act that responds locally to the global imperatives of climate change and peak oil.  Foremost amongst the actions that can happen locally is a commitment to sustainable transportation, and land uses that support sustainable transportation.  In short, no new communities should be built where people cannot walk, cycle, and take public transport between home, work, shops, and leisure activities.  The corollary to that is taking advantage of the transport, water, sewer, and social infrastructure that does exist, by increasing densities in built-up areas. 

Doing the right thing for the metropolis and the planet isn’t rocket science, and it has already happened in other similar jurisdictions.  England and New Zealand have both transformed their planning and local government acts in recent years to recognize new realities.   

First and foremost, a new planning act would recognize that senior governments – in this case the State – have the right to set planning policies and targets for local governments.  But they also have the responsibility to support local governments in transforming everyday planning decision-making to help meet those targets. 

One of the goals of a transformed planning system would be a genuinely democratic consultative process.  Right now, local planning decisions are dominated by a narrow band of middle class homeowners who know that those who yell loudest are able to turn back virtually any new development.  Under a new act similar to the one in England, local governments would need to lodge consultation plans, that set out how they would involve ‘hard to reach’ groups like children, young people, low-income renters, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and people who do not speak English fluently.  They would also need to explain how they would involve these people in strategic plans for each suburb.  There are currently mechanisms being used in Victoria, such as citizen juries and design charettes, which are far more democratic and inclusive than old-fashioned public meetings.  These mechanisms are also more suitable for proactive community planning about the kind of suburbs people want, rather than simple reaction to individual development proposals.

A second goal for a transformed planning system would be communities that are environmentally sound, worked to improve social equity, and were also economically viable.  Strategic plans at the suburb level would have to meet State targets for new housing, including a set ratio of affordable and social housing, mixed land use including nearby jobs and services, and promotion of active transport (walking, cycling, and public transport).  They could also set maximum height requirements, minimum open space provision, or developer contributions to new community services or public spaces.  Once these strategic plans were set, developers would have to meet the criteria in order to receive planning permits.  But the trade-off for developers is certainty - if they met the criteria, their plans would be automatically approved by the local council.

The State government would need to provide financial and training support to planners and local councillors as they dealt with these changes.  However, the State Government has a successful model it could follow: training and support for radical changes to the Health Act and Municipal Public Health Plans.  The Environments for Health initiative led to health and wellbeing being included in new council plans.  Unfortunately, as the audit of this initiative showed last year, health and wellbeing principles have yet to be incorporated into local government land use planning.

Front-lining sustainability and genuinely democratic decision-making as overriding goals for a new Planning Act is simple enough.  But the State Government would need to go further.  They would also need to set tough targets that local governments would need to report on an annual basis.  They would also need to make difficult policy decisions at the senior government level, such as prioritizing adequate public transportation over new roads, and not allowing changes to urban growth boundaries.  One suggestion might be disallowing any new development – housing, mixed use, or industrial - that is more than 2 kilometres from a train station. 

Recently, I led a field trip to Point Cook, a growth area, with planning students.  New developments there are only 11 residential units per hectare, about one third of the densities required to support public transport, local shopping such as corner stores, or other service and employment infrastructure.  There are no employment opportunities within a kilometre of the housing.  The nearest train station is 8 km away.  There is no one walking on the wide footpaths, or biking on the designated lanes, because there is nowhere to walk or bike to.

This kind of planning will create the slums of tomorrow, as surely as building public housing high rise towers entirely disconnected from their surrounding communities has created the slums of today.  Allowing low density, car dependent sprawl is the surest way to guarantee economic suffering for lower income households of the future, as well as growing social inequalities and unsupportable debt for taxpayers of the future as they struggle to fix problems – inadequate public transport, roads, jobs, and social infrastructure –created by bad planning decisions today.

Changes to the planning act may not be popular in the short term.  They are necessary and inevitable in the longer term.  The State Government has a simple choice – tinker around the edges of the interconnected problems of undemocratic and inefficient planning, inadequate public transportation, urban sprawl, and increasing socio-spatial disparities – or take a brave move towards the future.