Something Wrong with the Planning System?
Russell Degnan

A high-rise - albeit not that high - in Smith St. attracts 1500 objections.

The site for the government's proposed toxic waste dump is moved after more than three years of planning, amidst accusations of secrecy and mismanagement of the process.

The Planning Minister reasserts her right to call in planning applications after Justice Morris, at VCAT, ruled that cases before the tribunal were 'off-limits'.

The onus on noise-management to be placed on new venue operators and residential developers instead of existing venues.


Without question, the system is both complicated and legalistic. The problem being, that the more strain put onto it, the more likely it is the government, and those with appropriate connections, will attempt to circumvent it. By ministerial fiat, by secrecy and deception of intended plans, and eventually - if other bureaucracies are any indication - by ignoring the system altogether and hoping you can get away with it.

It is not irretrievably broken yet - and the last article is a promising sign of a less antagonistic approach - but if cracks in the wall are a sign that your house is about to fall down then maybe we are approaching a time when we need to examine the foundations.

Sterner Matters 29th May, 2004 15:00:56   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: XXX, May 2004
Russell Degnan

Friday night. Wet Outside. Footy at the 'G. And the gallery at Fed Square open late. Taken, October 2003

Melbourne Town 24th May, 2004 20:14:41   [#] [0 comments] 

The Things we Take for Granted: Sewerage
Russell Degnan

If clean and reliable water was an area that the Victorian government has assiduously pursued, then sewerage was an area where the had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age.

The Department of Sewerage and Water Supply was formed in 1860 after an (oft-quoted) government committee reported (in 1852) that:

"In the block bounded by Great and Little Bourke- streets, Elizabeth-street and Swanston-street, there is a space of upwards of one hundred square yards hitherto occupied by a green putrid and semi-liquid mass, partly formed by the outpourings of surrounding privies; and in the blocks north and south of this one, the very passages and rights-of-way are similarly saturated."

But, in the transition to 'responsible government' in 1855 funding was cut. And, in the years following, sewerage was symbolically dropped from the title.


Health conditions in late Victorian Melbourne were horrendous. Melbourne had consistently higher deathrates from typhoid, diptheria and tuberculosis than not only the other Australian cities, but London and parts of Europe. Worse, while in most cities improved sanitary conditions and knowledge were contributing to decreasing death-rates, Melbourne's were increasing! Dumping, or letting the run-off of noxious waste into rivers had the Merri Creek in dry weather "a series of gigantic open stagnant cesspools". The Yarra, into which all these would flow was an open sewer. The Scottish traveller James Goudie described it as "the filthiest piece of water I ever had the misfortune to be afloat on".

The increase in water supply without adequate drainage contributed to the problem. Low-lying suburbs such as Collingwood or South Melbourne were inundated with the liquid waste of surrounding suburbs. They were still tainted with their image as disease-ridden slums a hundred years hence.


The cleaning of the 'night-soil' was - in theory - the responsibility of local government. Councils employed night-men to collect the waste from pans, though this service was often voluntary and required payment of a fee. This was then carted to the edge of the city where it was sold to market-gardeners. By 1890 this system was breaking down. The distance to travel to the edge of town had increased as Melbourne expanded; Boroondara, ever mindful of its image banned the night-carts from travelling through. Nightmen regularly dumped the waste where convenient: in vacant lots, or in one enterprising case, off the Johnston St. bridge which lay in a no-mans land between council boundaries. Councils were also plagued by gross incompetence, building extravagant city halls and protecting their councillors business interests first.

Despite repeated calls for an underground sewerage system, politics played a big part in the inaction. A crisis in London in the 1850s had allowed the creation of a metropolitan-wide Board of Works. Melbourne's Town Clerk from 1856-1891, Edmund Fitzgibbon was behind a similar scheme, but several factors delayed a like implementation. Local councils had varying levels of problems with sewerage. Outer metropolitan areas had little, were concerned at the expense of a sewerage system, and probably percieved - rightly - that they would be last to recieve the benefits. Inner councils distrusted the Melbourne City Council for its money and the influence it would have. State government meanwhile, tried to curb - and continues to curb - the power of Melbourne City Council, while at the same time shrinking from paying for a public works scheme for the capital city that the over-represented country members would resent.

The crisis of the late 1880s finally provoked a response. Under Fitzgibbon's influence, city councils came together to propose a joint board of works. The State Government delayed further, appointing a Royal Commission to study the problem. The commission argued for the appointment of a civil engineer to devise a plan for Melbourne - James Mansergh was payed 4000 pounds (a substantial sum) to come from England to do so. Meanwhile, arguments over the form of the new board dragged on. The commission favoured an expert committee to oversea the works, the councils, a representative body. Fitzgibbon's influence told, he convinced the government to have a smaller representive body. In one final compromise though - for outer suburban councils - the board was given control of not just the main sewers, but for the connections to individual houses. With the state government - strangely - wanting no part in the operation, the MMBW bureaucracy that would later run roughshod over councils was born.
The statue of Edmund Fitzgibbon on St. Kilda Rd.

In the early years though, the MMBW had its own problems. The boom of the 1880s busted shortly after its creation, locking up much needed funds in collapsed banks. As a self-funding operation, the new chairman - Fitzgibbon - had to raise loans at a time when businesses were closing and unemployment was skyricketing. Works proceeded slower than expected, and outer suburban councils tried to reduce the size of the project.

Nevertheless, by the combined wills of Fitzgibbon and the chief engineer William Thwaites it went ahead. The sewerage farm was built at Werribee, and a pumping station at Spotswood - now the Scienceworks Museum. In 1897, Melbourne finally had its first house connected to sewerage: a hotel on the corner of Rouse and Princes Streets, Port Melbourne. The central city was connected the next year, and by 1905 over 100,000 properties had been connected. The rapid growth of Melbourne meant the connections would always lag behind the building of new houses, but the general effect was noticeable. Even The Age - long a stern critic of Fitzgibbon and the board for his authoritarian style, and the percieved waste and mismanagement of the project - was forced to concede that:

"The sewering of the city, in carrying off the scourings from the streets and factories, instead of having that refuse shot into the Yarra, had done a great deal towards purifying the river with the result that the atmosphere of the whole city is much purer, and the death rate smaller than it was. This decreased mortality bill means much more than the mere saving of so many lives every year, though that in itself is a great item, especially in a country which is calling for more popoulation. But the saving of life through the sweetening of life's sanitary conditions means an incalculable lifting up of the average health standard of those who live. It means an immeasurable prevention of bodily suffering. This is worth to any city more than the money it costs, however extravagant may have been the methods of bringing it about."

Melbourne Town 24th May, 2004 19:49:07   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: XXIX, May 2004
Russell Degnan

A favourite photo of mine, on the corner of Latrobe and William St. Taken, August 2002

Melbourne Town 18th May, 2004 00:25:57   [#] [0 comments] 

Do we have what we think?
Russell Degnan

In my statutory planning tutorial a few weeks ago, a development was discussed that had been approved by the local planner, but refused by the council. It was then to go to VCAT, where the expectation was that the council decision would be overturned - under an objective assessment of the planning scheme.

The important question here is: how often is council overturned? And if - as it is - the majority of the time, who is really responsible for approving new developments?

The gradual centralisation of the planning system, in the process of giving much needed certainty, has also steadily reduced councils' arbitrary (and even strategic) power. That now lies in VCAT.


Now throw this Federal Government proposal into the mix. (And as an aside, isn't it nice to see the Federal Government taking an interest).

Fundamentally it is no different; technical decisions being made by an objective panel/ hearing. It may even be faster, but the devil is in the details (sadly lacking in the article). Who can make comments and when? What notice is given to residents? Is there an appeals process? What if the panel doesn't follow existing policy - or it is a largely subjective and controversial proposal?

The planning system is designed to accomodate the worst-case scenario for controversy, and does so as best as could be expected. But it is a labourous process for the mundane, the unobjectionable, and even the controversial that sits well within the strategic plan of the municipality. Recognising this first may be a better first step - rather than laying the blame at the door of councils'.

Sterner Matters 13th May, 2004 14:16:59   [#] [0 comments] 

Some questions from noteworthy articles
Russell Degnan

Selective memory?

The rise and rise of outlet stores in Suburban Melbourne has raised the hackles of the Shopping Centre Council of Australia: "We believe that retail developments, no matter what sort, ought to be approved under the same conditions.". We'll assume then, that future extensions to existing large shopping complexes shouldn't be treated seperately to other planning applications? Direct factory outlets have their own issues. Not least of which, they are as bad - or worse - for public transport users as Melbourne's large complexes.

Does anybody know what is going on?

A relatively small-scale ($3 million) plan to use recycled water on Werribee's market gardens has/is stopped/slowed/going ahead soon. Given the farmers were using recycled water when the plant was built 100 years ago, is it so complicated to sell the water to the private concern at a market rate for low-quality water?

Melbourne port to 'unravel' if deepening not done

Amidst all the gnashing of teeth over the intansigence of environmental groups, and statements about the high cost of freight-trains lies this: "Funding for the project has yet to be finalised, but one option being discussed is for the port to recoup the cost by introducing higher access charges.". Heaven forbid if the beneficiaries of a deeper channel paid for it. Is there a reason why all options couldn't be pursued, or does port competition only apply in relation to other cities?

Something we already knew

"A State Government goal to boost public transport users 20 per cent by 2020 will remain a dream without a significant increase in funding, according to a local government group". If the goal was to increase users by 20% in 15 years then this would be incredibly sad. Of course, it is actually an increase to 20% from the current 9% (a 122% increase). Which isn't, and never was, going to happen. But then, it is easy to set goals for after your government has been thrown out of office, and you're safely retired. Perhaps some short term targets would be appropriate?

Sterner Matters 12th May, 2004 01:46:49   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: XXVIII, May 2004
Russell Degnan

A bit of cloud, and the city has more colour and shades than seems possible outside a painting. Taken, September 2002

Melbourne Town 12th May, 2004 01:12:43   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: XXVII, May 2004
Russell Degnan

ACMI has had an interesting exhibition going for the past several months that is now entering its last week. This is from inside, taken January 2004

Melbourne Town 3rd May, 2004 23:01:21   [#] [0 comments]