Six good reasons to change the Victorian Planning System
Russell Degnan

From a personal, and professional point of view, there are all sorts of reasons why we could change the planning system. Most of them can be neatly summarised by the statement, "It is not really planning!". Tom's lament is a good example of the general malaise that sits over the profession in this state.

What I am interested in though, are outcomes. Is the system, with its extensive democratic processes, complications and inherently legal nature, despite it all, getting the job done? Here are six reasons why I don't think it is.

1. It's expensive
Legislation costs money, it costs money to pay planners, who, let's be honest, don't do anything productive; it costs money to pay lawyers, likewise; and it costs time, because if you've bought a property or signed a lease the six months it will take to get a permit could finanically cripple you why your investment sits and does nothing.

"That's the risk you take" you might say. Better that than a bad city. Consider the comment by PIA President Marcus Spiller, "[...] the main problem with the strategy was the building costs associated with suburban apartments, not people rejecting higher-density housing.". There only significant difference between other states and Victoria when it comes to building is legislation, either builders (ie. unions) or planning (ie. us). It is very easy to get planning approval for a single storey dwelling in the suburbs, it is very difficult to get approval for an apartment complex. Coincidence? But that is not all, it also causes speculation. Want to covert a couple of single storey dwellings into a row of terrace houses? No chance, you'd never recover the costs. But if you convert them to a 10 storey apartment complex then the risk is outweighed by the return.

Planners and residents might want sensible higher densities, but as it stands the planning system is actively working against that idea because of its expense and uncertainty.

2. It distracts from the public realm
By requiring a permit for private buildings, on private land, far too little attention is given to the parts of the city that really affect people: our public spaces and streets, transport infrastructure, and environment. Leafy suburbs with leafy streets have leafy public nature-strips. Complaints about density don't matter. What matters is whether there is over-shadowing at the back and whether there is a sufficiently attractive interface with the street - either against it or setback with a garden. The more planners try to plan where dense developments are allowed and should go and the less attention they pay to the interface these developments have with the street, the more residents complaints they will receive, the less diverse the housing will be in an area, and the more likely the public realm will be poor.

3. It is confrontational
When Rob Hulls came and spoke at RMIT a few weeks ago he claimed that other states were envious of our planning system. A politician and lawyer would say that wouldn't he? In the legal and political worlds the first aim is to win the argument. Only when you can't win outright (or can't be sure) do you negotiate. The planning system is inherently confrontational: you apply then succeed or fail, if you object then likewise. Where negotiation occurs it is outside the system itself, and a sure sign of its failings that almost all statutory planners would say it doesn't occur often enough. A developer will always want to do something with a site, the general public will almost always want something done with a site - empty land, and derelict buildings are the worst kind of land-use. That should be a starting point.

4. It distracts from the role of infrastructure planning
Infrastructure is what drives a city, in its roads, sewers, water and electricity connections, and other urban elements. This is why people live in cities. But except for developer contribution plans, where does this come into the planning system? it doesn't, it is run by a myriad of little and large bureaucracies across state, local and federal government. Most of these bureaucracies will tell you they are driven by demand for their services. This is crap. It is also the subject of another, as yet unfinished artlcle. But suffice to say Melbourne 2030's biggest problem is that it is wholly inadequate in this area, and no strategic plan will work until it is addressed.

5. It hurts the professional status of planners
To quote again from Rob Hulls, he is the minister for saying "No". People don't like that. They think, probably with some justification, that planners are petty bureaucrats, obsessed with irrelevant details, and committed to making it hard for people to do what they want for no apparent reason. In the respect ratings planners rank down there with lawyers and politicians. You can talk about all the good you are doing for the community all day, but the reality is the community thinks planners are an encumbrance, and they primarily think it is an encumbrance because the system encourages them to see planners that way. They don't approach planners for helpful advice on the best way to enhance the neighbourhood, or to get an energy efficient home, or any number of things planners could tell them. They come to planners to hurdle them, and planners are there to trip them up.

6. It isn't effective in enhancing, retaining, or shaping our built heritage
Cities are living things. Our planning system treats heritage like a dead thing. If it is dead, then it must be retained. If it is mostly dead then it is slightly alive, and must be partly retained. Neighbourhood character is a concept for defining when a neighbourhood is dead. It turns them into painted landscapes. We should want our towns and cities to be alive. Not by tearing buildings down, but by using what we have well, and by reshaping what isn't to better and complementary uses. There needs to be an economic incentive to do this, and there needs to be an attitude shift to accomplish this. Neither of those are possible under our current system.

I'm sure there are other reasons as well?

Sterner Matters 29th March, 2005 22:41:46   [#] 


It's all lies, terrible lies
Michael Buxton lied to us all. There's no such thing a 'planner'. This insane charade that we've all been playing for the last two and bit years is nothing but a farce designed to indoctrinate us in the petty process of office bureaucracy while giving us a heightened, yet flawed concept of tying the Red Tape around the ankles of the community.

...and what of it? So some old fred doesn't get his fence the right height- surely there is a higher purpose to this profession than such trivial shite.

When it comes down it, there needs to be a huge attitude shift in the way planners are seen, and the way they see themselves. Such foresight is hard when there is the stupidly high brick wall of the VPPs obstructing our view. God, if other states look to our system with envy, god help them and their processes*.

So you can see, I'm really looking forward to working as a planner.

This is of course goes without saying that I have very little knowledge of other states' planning systems, but they're more localised, much like ours before McLellann reforms.
Tom  30th March, 2005 13:34:59  

Well well well...
A bit of digging on the other side of the fence has yielded some unusual finds...

Vic System worst in Australia - RAIA

This coming from architects, but still...
Tom  30th March, 2005 13:54:00  

Damn Libs
It's interesting that that article is to be found on the Liberal Party's website.

Considering the Liberals under Kennett were responsible in reforming the entire Victorian planning system - most of which remains today - it's a little hypocritical of them to be talking about the delays this system has caused.
Aaron Hewett  2nd April, 2005 17:39:41  

True Aaron
On the other hand, the Bracks government knew the system was broken when they got into power, and they gave it a nice: "as you were".

Six years is a long time for neither party to have proposed a workable solution.

btw, does noone disagree with any of this article? What do I have to do, bit the head off a chicken?
Russ  2nd April, 2005 20:49:59