Shaping reactions through systems
Russell Degnan

Previously, I've argued that the way we do planning in Victoria is producing a lot of negative side-effects. In a way, this is a harsh assessment. Not because it isn't, but because the system itself is built on the two foundation stones of liberal democracy: the right to a fair trial; and having decisions made by elected representatives.

The issue, is that both of these are very conservative ways of approaching democracy, created by (for the most part) lawyers, for lawyers, based on adversarial positions, and (in general) winner-takes-all decision making. And while this can be appropriate, it is not necessarily always appropriate, and planning, being a highly subjective area, is one of them.

The planning system in Victoria (shorn of the few additions that have tried to ameliorate this problem) is relatively straight-forward:

You submit an application

From this point onwards, the planner and the process is in control of the application. This is the first problem. As any contractor will tell you, people have no sense of time; once something is submitted they will bug you day and night for completion; if it is in their hands they will sit on it indefinitely. In the interests of keeping people in the process, it makes sense for them to be in control of it, and not a planner/bureaucrat.

The plans are checked for consistency and sufficiency

There is nothing wrong with consistent and complete plans per se. The problem here is the approach. By setting up a dialog between the planner and the developer the plans are finalised without input from affected parties. The planner can add to this process, and the plans can be modified a little later, but it locks things in to early.

The plans are advertised to potentially affected parties

On the surface, this is important. In reality, like any piece of advertising, it serves to encourage behaviour -- an objection -- which isn't actually what you want. For preference, nobody would object. It also, again, creates the adversarial roles when both sides, generally have an interest in a good outcome.

In light of comments made, the plans are negotiated, assessed, and then decided upon

Once again, the public, and the proponent are removed from the process. Except, by this stage, large numbers of people have a vested interest in the outcome. Any system that makes a decision -- as any planning system must -- cannot avoid this; but the system, as constituted encourages the escalating political dog-fight that controversial applications tend to become. Politics and good planning outcomes are not anathema, but nor are they necessarily optimal.

The decision can (potentially) be appealed to VCAT

The final fun stage, when everyone lawyers up and goes at it. This process favours people with access to funding for lawyers, be they well-mobilised, wealthy, local resident groups, or large coroporations. The process, from go to the court-room woe, is long and unwieldy, and much of the problems lie not in the details people fight over, but in the structure.

There are many ways to do this better, that do engage the community, give planners more guiding power, and less legislative grunt, that avoids adversarial positions, that are more democratic, and less entwined with the legal profession. Nor are they necessarily substantially different to what we have, as is the case in many jurisdictions.

Take, as an unusual example, the creation process for Usenet newsgroups. A process that has worked on a similar scale, of a few hundred people, is similarly voluntary, but which, lying within the largely anarchic culture of the internet, has been designed with weak bureaucracy (though many proponents still argue too much), and strong inclusive principles. It too was relatively simple:

A request for discussion of the new group is posted to relevant places

Note the difference between this and planning. The first point of contact is engaging with the affected parties. These discussions can become heated, but their purpose is to shape the details of the group, based on a series of draft proposals, combining the knowledge of the proponent and their supporters, the 'old-hands' of newsgroup creation (planners if you will) and interested parties (the general public). Discussions period lasts 30 days; in the planning field, discussions could be longer or shorter, depending on the complexity of the project, and the time it takes to shape a consistent and sufficient plan together.

A call for votes is initiated

The call for votes is, or rather was, designed to ensure the newsgroup has sufficient membership to support itself. It required 100 more yes than no votes, and a 2/3 majority to pass. Since I last read news.groups this process has fallen apart, and is in the middle of a rather arcane, and ultimately pointless discussion on how best to do the process by committee, rather than votes. The problem was that 100 people is a lot, especially when you factor in the nay-sayers, and the decline in usenet users, not to mention that 100 people generate more verbosity than you'd probably want anyway.

The point here though, is the way the mechanism produced good outcomes. The votes that failed for other reasons, generally did so because they were fundamentally flawed, or made changes that, even if slightly irrational, drew people's ire. The advantage of a voting hurdle is that it forces the proponent to draw the community in from the start, rather than down-playing those faults.

Another complication, is that an two-way adverarial system disguises that there are really a dozen or more viewpoints: several council viewpoints, state government, local planning priorities, state planning priorities, traffic planning, local residents, external (sometime/visiting) residents, business groups, community groups, and the unfortunate proponent.

There is strength in that diversity, provided ideas are fleshed out, which at the moment, with planners subject to councils, and developers and residents facing off from each other, they are not.

So what am I proposing?

1. Objections and their responses should be discussed openly, between the proponent and objectors, not through the planner.
2. Vast swathes of the planning system should be automated, and made acessible online, including any discussions.
3. Planners should be divorced from decision making, and confined to decision guiding. The reasons for their advice should be examined publically.
4. In order to engage people who aren't out and out nutters, developers should be encouraged to get people to register interest in their proposal.
5. Interested parties should be allowed a direct -- though not conclusive -- say in the final proposal.
6. Either all decisions should be made by an independent legal body, or all decisions should be made by a sub-collective of relevant parties. Not both, and not one before the other.

Like in usenet, decisions are never as important as they might seem at the time. But under the present system, the way we interact encourages misunderstanding and negativity. And there are relatively subtle changes that could be made -- many of these would not involve changing the planning act -- that would make a substantial difference to this interaction, and the end result.

Sterner Matters 17th May, 2006 04:53:35   [#] 


People Power
I think it is good that residents have won against the council decision to remove a playground and redevelop the land.

There should be more parks and fewer high-rise developments!
BridgeGirl  17th May, 2006 09:56:13  

Shaping reactions through systems
Some of this is pretty much common sense. Planners advise those developing land often to discuss their plans with nearby landowners and occupiers before submitting them to Council or before it is advertised.

I agree that many aspects of the stat planning system should be automated and there are certainly moves in that direction by some Councils.

The Victorian system certainly is unique in terms of its level of third-party rights and there are some unique issues involved with this. These are not insurmountable and on many occasions there are mediated outcomes that suit most if not all parties.

Developers often do themselves a disservice by not coming to the table and modifying the plans in light of objector's concerns, causing considerable delays for them later down the track.
Aaron  18th May, 2006 21:18:46  

Shaping reactions through systems
BridgeGirl, yes and no. There are few things more valuable than shelter. But there are arguments in both directions, and they are not being worked through very well.

Aaron, you're right. It can be done, and is, but it is not essential to the process, and often isn't. I think my main point is that the mediation should be part of the process itself, rather than something the planner tries to work through. Or to put it another way, the system should work without a planner saying anything; they should be there to make things better with their experience and knowledge.

I'll add too, one of the goals of the process should be to question the planning itself, which is never done at the moment. And that is bad, because if you look at say this you can see an awful lot of assumptions about what is good that are not necessarily true.
Russ  19th May, 2006 09:19:06