Critics confused over SOS and Melbourne 2030

The following letter appeared in THE AGE on May 9, 2008:

Save our suburbs or save ourselves?

“AT THE heart of Melbourne 2030’s problems is the inability of Save our Suburbs groups and their supporters in councils to grasp the social good in accommodating more people within the existing urban area.

“Masquerading as champions of democracy, this vociferous minority cause havoc for sensitively designed projects by lobbying councillors to act against the wishes of their own officers. Every time they have a development knocked off or scaled back they claim victory. But what victory is there in condemning another family to live further from work than they desire, increasing commuting time at the expense of family time.

“The warm glow of the successful inner city objector contrasts sharply with the struggling suburban parent spending more time behind the wheel than behind their children’s book; spending more money on fuel than on food. Behind their altruistic facade and talk of protecting neighbourhood character, lies an uncharitable desire to prevent outsiders from sharing their suburbs.

“Melbourne’s densities are among the world’s lowest, and attempts to resist a city’s natural densification are selfish, misguided, and, in the era of climate change, dangerous.

“Adam Terrill, Kensington”

SOS Comment:

As an associate planner with a major Melbourne consultancy, Adam Terrill should have checked the SOS website to get his facts right if he wants to be taken seriously.

To start with, he lays the problems of M2030 at the feet of “SOS groups and their supporters in councils” for failing to appreciate the benefits of accommodating more people within Melbourne’s existing urban area.

Funny, that’s just the concept SOS policy supports! [quote].

But in saying that, we also point out that for these increases in density to be functionally acceptable, they must occur within the effective implementation of the M2030 policy itself. That is, pre-existing infrastructure is required, such as appropriate definition of activity centres (based around public transport nodes, not just on existing retail floor space) and prior establishment of activity centre structure plans in consultation with local communities (since we’re still supposedly living in a democracy).

In particular, there must be a prior financial commitment to a broad increase in the extent, quality, reliability and safety of our mass transit systems to create a city-wide, fully integrated rail system.

It is a matter of history that none of these basic parameters were in place prior to the release of M2030 in August 2002, despite the accompanying ministerial decree that it had to be adhered to by councils and VCAT in deciding development applications.

Now, six years later, these essential foundation stones of an effective metro planning policy are still missing, with the exception of a growing number of activity centre structure plans. But without proper selection of those centres and adequate provision of upgraded and integrated metro-wide mass transit services, the policy was doomed to fail, as described in numerous articles in the Age in May this year and notably by the M2030 Audit itself, which concluded: ”.

Many of the “sensitively-designed projects” Terrill laments are actually ambit claims that failed in various respects to meet local and state planning guidelines. Objectors and residents may be able to influence the decisions of elected councillors (that’s democracy) but they clearly have no control over VCAT members. Yet when these projects proceed to VCAT, invariably amended plans are submitted that to some degree address the grounds of objection to increase the chances of approval. That wouldn’t be necessary if there were no legitimate planning grounds for opposing these proposals.

As to councillors overturning the “wishes of their own officers”, anyone who’s been involved with even a few planning applications will be aware of the sometimes inept or inconsistent and even biased decisions of council planning staff.

Look no further than the 7 May Victorian Auditor-General’s Report into Planning which, among other things, revealed that a staggering 78% of planning permit approvals were seriously flawed in not properly taking statutory provisions into account!

You’d think professional planners might be aware of all this but apparently some believe that council planning staff are unsung heroes who never make mistakes.

By all means provide increased density development at activity centres – just do it according to the policies already in place. Residents and objectors are apparently expected to just accept developers’ ambit claims, but it seems to be ethically ok for developers to push the boundaries, with the real limits being simply what they can get away with – usually by throwing sufficient QCs and expert witnesses behind their case at VCAT.

The real cause of delays in providing higher density accommodation for an increasing population is the failure to provide the necessary infrastructure to make M2030 work, including an extended rail network to serve ALL major suburbs and growth corridors.

As to the crisis in affordable housing, if the Government was serious about providing adequate AH it would buy up suburban tracts of land, consolidate lots and then contract out construction of affordable housing on a non- or low-profit basis.

Instead, it is looking to buy apartments within recently-constructed developments, allowing developers to make further easy profits and ensuring that the “affordable” housing thus provided will be more expensive for tenants and/or the public purse.

Industry is usual happy to live with regulation, as long as it has benefits – ie, it is clearly in the public interest, it represents a level playing field without unfair competitive advantage and it provides certainty in terms of timeframes, legal boundaries, etc (such as the energy rating schemes for whitegoods). The present “performance-based” system achieves none of these – guidelines instead of regulation simply ensures that everything is open to the exercise of discretion and can be argued, and nothing is certain – except that in many cases (especially the ambit claim type) there will be costly delays of indeterminate duration for all parties!

This creates monumental opportunities for incompetence and corruption – such as the Wollongong Council case in May, where a Council Head of Planning overrode the objective decisions of senior officers to corruptly push through approval for a large inappropriate commercial development.

While there are undoubtably some xenophobic or “NIMBY” residents who don’t want to share their suburb with more and more people, SOS is not part of that demographic.

The blame for the failure of M2030 lies not with objectors but with a State Government which has utterly failed to ensure that a proper framework was in place to guide higher density development to the most appropriate locations and backed up with the necessary infrastructure to make the model function in practice.