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Shaping the future of Melbourne

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Written by Marc Pallisco   
Monday, 10 September 2007 02:48

Battle lines have been drawn in the sand as planners and protest groups debate our sprawling suburbs. Marc Pallisco reports.

The contentious Melbourne 2030 planning controls continue to divide the community. On the one hand, some industry experts warn Melbourne could become another overextended Los Angeles if we don't halt the urban spread. Meanwhile, protest groups in suburb after suburb complain of higher-density living being foisted upon them. They claim their neighbourhoods are in danger of losing their character.

Somewhere in between these factions may be the future Melbourne.

When the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal granted former AFL footballer Fraser Brown approval to build two high-rise apartment towers in the leafy and rather sleepy suburb of Mitcham in 2004, the issue of planning became a major black mark for the State Government - despite it, too, being surprised by the decision.

The Government's Melbourne 2030 policy, which promotes higher-density living around existing roads and public transport, was then five years old. The policy controversially outlines an "urban growth boundary" on the city's outskirts, telling developers they should build up, rather than out, within this demarcation.

At the time, several high-profile planning disputes were under way, with celebrities Barry Humphries and Geoffrey Rush weighing in on the debate. But even the idea of a major shopping centre in Camberwell's Burke Road retail strip seemed less outrageous than two 17-storey and 11-storey apartment buildings in the outer-eastern suburb of Mitcham.

After more than a year, the project was shelved and the site is now for sale - not because of VCAT-led efforts to build the towers, but because developers couldn't make the numbers work.

Builders said they would need to charge more than $300,000 for a two-bedroom apartment, which was more than an established home on a large block in Mitcham at the time.

The Mitcham project raised awareness of the Melbourne 2030 policy, which continues to enrage community lobby groups fearful the character of our suburbs could deteriorate. It has also failed to inspire the developers, who were left virtually no room for profits, after land and construction costs. It brought to the forefront one of planners' biggest problems: containing urban sprawl while preventing inappropriate developments.

Despite the Mitcham high-rise towers, and proposals for apartment complexes in other low-density suburbs, Melbourne 2030 does have its supporters, in particular those in the planning industry. Some warn Melbourne could suffer a sprawling case of "Los Angelism" unless it becomes a more compact city.

Melbourne's metropolitan area already covers more kilometres than most other cities with a similar population. And that's without the extra million people expected to call Melbourne home over the next 25 years.

The Property Council of Australia's Victorian executive director, Jennifer Cunich, says local government should be allowed to develop policy in line with the State Government. But, she says, too often when it comes to putting policy into practice, policy is undermined by neighbourhood-level politics.

"Often, councillors are elected to office on a specific local planning issue which may potentially compromise their objectivity in planning decisions," she says. "The property council believes that planning decisions should be made by expert independent panels set up by local councils. Councils should focus their work on broader planning policy rather than individual cases."

While the theory behind Melbourne 2030 makes sense, the problem is that the public isn't accepting it as a way it wants to live, says Clem Newton-Brown, a former deputy lord mayor and head of the planning group at law firm Home Wilkinson Lowry.

"The other issue is that it doesn't stack up financially for developers except in inner-city areas where land values are high," Mr Newton-Brown says.

"Melbourne 2030 is being used as a cover for all developments that push the envelope. There's anxiety in the inner suburbs because higher-density living is being proposed everywhere, not just near activity centres. Almost every suburb now has its own protest group."

Most planning issues are dealt with by local council staff. Common areas of dispute include when construction works are undesirable (for example, they disrupt views, affect privacy, impact on lifestyle and put pressure on scarce local resources); will put pressure on existing facilities; and, perhaps the most contentious, are not in character with the area.

"Council may object to part of a project, but if you go through the process with them, you can often come up with a resolution," Mr Newton-Brown says. "However, given the appeal rights to VCAT, it could be argued that councils have extremely limited powers because their decisions are subject to appeal.

"I encourage people to get experts involved at the early stage. There's no point getting an architect to design a dream house when a planner can tell before any plans are even drawn that there is no hope of the project being approved for the street."

Mr Newton-Brown says policies covering most municipalities tend to favour urban consolidation and regeneration.

Also, he says, political influences can play a big part in the planning process at council level, although VCAT looks at projects purely at a planning level.

"A lot of people are suspicious about VCAT being a forum where developers are favoured, but this is not true. The community should be confident that when a matter gets to VCAT, it's a fresh hearing heard by independent people who have planning qualifications or related disciplines. It doesn't matter what political lobbying has gone on beforehand."

State v the People

Government intervention remains one of the hottest issues in planning, with relations between the State Government, lobbyists, councils and the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal very rocky at times.

Most of the recent public controversy has stemmed from the approval of high-rise apartment blocks in suburbs such as Mitcham, Ringwood and Mount Waverley.

The state argues that higher-density development in established areas is necessary to house a growing population.

But the residents are not being won over.

The planning document Melbourne 2030 is not the first in which a government has identified activity areas and put money into regenerating them.

The outer south-eastern suburbs of Dandenong and Frankston, for example, underwent development in the 1970s and '80s. But the attempts failed, and left tired office buildings dotting the skyline.

The battle between the Government and councils over planning control intensified in 2005, when Planning Minister Rob Hulls seized power over the controversial Lombard Paper site in Flemington, which had been destroyed by fire.

A month later, Mr Hulls approved a planning permit for a 140-unit apartment block and retail complex.

The Victorian Government said the site was one of state significance and that it would be redeveloped in time for the opening of the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. It was not.

Whether the approval was sped through because of ALP connections with the developer or because it put too much faith in the private sector to develop the site on time remains a mystery. Regardless, industry analysts agree it left egg on the State Government's face.

Plan ahead, plan on having the best-laid plans . . . that's the plan

A planning permit is one of several certificates required before extending a property, building a house or developing a unit or apartment project.

Councils recommend applicants research planning policies or guidelines that may apply to a proposed development and engaging a design or planning consultant is recommended for larger projects.

Most councils want three copies of plans, fully dimensioned and drawn to scale, and a copy of the property's title, an application form and a letter explaining the proposal.

The planning process provides anyone with an interest in a proposed development to get involved.

Notice must be given to neighbouring owners and occupiers, and any other person likely to be affected by the plans.

Applications may be advertised.

Members of the community are able to view applications and request a meeting with the applicant to discuss the proposal.

Common reasons cited for objection include noise, impact of privacy, shadows and environmental impacts involving the removal of trees.

Objections must be in writing to council and state exactly how a development affects the individual. It is recommended suggestions are offered as to how an application can be improved.