Shaping the future of Melbourne

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.”

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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Marc Pallisco

A former property analyst and print journalist, Marc is the publisher of