VC148 – Hmm…how about some real reform

David Barnes

Managing Director

Hansen Partnership's Managing Director David Barnes has been a town planner since 1980. With an MBA to supplement his planning qualifications, David is both a strategic planning specialist and an experienced statutory planner. As a statutory planner David has been involved in obtaining planning approvals for a wide range of projects including residential, retail, commercial, industrial, rural, tourism, entertainment, sports, recreation and community development projects. He has extensive experience representing clients at planning appeals and panel hearings as both an advocate and as an expert witness. As a strategic planner, David’s experience encompasses policy formulation and implementation; preparation of strategy plans; structure plans; urban design frameworks; development plans; planning schemes and amendments; community consultation; preparation of infrastructure funding strategies and development contributions plans as well as the preparation of commercial, industrial and residential market assessments. In addition, David has experience in Asia preparing urban management plans; strategy plans; structure plans; master plans; planning and development controls; institutional strengthening programs and professional training programs.
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Is it just me or do others feel underwhelmed by Amendment VC148?

When the Smart Planning Program was introduced in early 2016 it was identified as including three stages:

  • Stage 1 – Improve
  • Stage 2 – Reform
  • Stage 3 – Transform

The Improve stage was completed in early 2017.  It focused on regulatory improvements and beginning the task of building better engagement mechanisms and supporting infrastructure. Amendment VC148 constitutes Stage 2, the Reform stage. The Transform stage is yet to come and is needed more urgently now than ever before given that Amendment VC148 is largely policy and intent neutral.

I can’t help but think that all VC148 does is reorganise existing policies and requirements and put them into different places within the VPPs.  It does not seem as though any fundamental assessment has been made about the continued need for many of the existing policies and requirements that are contained in the VPPs, or any new ones for that matter.

The amendment introduces a new structure for the VPPs which has been established to provide a simplified framework and a better way to integrate State, regional and local planning policy.  The next task is for local policy to be significantly rewritten and inserted in its new place within the renamed Planning Policy Framework.  The aim is to ensure that local and regional policies do not replicate State and higher order policies. All policies associated with an issue will now be located under the one heading, whether it be State, regional or local policy.  This is a good and a logical change.

However, policy is only an aid to making a planning decision, once a planning permit application has been lodged.  The real reform that is needed to the Victorian system relates to permit triggers, and more importantly to notification and third party rights.  It is only changes to these aspects of the planning process that will result in any meaningful change to the number of planning permits required, the time, the complexity, the uncertainty and the cost involved in obtaining a planning permit.

Transformation of the system is critical.  Here are some things that could be considered in relation to residential development, as an example:

1) Positive attitude towards appropriate development – good development in appropriate locations should be supported and seen as a positive and a necessary thing and of benefit to the wider community. Good development should be encouraged, facilitated and fast tracked through the planning process.  This will require attitudinal change by all participants in the process.  Planning will need to evolve from a philosophy of regulation to one of facilitation.  This is likely to require generational change as the voice of older generations, which for many is characterised by a NIMBY attitude, is gradually replaced by younger voices that demand access to well designed, sustainable and affordable housing in well serviced locations where they want to live.  We are already moving in this direction.  It just needs to happen faster.

2) Establishing two planning approvals pathways:

  • Easy – For developments that comply with stated planning policies and requirements. Complying development should be exempt from notification, third party review and from Councillor decision making.
  • Harder – For developments that don’t comply. Are not exempt and follow the existing process.

Planning permits would still be needed for most developments.  This would allow a professional assessment of the planning and design merits of proposals to be made by Council staff.  However, neighbours and Councillors would not be involved where applications ‘comply’.  An option could be to require notification but not to allow third party review rights.  This would allow neighbours to make submissions to a development, but not to be able to initiate VCAT proceedings.  Neighbours would need to rely on Councils to consider and act on the matters raised in their objections, in their assessment of an application.

3) Strategic planning leading to faciliatory controls – More emphasis is required on strategic planning to provide justification for planning controls that are aimed at facilitating ‘complying’ development in an area. If a strategy plan has been through a consultation process and is approved by Council, the controls put into the planning scheme should facilitate the type of development envisaged by the strategy, by exempting it from notification and third party rights.  If an applicant wants to go beyond what a strategy and subsequent planning controls identifies as appropriate, they can revert to the current process, with its inherent delays, costs and uncertainties.

4) Restating planning scheme requirements as deemed to comply requirements – For example the standards contained in Clause 54, 55, and 58 etc of planning schemes could be reviewed and restated as deemed to comply requirements. If a development ‘complies’ the application is fast tracked via the ‘easy’ pathway.  If not, it follows the current process i.e. the ‘harder’ pathway.

The ‘easy’ pathway would provide a real incentive to developers to ensure that developments comply, as it would result in significantly reduced, time, costs and risks of getting a planning permit.

5) Depoliticising planning decisions in Councils. Delegation of all decisions for developments that ‘comply’ with planning scheme requirements to professional council staff. If a development complies with the requirements of the scheme (Clause 55 for example), the decision should be made by a senior officer or a development approvals committee within Council.

6) Tying residential zones more closely to preferred new housing types. Zones could be restructured to emphasise the types of new development envisaged and encouraged, rather than what is to be protected from the past. The two approval pathway option could be applied to facilitate different types and densities of housing, consistent with the purposes of each residential zone.  For example:

  • Neighbourhood Residential Zone – Dual occupancy and villa unit developments that comply with Clause 55 should follow the easy pathway. Non-complying development should follow the harder pathway.
  • General Residential Zone – Villa unit and townhouse developments that comply with Clause 55 should following the easy pathway. Non-complying developments should follow the harder pathway.
  • Residential Growth Zone – Apartments of up to four storeys that comply with Clause 55 should follow the easy pathway. Non-complying developments should follow the harder pathway.
  • Commercial 1 and Mixed Use Zone – Offices and apartments up to heights specified in DDOs, should follow the easy pathway. Non-complying development should follow the harder pathway.

Image credit: Steven Penton