VC148 – well intentioned reforms an important first step

Jane Keddie

Director - Urban Planning

Jane is a key member of Hansen Partnership's strategic planning team. She has experience across a range of planning projects and processes including large scale strategic planning and urban design projects. She regularly manages complex strategic planning projects including extensive consultation and management of multiple sub-consultants. Jane works across Hansen's planning, urban design and landscape architecture teams and has a clear appreciation of the operation of the Victorian Planning Provisions and the planning structures operating within the Victorian context. She has particular experience and interest in the planning of our regional cities and centres. Her excellent verbal and visual communication skills assist in the wide range of presentations, consultation and stakeholder engagement that her work entails. Jane continues to travel widely and her interest in other cities, towns and places as well as the sustainability of our settlements informs her day-to-day work. She also continues to work on selected statutory and VCAT projects, ensuring that she retains a practical understanding of the need for robust outcomes at the end of strategic or design planning projects.
  • housing and settlement strategies
  • growth area plans/precinct structure plans
  • structure plans
  • urban design frameworks
  • masterplans/development plans
  • rural/green wedge strategies
  • activity centre strategies
  • international and tourism projects
  • planning scheme amendments/rezonings
  • development approvals

Following an initial assessment of planning scheme reforms introduced through Amendment VC148, Hansen have taken an in-depth look at the overarching changes that will affect strategic planning.

Over time, the adjustments introduced through VC148 will lead to important changes to Victoria’s Planning Schemes, even if the immediate changes initially appear much more subtle. These reforms, in particular to the structure of planning schemes and the Victorian Planning Provisions (VPPs) will result, in some cases, to quite significant changes.

Improvements to structure but opportunities to streamline further

The overall structure has been improved and is clearly defined into three key areas:

  • ‘Policy settings’ which will include the purpose of the planning scheme, the Municipal Planning Strategy (MPS, when drafted), the Planning Policy Framework (PPF) and the Local Planning Policy Framework (LPPF, until translated into the PPF and MPS)
  • ‘Decision rules’ which includes zones, overlays, particular and general provisions – the ‘tools’.
  • ‘Operation’ which contains all the information relating to administration

The PPF is split into state, regional and local policy and has been structured so that each Clause has a ‘S’ or ‘R’ (and presumably an ‘L’) to indicate the level a policy operates at. It remains to be seen if this is a particularly workable solution. While the intention to avoid duplication and ensure policy follows logically under each theme is admirable, it will be interesting to see how this change plays out in terms of usability.

The forthcoming MPS does not form part of the PPF but sits alongside it. It will include the strategic direction of each Council – rather than the specific policies – so think Clause 21 not Clause 22! The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) has been very clear in its intention for these aspirations to be in a more concise form – the Ministerial Direction specifies a maximum of 5000 words. This will be an interesting and surely challenging exercise, given the extent and detail of the explanation and justification behind existing policy areas in current schemes – in particular around environmental assets or character.

While in some cases, streamlining this content will be a definite improvement, there is the potential for the decision-maker’s understanding of the importance of some key assets to be lessened through this process. There are also some outstanding questions around how policies which do not ‘fit’ with current State thinking will make their way in a logical manner into the new format, a key example of which are existing ESD policies, where there appears to be no comfortable fit for matters such as Application Requirements.

Notwithstanding these uncertainties, we support the structure – it’s a clear and logical way of making sure that all policy that relates to one area or theme can be found together – and a ‘smart’ way of drawing attention to and removing duplication. It’s disappointing to see, however, that the structure flagged earlier in the review process (where coastal clauses wouldn’t be included in non-coastal schemes, and only alpine shires would include alpine policy) has not been carried through. This represents a missed opportunity to remove further superfluous pages from schemes, a particularly important consideration given schemes are hitting the 1000-page mark.

While the intention is clearly for further streamlining through the LPPF, the process of translating existing policy to the MPS, PPF and numerous new overlay schedules is, in our opinion, unlikely to significantly reduce the current length of schemes. We would consider that the Ministerial Direction on Form and Content (Annexure 4) could go further than just identifying the regions to which policy around Melbourne Airport or the Great Ocean Road apply. Why have these and not Alpine policy at Clause 12.04 been applied only to selective schemes?

Through a focus on regional policy, the new structure offers great opportunities for Councils to take a wider view, where there might be issues or a policy position consistent across a region. The existing Regional Growth Plans and the Land Use Framework Plans currently being prepared for Melbourne ‘regions’ are an example where regional policy can provide not only greater weight but also occupy an important space between metropolitan or even State objectives and more localised policies of Councils. However, we would like to have seen some acknowledgment of Plan Melbourne’s ‘metropolitan sub-regions’ in the Form and Content, which currently only references Metropolitan Melbourne as the relevant ‘region’.

The changes also include renaming and restructuring some of the themes within the PPF, which all seem reasonably logical, as do the updates to State policy such as ensuring consistency with the Urban Design Guidelines for Victoria and ensuring Principal Public Transport Network (PPTN) policy is included in the Melbourne region/s. We do however, question the need for the PPTN maps to form part of the Planning Scheme.

We would also advise clients to exercise caution in regards to the broadly ‘policy neutral’ translations as these may prove to be slightly more than neutral in practice. Such changes include the State policy on Sea Level Rise now referring to at least 0.8m for all areas, and the removal of a ‘greenfield specific’ policy.

As with the broader changes, the standardisation of policy format including objectives, strategies, policy guidelines, policy documents is a logical and well founded change.

Careful transition required over time

Amendment VC148 does not change local policies straight away – rather, it sets up the framework into which existing schemes are expected to transition over time. Transitional arrangements will ensure current content under the LPPF remains relevant until LPPF translation has been undertaken. The timeframes and resources to achieve this transition remain relatively unclear at this point in time.

This transition is potentially a significant undertaking but carries with it the potential to achieve the stated objectives. However, without careful management of this transition, there is the potential for a lot of good (and nuanced) policy that has developed over many years to be ‘lost in translation’.

Many of the changes to the VPPs appear to have been implemented with this in mind, allowing a translation of some local policy into overlay schedules (which are arguably more transparent and have greater weight). It is hard to comment on the specifics of the translation without the relevant Ministerial Direction being available, but we would hope for a collaborative process between Councils and DELWP, along with sufficient timeframes for the complex process to be undertaken in a rigorous manner saving some of the glitches and corrections which have characterised some of the more recent policy and amendment rollouts.

Changes to overlay provisions welcomed

Given the work Hansen is currently undertaking on planning responses to sea level rise, we welcome the expanded capacity of some of the overlay provisions to now specify elements such as Objectives, Application Requirements and Decision Guidelines.

Some of the key changes to overlays to note include:

  • Urban Floodway Zone: ability to include objectives
  • Environmental Significance Overlay, Vegetation Protection Overlay, Significant Landscape Overlay, Design and Development Overlay ability to include application requirements
  • Development Plan Overlay ability to include objectives
  • Erosion Management Overlay, Salinity Management Overlay, Floodway Overlay, Land Subject to Inundation Overlay, Special Building Overlay ability to include objectives, statement of risk, application requirements, decision guidelines
  • Heritage Overlay mandatory statement of significance, heritage design guidelines (which cannot be mandatory) for new additions to any scheme, ability to include application requirements

We would expect to see many of the lengthy local policies regarding heritage translated into the new Heritage Overlay schedule and associated Incorporated Documents. These changes to the Heritage Overlay represent perhaps a timely opportunity to weed out many of the discrepancies in mapping and statements which currently exist around heritage. Councils with strongly worded heritage related guidelines may find the translation process more challenging.

This structure also seems to indicate (at this stage) that all relevant heritage guidelines will be found in ‘separate’ incorporated documents, which may reduce the transparency of schemes, although the final format of this will hopefully be revealed though the guidelines which the Department is preparing to assist in translation.

Aspirations for accessibility, transparency and legibility

The aspiration for transparency is however, clear in some of the other changes – in particular the new Specific Provisions Overlay (which replaces Clause 51.01) and the new Planning Resource Library. This new library has already proven itself a great tool, assisting planners to easily identify and locate strategic documents for clients. Providing a separate portal where documents such as Incorporated Documents or Policy Documents within Planning Schemes would be a logical next step (potentially through the relevant planning schemes online page for each Council) given the amount of documents in this library.

Particular provisions (Clauses 52, 53 and 57) have been restructured in a logical way. Splitting provisions which apply to Specific Areas, those that you need to check regarding a permit requirement and those which contain more general requirements and standards, is a good step in this first stage of improving legibility, as is the integration of VicSmart. Importantly, the Ministerial Direction on Form and Content has also been updated, so anyone in the middle of preparing an amendment should be checking against this.

There are also a number of other, relatively minor, changes which are discussed in an article by our Planning Associate Cameron Gentle. These changes include adjustments to gaming and signage policy (previously advertising signs), exemptions from road zone advertising, clarification to the notice and review provisions of the Development Plan Overlay changes, car parking rates, permit triggers in industrial areas and the phasing out of the Priority Development Zone.

Deployment could be improved

While fully supportive of the intention to make planning more efficient, accessible and transparent we believe the ‘deployment’ of this amendment could be improved upon as we had some initial challenges finding and accessing key information. It would be our expectation that all information would be made available once a major planning reform such as VC148 was gazetted.

How can Hansen help?

Hansen’s team of experienced planners are available not only to assist in answering queries relating to these reforms, but also to provide advice on how best to translate current policy. Please contact Sandra Rigo, Director – Urban Planning to discuss your needs.

For Councils

Hansen can work with Councils to maximise the benefits generated through the translation into this new format including streamlining and ‘spring cleaning’ to identify gaps in policy or other unforeseen issues that may need to be addressed.

For developers

If you are seeking land use zoning changes or significant development, understanding these changes is equally important and our planning team is, as always, available to provide frank and informed advice on how these reforms affect you.

What’s next?

We await with interest the ‘transform’ stage of Victoria’s planning reforms, particularly in relation to the stated intention of keeping provisions ‘proportionate’ to planning and environmental risks, and land use focussed (i.e. avoiding overlap).

This last area is particularly interesting for planners as there are a number of areas where other regulatory systems (for example the Building Act) overlap with the planning system. Matters such as sustainability, appropriate floor levels on flood affected areas and bushfire are all addressed through other regulatory systems but can have a fundamental impact on the form (or even viability) of a proposal. It will be interesting to see how the appropriate balance is reached. We await further changes with interest, but applaud the intention behind this most recent suite of changes.