The Original Draft Plan Melbourne

acdraftI am quoted in this Age story on the original Advisory Committee draft of Plan Melbourne, which has now been released under Freedom of Information laws after an application by former Labor staffer Andrew Herington. The full draft can be found here.

I didn’t have long to review the documents so my comments were quite high-level, but it doesn’t take long comparing the documents to get a sense of the kinds of changes made. The Departmental versions (the May 2014 final, and the October 2013 draft) are broadly similar but strip a lot of the detail out: there’s an all-pervasive softening of the language. The Advisory Committee draft is not perfect either – they were working within a highly problematic process that had, amongst other things, been largely pre-empted by other policy announcements – but it is certainly a more serious policy document.

Hopefully its release will allow more complete and detailed analysis of where the changes were made, and give some insight into the journey from strategy to coffee table book.

For the record, here are the full comments I gave to the Age:

There are certain issues with the final Plan Melbourne that are also present in this draft, generally relating to how it fitted in with broader policy decision-making. The Advisory Committee seems to have been working without final versions of some critical data (such as some housing and land supply data), and could not solve the basic problem that various critical government decisions pre-empted the strategy.

However this draft is throughout far clearer and generally more ambitious than the released plan. Specificity and ambition are hard for governments, as they create political problems. The final version of Plan Melbourne, like Melbourne 2030 before it, is vague at crucial points. This makes it safer as a political document but much less useful as a planning strategy.

The Advisory Committee version is clearer about the challenges facing Melbourne and the difficult decisions we must confront. For example, the references to threats from climate change, and the need to adapt the city in response, are more explicit.

Other points that were fudged in the released version are much clearer in the draft. For example, in discussing the “20-minute neighbourhood” it states that shops, schools, parks, jobs and services should be within 20 minutes by foot, bicycle, or using public transport. The reference to these transport modes was removed in the final version, reducing the usefulness of the concept. A neighbourhood in which a corner store is a 20 minute drive away, for example, hardly meets the original intent.

Advisory Committees are appointed to serve the Minister, and it was entirely appropriate that the government release their own strategy, rather than simply adopting the committee’s. However, given that a draft of Plan Melbourne was released for comment in October 2013, it seems a lost opportunity that the Advisory Committee version wasn’t released instead to gauge the public’s response.

It is also a shame that key passages were weakened. Strategies that duck the difficult points may be superficially appealing to government, but they simply delay the moment of confrontation. If the strategy were clearer there would be more opportunity to bring the community on the policy “journey,” and therefore more acceptance of difficult decisions when they do need to be made.

A secondary point is that the process taken to Herington strongly echoed my experience trying to get hold of the first Residential Zones Advisory Committee report. The Age report states that they initially fought his application, only to concede and release the document days before the hearing: this is exactly what they did to me (an experience I wrote about here). This is, on the face of it, an inappropriate approach to the Freedom of Information process.

Example of watered down language on climate change between draft and final. Click to enlarge.

Example of watered down language on climate change between draft and final. Click to enlarge.

Revised description of the 20 minute neighbourhood, removing idea that the trip had to be non-car based. Click to enlarge.

Revised description of the 20 minute neighbourhood, removing idea that the trip had to be non-car based. Click to enlarge.

This entry was posted in Urban Planning and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Original Draft Plan Melbourne

  1. Alan Davies says:

    Why is this matter significant? I have never seen any report to government that wasn’t changed in some way, first at the bureaucratic level and again at the political level, before publication.

    That’s routine; that’s business as usual. And it’s to be expected because it’s ultimately the government’s report, not the committee’s.

    The Ministerial Advisory Committee was set up from the get-go as an advisory committee, not as a determinative body in its own right.

    The members knew what the terms were when they signed their contracts.

    The committee’s report represents the views of its six members, not those of the elected and accountable (as we shall see on Saturday) government.

    As for the “fudge”, note that the 2012 Discussion Paper was published in the name of the committee, yet it also defined the 20 minute city to include driving.

  2. @sterow says:

    I think the second last paragraph in my comments to the Age is my main response to this point Alan. I’m not saying the government didn’t have the right to change it – of course they did.

    What this draft does give us, though, is a good sense of how the language of these documents ends up being so disappointing. These strategies – because Melbourne 2030 was the same – aren’t useful as planning documents because they tend to duck the difficult issues and try to be all things to all people.

    As to the discussion paper, I’m not sure what its relevance is. My concern here is what made the final strategy, not what the AC had their name to at different points. I know that passage in the discussion paper was criticised by many as being pretty silly. The final version is pretty silly. The AC version was less so.

    And I’m not saying the AC version was perfect either. It shares a couple of the fundamental problems of the strategy, as I say in the first paragraph of my comments.

  3. Alan Davies says:

    My main concern isn't with what you said, it's with The Age's premise that a Minister not taking on board all the views of his advisory committee is somehow newsworthy.

    And the relevance of the committee's Discussion Paper is it goes to the credibility of the committee (given The Age frames every departure from the committee's views as a "watering down").

  4. @sterow says:

    The debate tends to get simplified in the press, that's true. However my own view is that the language is very watered down in the final version, so it's not as if that premise is completely incorrect either.

    Certainly it would be a mistake to think all the AC-branded work was perfect. I think I have a lot of the same issues with the discussion paper that you do, notably the 20 minute city material.

    In reality none of these pieces of work is entirely "pure." I'm sure the discussion paper had Departmental influence. And then it would be over-simplifying to then look at the material and assume everything good was from the AC and everything poor from the Department / Minister. In the case of the final document, however, we have a bit more of an idea of what happened as a result of this FoI.

    The debate coming out of Plan Melbourne needs to be what frameworks and approaches can lead to better strategy. Discussions about the sort of language used, timing of the work, the data (or lack of it) used, and willingness to release for comment work not 100% "owned" by the government (and which can therefore be a bit bolder) should all be part of that debate.