My book The Victorian Planning System: Practice, Problems and Prospects is now available from Federation Press.
My book Movie Towns and Sitcom Suburbs is out now through Palgrave Macmillan.
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RCI Planning is my consultancy providing expert advice, VCAT advocacy and statutory planning services in the Victorian planning system.
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This piece was written for the December 2017 issue of Planning News.
By the time you read this the Smart Planning program will have completed its consultation period after the release of its October discussion paper on the VPPs. The state government will be attempting to roll out its reforms exceptionally quickly, with some material promised by the end of the year and gazettal of a final package of VPP reforms expected by July.
It’s a nerve-rackingly short timeframe. The pace of change invites doubt about the genuineness of the consultation – is there really scope to stop, think, and potentially change course if the consultation raises legitimate issues about the package proposed? Is it long enough to sufficiently “debug” a complex set of changes? I fear not. This is, unfortunately, a deeply problematic set of reforms.
The problem with system reform like this is it all sounds great – yay! Smart! – but the problems are in the detail. This is why the timeframe allowed for the reforms is so challenging; it is also why it is difficult to unpack the issues with this paper in the space available here. Suffice, then, to make a few key points.
The Smart Planning discussion paper has dropped. At some point I expect I’ll take a more detailed run through of what is a complex document that mixes various good ideas with a number of really bad ones. It’s an infuriating read, partly because it is so predictable: in its broad strokes, it’s pretty much exactly what could be envisaged from the Department’s material when I wrote about the program last year.
Rather than exhaustively work through the good and the bad of this new paper now, I wanted to focus on one really weird diagram and use it to unpick the hidden complexities of this document. That diagram is this one, one page 29 of the paper, showing a proposed new assessment to pathway for simpler matters.
It is presented in contrast to this one, outlining the existing process.
Wow, the existing system does look complex. And look at all that glorious white space in the new process – that does seem enticing.
[Edit 1 December – below is my attempt at a more honest reckoning of this system diagram. Excuse my crazy person hand-writing.]
Smart Planning system flow diagram
This article comments on the publicly available material about DELWP’s Smart Planning program as of late March 2017. It is adapted from comments previously provided to DELWP about their proposed work program. I have updated those comments to serve as background and supporting material to my presentation at a VPELA seminar on Smart Planning on 27 March 2017.
It is generally accepted that there is a need to reform the Victorian planning system. This has been couched in terms of varying urgency by various system review over the life of the system. The recent release of a scathing VAGO report into the system – which amongst other things noted the lack of action in response to its similar 2008 review – has increased the sense that the need for reform is more urgent than some previous reviews have acknowledged.
In response to such criticism, the government can point to the existing Smart Planning reform program as a sign that a response is in hand. Yet how likely is this program to address the existing problems? Is it focussing on the right problems or the most constructive solutions? I am concerned that the focus of the early stages of Smart Planning, in particular, are poorly thought out and directed. The comments below outline some concerns with the traditional focus of reform in Victoria – which largely align with the Smart Planning work program – and then try to suggest some more productive approaches.
It’s been a long time between posts, I know, but in my defense that’s been largely because I ended up writing two books, one on the heels of another.
My second book is both an introduction to, and a detailed study and critique of, the Victorian planning system. I have put a page up at www.sterow.com/vicplanningbook that gives much more of a detailed breakdown of what it covers. In short, though, I hope it is both a good introduction for those new to the system. and a thought provoking discussion for those familiar with it.
It is already available for pre-order at 12% off from Booktopia, here. It should be available by the end of the month or the first week of February at the latest.
While I’m posting, I will just brag that back in November my first book, Movie Towns and Sitcom Suburbs, was awarded the Cutting Edge Research Award at the Victorian Planning Awards. The following are extracts form the citation:
This work is an outstanding feat of scholarship… Movie Towns and Sitcom Suburbs offers a new perspective based on thorough research. It is a formidable academic work that is highly readable… The work is thought provoking about how community views are shaped, how planning seeks to influence day to day life, and how public opinion can be harnessed to guide and implement change.
You can see more detail about that book, including ordering links, at www.sterow.com/movietowns.
It feels like we have gotten stuck when it comes to planning system reform.
Those with a memory of the pre-VPP system, or a passing familiarity with some other jurisdictions, will have some appreciation of our system’s core strengths. We take for granted a consistency across councils, a focus on plain English (albeit a very special VPP brand of it), a logical hierarchy of policy frameworks, and a certain rigour of approach. The VPPs were, and remain, an astonishing achievement.
At the same time, however, we never quite seem to have properly resolved the teething problems. Issues that were quickly apparent – the circuitous double-negative cross referencing, the fetishisation of vague and indecisive language, and a structural bias towards excessive permit triggers – have lingered. The various reviews of the system that have occurred tended to get stuck on a few responses (code assessment, the “three-speed” zones) which came to dominate the reform agenda for a decade and have only come to resolution last year. Other worthwhile reviews (on issues like parking, advertising signs and heritage controls) were ineffectual, only partly implemented, or disappeared completely.
I 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.
This year we have seen two key planning reforms rolled out, with the new residential zones and VicSmart both reaching the climactic phase of extended gestations. I have previously argued – here and here – that both have been problematic, but those concerns are secondary to my purpose here. What’s more important is that the ideas of code assessment and “three-speed” zones have dominated discussion about planning reform in Victoria for most of the last decade. Across multiple reviews variations on these ideas have bobbed up repeatedly as the solution to our problems.
Now both are done (even if code assessment morphed into something different in VicSmart.) And whatever you think of these reforms, either as conceived or as in fact implemented, we now have an opportunity to outline some new directions.
The big planning story of the last few weeks has been the release of the draft new metropolitan strategy, Plan Melbourne. I don’t yet have any detailed comments to make on the plan itself, as I haven’t had a chance to look through it in detail. However I did want to highlight one aspect of the plan relating to notice rights around housing, as it closely relates to a few things I’ve written about before here (namely the new zones and VicSmart). This is something that I know has been widely discussed in the industry, but I haven’t seen an informed version of the discussion in the wider press. I also thought it would be worth covering just to spell out some of the chapter and verse of what has previously been said on this topic, since a fair few of the relevant documents are either hard to find or simply no longer available through the Department’s website.
On the day that the strategy was released, there was a fair bit of publicity about proposed exemptions from notice and review for medium and higher density housing. This is an important issue because it relates to the roll-out of the new zones that is happening as we speak: the government launched new residential zones in July, and Councils have a year to choose where to apply them. Any change in how they are to work is therefore an urgent issue, which potentially needs to be resolved much sooner than the metropolitan strategy.
This is my submission to the recent VicSmart review (with a few minor corrections). Obviously it is partly based on my Planning News article “Breaking the Land Speed Record in an Engineless Car,” but it is considerably expanded.
The new VicSmart provisions are the culmination of a long push towards implementing two closely related reforms: Code a\Assessment and a fast-track permit process. These ideas have been central to the planning reform agenda of DTPLI and its predecessors for some time. It is seven years since Code Assessment was put on the reform agenda by the Cutting Red Tape in Planning report, and ten since Better Decisions Faster floated a “short permit process.”
Throughout this period there has been a lack of clarity about how code assess and a short permit process would work. These measure have been sold in reviews such as the Modernising Victoria’s Planning Act work by floating a false idea that the system currently operates on a one-size-fits-all model. This is not the case, as myself and many other submitters to previous reviews have pointed out. The system currently includes various systemic measures to fast-track simple matters (permit exemptions, notice exemptions and the like) and Councils routinely employ streaming measures of various degrees of sophistication.
The confusion on such points, and the lack of focus throughout the refinement of Code Assessment on drafting specific codes to use with the system, has now led to a seriously compromised fast-track process. The proposed VicSmart measures show a poor understanding of the distinctive challenges of simple / fast-track statutory planning work. They create unreasonable demands on Councils while not providing Councils the tools that will be genuinely helpful in pursuing applications more quickly. Instead they create additional complexity that will actually hinder existing successful fast-track measures.
VicSmart as currently released will be counterproductive. It should be abandoned in favour of more genuinely facilitative measures.
This post was originally written for the August 2013 issue of Planning News and hence was a bit constrained for length. My full submission, with quite a bit more detail, is here.
The new VicSmart provisions, announced during July and currently open for comment, are the culmination of a long push towards implementing two closely related reforms: code assessment and a fast-track permit process. These ideas have been central to the planning reform agenda of DTPLI and its predecessors for some time. August marks seven years since code assessment was put on the reform agenda by the Cutting Red Tape in Planning report, and ten since Better Decision Faster floated a “short permit process.”
Throughout that time the measures have been sold in terms that make them hard to argue with. Certainty! Speed! Efficiency! Yet in the absence of the specifics it has been unclear how the Department would resolve the challenges to realising such a best of all-possible-worlds outcome.
Now, with the release of draft provisions, we have our answers. VicSmart is code assessment… only without any codes. And Councils are expected to drive this engineless car very fast indeed.