Tag Archives: planning news

When Less is More: Why Smart Planning Will Stymie System Reform


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.
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It’s Not So Hard: Ten Simple Planning System Fixes


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.

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Breaking the Land Speed Record in an Engineless Car: The Challenge of VicSmart

Neil with his pedal car

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.

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Fifty Years of Ugliness

The Australian Ugliness (Robin Boyd, Text, 1960/2010)

Como Street

In 1960 Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness became the classic treatise on the malaise of this country’s architecture and planning, offering a withering critique of all that Boyd found wanting in the Australian built form of the late 1950s. The book has now been re-issued in a handsome fiftieth-anniversary edition, with Boyd’s text bracketed between an introduction by Christos Tsiolkas and an afterword by John Denton, Phillip Goad and Geoffrey London, and its reappearance provides an interesting prompt for reflection. In the subsequent half century our cities have expanded astronomically, and no doubt there is plenty of ugliness out there in the built environment. But what kind of ugliness? Have we moved on from those trends that so bothered Boyd? And if so, have we just found newer, more effective ways to blight our landscape?

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Trial by Water

Back when I was writing for Planning News, I wrote an editorial about Justin Madden’s handling of the Windsor Hotel debacle. My point then was that politicians are not well served by the over-manipulation of their communication, which ends up alienating the public and cutting politicians off from legitimate sources of feedback. It has therefore been great to see that the new Victorian Planning Minister Matthew Guy has kept up with his twitter account and is obviously writing the posts himself rather than letting a media person do it. So rather than the usual drip feed of press releases, Guy’s account is full of obviously self-generated content that a media adviser would have probably tried to talk him out of, such as salutes to Joh Bjelke-Petersen and amusingly childish baiting of Labor politicians. To his credit, too, he has been responding directly to various tweets sent to or about him. (Update – 19/1/2011: He has now protected his tweets. I can’t see them now so I have no idea whether he’s deleted them or not).

All this is good, and an advance on Labor’s media management, which makes me somewhat reluctant to pick on things he has said. But this morning he re-tweeted this comment from the 3AW feed:

Neil Mitchell: I would take Bob Brown and put him in cage with the looters and scam artists and put him in a river .. he’s a dill

While a re-tweet isn’t necessarily an endorsement, there is no suggestion by Guy that he is posting it as, for example, an example of an unhelpful contribution to the debate. Where do we start with this?

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“Stephen Rowley is Quite Obviously a Drooling, Mouth-breathing Moron”

I was googling myself the other day – I know, I know – and stumbled across this page squirreled away on the Age website, where Jason Hill had blogged about my Planning News article on SimCity (which is reproduced in full here).

What made my day was this comment underneath by “RealityCheck:”

Stephen Rowley is quite obviously a drooling, mouth-breathing moron.

“OMGZ, no MS Flight Simulatorz, who willz flies all de planes!?” … retard.

On a sidenote, this article does explain the absolutely horrendous state of australia’s capital cities.

Love ya work Rowley.

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Our Last Planning News

Planning News December 2010Today saw the delivery of the last issue of Planning News for which I was co-editor, and my last post to the magazine’s facebook page. So I guess we really are done. I hope you can excuse a few self-indulgent thoughts.

It has been a privilege to work on the magazine. No other Australian state has a monthly planning magazine; Victoria is very lucky to have one, particularly since it also sustains the three-times a year VPELA newsletter as well. It is a tribute to the establishing editors of the magazine that they had not only the vision to see how important monthly publication was, but also the persistence to ensure that it happened. All the subsequent editors owe them a lot, as they proved the monthly turnaround could be done and established Planning News as the key channel for debate in the Victorian planning industry.

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Seeing Seaside

I didn’t expect to be surprised by Seaside. It was one of those places I’d read a great deal about: as ground zero for the New Urbanist movement, the Florida town’s merits have been hotly debated for nearly thirty years. It’s also one of the most visually familiar planned towns of the twentieth century, as a result both of widespread photographic coverage and its front-and-centre role in the film The Truman Show. From that remote reconnoitring I figured that I already knew its good points and bad points: it would be beautiful, quaint and impeccably planned; but at the same time artificial, overly controlled, and perhaps a little creepy. I was surprised, then, at just how profoundly impressed I was by it.

I think my preconceptions about Seaside reflect a certain blasé attitude towards New Urbanism in the planning profession as a whole. Perhaps planners (and architects, and developers) feel that they have cherry-picked the best ideas from New Urbanism and don’t need to give the movement much more thought: yep, got it, walkable communities, mix of uses, classic design principles… got it, got it, got it. The whiff of unfashionable idealism and nostalgia associated with the movement doesn’t help, and nor does the fact that so many New Urbanist developments – including Seaside – have been occupied almost entirely by the wealthy and white. Seaside’s use in The Truman Show gives it a particularly strong association with these critiques, since the film’s story of a false paradise in a totally artificial environment was the ultimate pop-cultural expression of the anti-New Urbanist position. Yet to see Seaside is to realise the danger of judging New Urbanism only from afar or from its watered-down imitations.

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October 2010Originally published as an editorial in Planning News 36, no. 9 (October 2010), under a joint by-line with Tim Westcott and Gilda di Vincenzo.

In his recorded video presentation to this year’s State Planning Conference at the start of September, the Planning Minister announced that the review of the Planning & Environment Act would be referred to a working group of industry representatives to resolve the outstanding issues “before the end of the year.”1 The Act Review was last sighted in draft Bill form in December 2009, but the outstanding issues, apparently, are the proposed proponent-initiated amendments, the proposed fast track / code-assess permit process, and the assessment process for State significant development. The resolution of these issues, the Minister claimed, would allow other reforms to start to flow.

The significance of this latter point was perhaps easily lost in the context of an announcement ostensibly about the Act Review. Yet in the Minister’s interview with Planning News published in this issue, it is clearer exactly how widespread a policy logjam is occurring here. Asked about the various outstanding VPP reviews – of the Residential Zones, heritage overlays, car parking controls, advertising signs, and so on – the Minister has reiterated that these are waiting on the Act Review. What’s more, he suggests that the working group for that review may even play a part in forging some consensus as to the best a way ahead on these VPP initiatives. Everything, therefore, is now waiting on the Act.

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The Harshest Lesson

Image by Neil Creek, used under Creative Commons Licence. Click for details.Originally published as an editorial in Planning News 36, No. 8 (September 2010), under a joint by-line with Tim Westcott and Gilda Di Vincenzo.

The final report of the Bushfire Royal Commission, released at the end of July, is a challenging document for the planning profession. As intense as debate might sometime set within the profession, we normally have the luxury that our work is free of truly life or death consequences. The tragic events of February 2009 changed that, and chapter 6 of the Commission’s report, which discusses planning and building responses, is disquieting reading. It is unsettling to find so few easy answers in a situation where so much is at stake.

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