As previously reported, Matthew Guy has used his extraordinary powers as Planning Minister to approve the East West Link permits. In doing so he has ignored the majority of recommendations put to him by the independent Assessment Committee. This project was a major test case for how well planning law functions for major infrastructure projects. Unfortunately for those wanting a rigorous, logical, evidence based and transparent process the system has failed.
Aside from the question of the East West Link project is how do we fix the planning system so we can learn from the mistakes?
1. Prohibit the use of a reference design to obtain planning approval.
The use of a reference design to achieve planning approval is a terrible concept. Without a real design which has considered real opportunities and real constraints we cannot discuss the project in any meaningful way that would represent the reality of the project. It is absurd that we needed the East West Link project to prove this point. It causes angst and confusion for the community who have no certain design to even direct their comments and criticisms. A reference design is clearly not acceptable to any other private project in the planning system for good reason.
2. Enable the independent Assessment Committee to determine if sufficient information has been provided to assess the proposal. If they deem it insufficient remove the authority for anyone to approve the project until such time as it has been provided and assessed.
The Victorian Planning System gives unfathomable powers to the Planning Minister. Clearly further checks and balances are required. If the Assessment Committee has insufficient information to assess an application it should have the power to prevent any approval being granted until such time as the information is provided and assessed. Good decision making cannot occur without good information to base those decisions.
3. Require the Assessment Committee determine if design alternatives have been sufficiently considered. Prohibit the approval of projects requiring property acquisition unless the Assessment Committee has determined that design alternatives have been sufficiently considered.
If property is being acquired, land owners and in this case home owners have a right to know if there is a better way to achieve the project. Political considerations should not override a proper planning and design process.
It appears to the Committee that the LMA have not fairly responded to or considered alternative designsRemarks from the Assessment Committee
No alternative design was exhibited and no alternative has been tested in the manner of the flyover. I do not agree that it is appropriate to describe the exhibited project as unacceptable in the absence of a demonstrated proven alternativeRemarks from Matthew Guy in his East West Link approval decision
4. Require the Assessment Committee determine if community consultation has been sufficient. Prohibit the approval of projects that fail this test.
This requirement would enshrine community consultation as a mandatory requirement in undertaking major infrastructure projects. With the consequences of insufficient consultation being a substantial delay to the project, the proponent would see it as vital that they always cleared tis hurdle first time.
5. For public projects over a $1 Billion require that the business case and procurement method also be within the scope of the Assessment Committee.
It is not for the Assessment Committee to dictate how the government spends its money. However this provision would make sure that the public would have a right to be informed of the financial implications of major infrastructure.
6. Require that the Planning Permits are granted prior to the tendering process beginning. Design changes from the tendering process should be dealt with as amendments to the permit and be subject to their own rigorous planning process.
This requirement achieves two key benefits for the state. Firstly the tender process could accurately reflect the project as approved, avoiding nasty surprises. This would assist in preventing price blowouts due to limiting and controlling variations to the design. Secondly it would provide an opportunity for community consultation and assessment on substantial design changes.
In a democracy, people have a right to transparency and a right to be heard. The East West Link reality where four suburbs have an approved project with an unknown design is a sad example of our broken system. For those screaming at the politicians to ‘rip up the contracts’ for East West Link, don’t forget that there was also a broken system that contributed to this disaster. We need to reform this system urgently or we are destined to repeat the same mistakes.
Victoria Deserves Better. Architecture is for Everyone.
This post originally appeared on The Red and Black Architect blog.
Lead image courtesy Permitted Development.