State Ministers and the 25,000sqm threshold: is it time for a review?

Recently an enterprising young university student posed a direct question to Urban Melbourne:

Your opinion on whether or not the Minister of Planning should have the power to approve projects over certain thresholds. For instance any building over 25,000sqm of gross floor area?

Should this legislation in the planning scheme be changed or reviewed considering the amount of development within this threshold is now more common than perhaps when the legislation was created? Also should local councils and other parties such as the Mayor of Melbourne or different lobbying groups from the public such as Save Our Suburbs be entitled to some input?

Adam Steel

In light of the events of recent weeks this has become quite topical. I'm not going to talk on behalf of Urban Melbourne, but rather as an individual who's observed Melbourne's development scene for well over a decade and has gleaned more of an industry/developer perspective since Urban Melbourne's inception.

I'll also preface this piece by saying that once upon a time I masqueraded as an Economics student and certain habits die hard, hence my point of view on certain topics will no doubt be wildly different to other readers.

On the 25,000sqm threshold

There's always been a dichotomy between City of Melbourne (CoM) and the State Government on this issue - and there should be. CoM are naturally concerned about planning on a micro level as that is their charge but I've always perceived the State Government (irrespective of which party has been in power) to view development on a macro scale.

Whereas CoM focus far more on the intimacy of a project and what it means to City of Melbourne and its immediate residents/users, the State Planning Minister should factor in a variety of other concerns in addition to the worthiness of a given planning application. We live in a competitive world and yes domestic and foreign investment matters; if for instance CoM took a much sterner line with planning application approvals, would the construction and associated services employment sector be so buoyant?

External factors theoretically shouldn't apply to the merits of a planning application but in certain cases they are relevant, and that's the bigger picture that's swept away with talk of reverting control of planning applications back to CoM of other municipalities.

To scrap the 25,000sqm threshold and cede powers to City of Melbourne would be akin to stymieing the inner city's population growth and placing that burden elsewhere - an elsewhere which already excludes huge areas of inner Melbourne thanks to the new residential zones implemented during 2014. Consequently do we send residents to the urban fringes to exist without living or simply say we're full, go away. The latter on many levels is harmful to the economy.

It is to a degree a simple supply and demand equation in which Melbourne and surrounding areas such as Fishermans Bend, Docklands and Southbank must carry the burden of population growth - a point which I've heard countless times from planners and architects recently. To quote a hapless man we are beyond the rubicon - the new residential zones equates to inner Melbourne committing itself irrevocably to a higher density formula of living.

For City of Melbourne and the Lord Major to seek to repeal the 25,000sqm threshold is a self serving position, but highly likely to the Government of the day dismissing the notion out of hand.

A case in point

In response to the City of Melbourne 2014 State Election Questionnaire, Leader of the Victorian Greens Greg Barber responded with the following

Question 1: Will you remove the 25,000 sqm threshold where the Minister for Planning becomes the Responsible Authority for planning applications, returning Responsible Authority status to the City of Melbourne?

YES. Under the old parties, planning ministers have been given successively greater powers to ride roughshod over local governments and community groups. These fast and loose laws have let Matthew Guy approve poorly planned developments with no consultation. The role of assessing planning applications should sit with Council as it does in other municipalities.

Did I miss something here? No consultation? That is a flawed comment on a number levels and is typical of the politicisation of the planning process. I get the distinct impression if the Greens had their way every person and their dog would be sought for comment on any given planning application - economic realities dictate this is bad for generating and/or maintaining investment.

Assume for one moment it came to be that CoM regained power for approval over all planning applications. Almost instantly investment and growth would be hamstrung as fewer developments would be approved. An assumption yes but even the perception of a less that workable planning system means certain developers will neglect the market in favour of other cities etc. - that is fact.

Depending upon what you read, this could be the impression you get

A change in legislation?

Quite simply, no! I find the criticism of Matthew Guy in recent times excessively hard to swallow, particularly with The Age and their incessant use of Michael Buxton as a means of attacking the incumbent Planning Minister. Quite simply Matthew Guy has presided over an unparalleled period of inner-city growth in Melbourne's history.

To suggest it is his fault for approving more towers as if he were solely responsible for initiating the increased number of planning applications beyond 25,000sqm is farcical. Those increased applications are a function of the free market in which local or overseas developers make their own assessments and proceed with projects as they see fit.

Stripping away any political overtones the ultimate question is this: would this even be an issue if Melbourne maintained its previous level of planning applications rather than the heightened current number? Most people would answer no so therefore if it was in fact an issue previously why wasn't it brought up in preceding years?

Giving the little person their say

Well the heading is an oversimplification somewhat. Local councils (where applicable) and the Lord Major (regarding CoM) do have the means to address a planning application if it's the responsibility of the State. In the case of the latter this is done more so by City of Melbourne's planning officers which provide reports to State planning body DTPLI/Planning Minister via CoM's Future Melbourne (Planning) Committee.

As for lobby groups such as Save Our Suburbs or Fishermans Bend Network having a say on specific planning applications; more times than not that is an exercise in futility! These groups are far better served being given an official voice in shaping the development parameters for an urban renewal area or suburban activity centre prior to its commencement.

In this way they can shape an area from its outset with requests for certain infrastructure or community space or education requirements. Fishermans Bend Urban Renewal Area would have benefited greatly from its inception by having community groups lay out their vision early days rather than question every planning application thereafter as being too tall or some such.

Upsizing beyond 25,000sqm doesn't necessarily mean approval. Image courtesy Laurence Dragomir

The system works

To put the topic in the most basic of terms, the current system is not perfect but it does work exceedingly well. Recent big ticket planning application refusals such as 710 Collins Street (rendered above) and 54-64 A'Beckett Street demonstrates we are not in a state of planning carte blanche. The key to this argument is to have as much relevant information on hand as possible in order to make a considered opinion.

To that end my opinion is simply that, I'd like to hear yours...

You can read co-editor Alastair Taylor's view on the same topic.


Bilby's picture

Not planning 'carte blanche', Mark? That's the problem, though, isn't it? The Minister makes sometimes ad hoc, unjustifiable and mysterious decisions based on ... well, who can say? Or would you have been happy with CofM randomly declaring a single site - say 555 Collins Street - exempt from overshadowing the South Bank of the Yarra, but not others? New York city controls its own planning because getting 'micro planning' right, is too important to life in the city to be a State controlled political issue.

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Nicholas Harrison's picture

New York City has a population of 8 million which is more than the population of Victoria. New York City also has a budget larger than the state of Victoria.

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Bilby's picture

How big does a city have to be before it needs good planning on a street by street, district by district level? New York hasn't always been as big as it is now, you know. Cities need good urban planning, not 'macro' planning by politicians intent on opening up the city to development on purely 'economic' grounds. You can have broad economic policy while leaving the local planning issues to the city to work out. Ultimately, an orderly planning system is good for investors and good for the economy - this is, after all, why overseas investors are so keen on Melbourne. It is renowned for its liveability, culture and street life ... for now.

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Adrian's picture

I wouldn't trust the Melbourne City Council on it's own to make the right decision on preserving the fabric of our historic city neighbourhoods any more than I would trust the state planners. Both of them would piss our city down the already murky Yarra River if it mean't a quick buck was on offer.

I think both should share the decisions equally along with community groups, without allowing NIMBY'ism or political factions such as the 'The Independent' CBD newspaper to hijack a fair and reasonable outcome.

Does Melbourne have an equivalent of the Urban Taskforce in Sydney which advocates sensible high-rise and large scale development ?

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Bilby's picture

I don't believe so. And interestingly, so called 'NIMBYism' to date has barely registered in the CBD, since there are few routes for objectors to pursue improved outcomes for properties that impact existing residents and businesses. If anything, the Minister for Planning is the NIMBY here, since, as far as I know, he doesn't actually live in the CBD!

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johnproctor's picture

agree- Nimbyism is non existant in the CBD because even if you are the adjoining landowner you don't really have rights to object.

City of Melbourne did make a decision to support overshadowing of the south bank of hte yarra recently wiht the old AXA tower site where they've justified overshadowing of the southbank of the river becuase the developer will give them a park.

I think one issue with hte handover of the planning powers to the Minister and the lack of appeal rights etc. is that there is no mechanism for the community to update their views on planning decisions in a strategic context.

There should be a 'CBD Planning Strategy' every 5-10 years which is required to go through public consultation where issues like setbacks, heritage, use types, height limits can be discussed and influence had by the community on what grounds the Minister makes decisions. Maybe (like a lot of strategic planning) the consultation just gets ignored but the process would allow a pulse check of community views to CBD development to be considered regularly and there'd probably be one nugget of gold idea that comes out of each consultation that could be incorporated - eg. maybe the first one would be something about setbacks between adjoining buildings given the recent community angst and VCAT decisions at various sites in Southbank and at the top end of the city etc. Another win that community pressure could aim at is some design requirements against blank concrete walls.

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Alastair Taylor's picture

Does Melbourne have an equivalent of the Urban Taskforce in Sydney which advocates sensible high-rise and large scale development ?

On meeting with UTA last year: they said Melbourne didn't require a chapter/branch as what they lobby for in Sydney, Melbourne already has (more flexible regulations)!

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Adrian's picture

On meeting with UTA last year: they said Melbourne didn't require a chapter/branch as what they lobby for in Sydney, Melbourne already has (more flexible regulations)!

True - but after the next election we may need to start one !

On the other hand as much as I am a fan of tall building architecture, I am also concerned how the supposed planning scheme guidelines are often ignored - eg. none of the 'Big 4' up North End of town (EQ, Vic One, Vision & Lighthouse) appear to meet the 'Towers above podium should be setback 10m from street frontage' in the Urban Design Section 22.1 ?

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Alastair Taylor's picture

And that's pretty much where the tension is: status quo / flexible regulations versus more regulations.

Continuing to allow borrowed light in bedrooms versus stamping it out (I favour regulating this out of existence).

Enforcing minimum sizes versus having no minimum size requirements (I favour leaving it unregulated).

There are positives and negatives on both sides.

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