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Victorian residential zones: reformed or re-form

The older I get the more cynical I become.  So what of this cynicism…? Well, on the on the 27th of March the Victorian Government gazetted Amendment VC110 to much…err…avail. Touted as residential zone reforms that ‘get the balance right’,[1] and in opposition to my middle aged cynicism, I dove into the ‘reformed zones’ with optimism. 

Like all good narratives, each provision of the reformed zones has a role to play. With affordability and land supply at the forefront of our minds, the Neighbourhood Residential Zone (NRZ) was centre stage, and partnered by a new minimum garden area requirement.[2] Side stage, new definitions were inserted into Clause 72 to define the ‘garden area’. Transitional Provisions stood ready to cover any inequity, and the General, Mixed Use, and even the Township Zones were casted for an appearance. All of this, by the way, was against the background of the recent ‘Better Apartment Design Standards’ (BADS), the ‘Managing Residential Advisory Committee’ findings, ‘Refresh Plan Melbourne’, and the ‘Infrastructure Victoria 30 Year Strategy’. The scene was set.

All the right things were alluded to in the explanatory report. The relevant sections of the SPPF were wheeled out. Whether it was Clause 11.02-1 or Clause 16.01-4, the strategic justifications where humming to the background of housing affordability and land supply.  Lo and behold, as I made my way through the provisions I was left with that familiar feeling of ‘town planning deflation’.

Sure, the deletion of purposes from the NRZ[3] water down the sacrosanct purposes of the NIMBY shield, and sure the addition of 32.09-1[4] provides another mechanism for Council to specify objectives for particular areas, and sure the introduction and incorporation of garden area requirements (via a lot size sliding scale and mandatory inclusion and trigger within 32.09-3) was a ‘nifty’ piece of policy drafting.

But my middle aged cynicism asks “what did we really get here?” The removal of the two dwelling restriction in the NRZ (and maximum building height of 9 metres) essentially rights a wrong. Existing LPPF and supporting character studies[5] already achieve the garden area requirements when applied correctly by Responsible Authorities. I couldn’t, and still can’t, help to think the reformed zones were a sideshow to what is the main meal.

I ask, has the reformed zones really addressed the key underlying issue identified by the MRDAC[6]when they quite rightly stated:

“…One of the key findings of the Committee is the inappropriate application of the Neighbourhood Residential Zone in some municipalities due to the way in which it was approved. There was a clear lack of rigour and transparency in the early application of the zones and it was not until the RZSAC process that questions were asked about why and how the Neighbourhood Residential Zone had been applied in such a way, and as the default zone in many municipalities. Instances where the application of the Neighbourhood Residential Zone has been applied as the default zone should be further reviewed.”[7] ?

Whilst the removal of density restrictions and the pleasing addition of garden area requirement is now included, the underlying issue of the extent of the NRZ application (and, worryingly, the clear lack of rigour and transparency in the early application of the zones) remain a burden on the composition of Melbourne’s residential zoning.  

Instead of the ‘reform’ touted in Amendment VC110, I believe a ‘reform’ or ‘re-balance’ of our residential zone composition (across all Municipal boundaries) should be our priority. In place of accepting that the ‘horse has bolted’ in the application of the NRZ across our city, we should be asking which neighbourhoods deserve the NRZ classification and why. Given the restrictive nature of the NRZ (even after watering down of the purposes) and the breadth of its application (up to 70% in some inner and middle band Municipalities), we should think carefully and with caution before accepting their application and existence as read.

 To facilitate the growth of our city and the needs of our future citizens, we need to be brave enough to return to first principles and establish what features really deserve protection (as supported by objective empirical analysis) by applying the correct statutory mechanisms best suited to balance the certainty sought by stakeholders. Tinkering around the edges and righting wrongs of an ill-applied NRZ is good, but it is not the reform we need. 

[1] Reformed Zones 2017, Minister Message, The State of Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning 2017, p.1

[2] Applause from the leafy areas of the well serviced inner suburban elite. Echoes of applause from the outer and middle ring areas.  

[3] ‘To limit opportunities for increased residential development’ and ‘To implement neighbourhood character policy and adopted neighbourhood character guidelines’

[4] Inserts a new sub clause specifying that a schedule to the zone must contain various objectives to be achieved for an area. 

[5] Where active, and up to date and applied correctly.

[6] Managing Residential Development Advisory Committee

[7] Managing Residential Development, ‘Advisory Committee Report’ Executive Summery, 14 July 2016 p 2

This article originally appeared on David Lock Associate's Plantastic blog.

Lead image credit: flickr.

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