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Improving metropolitan planning

Volume 9 Number 5 May 13 - June 9 2013

Dr Alan March lectures in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at Melbourne University. His new book, The Democratic Plan: Analysis and Diagnosis examines the Victorian planning system over the last 15 years and considers its prospects for the future.  He writes on the topic for Voice.

Victorian urban planning is at an important transition point.  A new metropolitan plan is currently being produced, a range of new planning zones are coming, and the impending introduction of a new metropolitan planning agency has just been announced (The Age 2 March 2013).  In principle, the changes are welcome, because these aspects of the planning system need attention.

In particular, the newly announced prospect of a metropolitan planning agency means that fundamental change might occur for the first time since the Kennett era reforms of the 1990s.  While theological analogies are probably unwise while describing urban planning, I suggest a kind of trinity of planning fundamentals is being brought together – holy or otherwise.  Put simply, we might have a metropolitan plan, an agency to administer it, and the tools to achieve outcomes in the form of complementary zones and other regulations. 

Characteristically, we have not been given any detail to question, and limited opportunity to contribute so far.  While trying hard not to be cynical, it would hold true to form if we get an agency suited primarily to the needs of the government of the day, rather than one based on sound long-range planning.  But before anyone gets too excited, we need to consider the broad principles of what a metropolitan agency ought to be doing, and whether our new one will be able to achieve this in the structure of the current system.  

For a start, metropolitan planning is primarily concerned with co-ordination, and the allocation of resources, in ways that other agencies such as higher tier state agencies and lower tier local government, cannot achieve.  This means that issues of selfishness, or of inability, are evened out by directing resources and making decisions that have all of our interests at heart in the long term.  Consider our increasingly unfair access across Melbourne to services such as education, health care, and public transport.  Also consider at metropolitan level where higher density housing goes, whether urban growth boundaries should be extended, and if some areas require special attention to resolve persistent problems.

If we generally accept that these kinds of concerns are the sort that a metropolitan agency needs to be concerned with, the next question to ask is how decisions will be made: will they be democratic, technical, or political?  Will powers will be removed from some existing agencies and given to the new metropolitan agency?  This is difficult territory, but it is entirely necessary to navigate it.  We have past experience in Victoria of duplicated and conflicting powers between local, regional and state levels.  It is also important to ensure that local government continues to do what it is good at – delivering carefully and locally developed responses to local problems and aspirations.  There’s the rub, though.  For a metropolitan plan to work, local government will need to accept that some aspects of planning currently under its control, such as assessment of proposed plans and permit applications, will be removed.  

In turn, there needs to be a clear indication of what is not under the control of state government and of the metropolitan agency.  Essentially, there needs to be a clear setting out of what is the sole responsibility of local government, and for higher tier agencies to leave these things alone.  In parallel, there will be things that require co-operation, such as delivery of projects that cross boundaries and responsibilities. 

Our current system is a considerable distance from this ideal, and simply creating a new agency without deeper change is unlikely to work.  While some allocation of responsibilities across government tiers does exist in the current Planning & Environment Act introduced in 1987, in practice it is unclear and discourages the kind of balance required to deliver sustainable planning outcomes.  Consider the increasing need for extraordinary agencies and actions in recent times, such as priority development panels, ministerial interventions, tribunal hearings, and all-powerful development authorities.  These are all symptomatic of the “normal” system’s inadequacies. 

However, it is not logical to suggest that extending these extraordinary functions is the solution for a reconfigured planning system, particularly if we are concerned about democracy and reducing ill-considered political influence.

One key test that will challenge any planning agency that purports to achieve goals at the metropolitan level will be the ability to draw together functions of planning that are currently separated.  For example, the co-ordination of road and public transport with wider planning functions is central to achieving metropolitan goals.  It is unlikely that current arrangements could deliver this without fundamental changes being made to functions currently outside of what traditionally (and wrongly) was seen as planning. 

Establishment of a metropolitan agency also raises the prospect of how the remaining regions of Victoria are to be planned.  If the real potential of planning at this level to reallocate resources across wider regions is to be achieved, there is a need for parallel agencies in the regions. 

Finally, how will metropolitan decisions be made, and by whom?  The current structure privileges state control over lower tiers.  Is this to be replicated with the metropolitan planning agency? If so, it is likely that the politicisation and manipulation of planning that has beset us will continue.  In contrast, if we go back to the basics and integrate metropolitan planning within an improved planning system it will be a great step forward.