Objection Rights for Residents to Go: Good or Bad?

Property Development Melbourne - VicSmart July2013(1)










Melbourne is undergoing some major planning reform in a number of areas. As well as the reformed zoning, there is change on the way with respect to the planning permit process. The Victorian Government has been working on this for some time now, aiming to improve its efficiency and ‘fast-track’ the permit process to reduce unnecessary delays and costs in Victoria’s planning system.

Titled ‘VicSmart’, the new process in ‘less complex’ cases will remove residents’ right to object to property development proposals. This has created quite a stir amongst Melbournians and many are divided in their views.

Having spent some time in this industry, some may already be taking a perspective on what I’m writing. But I’ve been on both sides of the fence, and hopefully you can keep this in mind while you are reading this blog.

When it comes to re-developing property in established areas, the current rules of the planning system require applications to be referred to the public for comment. The objectives of this step in the process do make complete sense at face value, as anyone already living in a street should not be disadvantaged by someone else’s actions.

However, those whom have some experience with the current planning system would also tell you it can be quite frustrating at times, and would also pose a few questions about the way it currently operates.

The current local planning schemes (or the planning ‘rules’) are quite complex and detailed in their requirements. They are created and updated over time, usually through a process led by the Victorian Government and local Councils involving field experts and public consultation.

State Planning Policy framework sets out the general objectives of planning in Victoria with respect to appropriate land use and development planning policies and practices. These are aimed to integrate relevant environmental, social and economic factors in the interests of net community benefit and sustainable development. It talks about things like providing housing diversity, and integrating transport and community infrastructure to maximise the economic development potential in a sustainable manner.

Council as a whole does much of the heavy lifting in ‘detailed design’ and implementing the local rules, particularly when the rules need to be updated. Many investigations and studies are conducted around this framework by council officers, whom then work with the local councillors and the public through a consultation process to develop and implement local planning policies, zoning, overlays and particular provisions (or the ‘rules’).

Anyone considering a property development project in Melbourne, whether it be in growth areas or established, would most likely need to apply for a permit, and the application needs to address the ‘rules’ that have been set.

For most applications in established areas, the public have an opportunity to comment on the proposal, or ‘object’. Those comments or objections are then taken into consideration by council as part of their assessment, and will then decide whether or not a property development permit will be granted.

Now if this step in the process is taken away, we are simply left with the ‘rules’, so should an applicant ‘tick the boxes’ with respect to the provisions, their application would be approved. Those against the proposed changes are suggesting that this will result in communities being ‘locked out’.  But are they? Aren’t the ‘rules’ made through a thorough consultation process with the community in the first place? Could
these ‘rules’ in fact be the real key issue here?

Many property developers would question why a system that had input from the relevant stakeholders in the first place would need to go through the same channels again. Some would argue it’s warranted because the world keeps changing and the rules may no longer be relevant or correct, but others would argue that this shouldn’t be an issue if the rules were kept up to date. Isn’t this what the Victorian Government is actually trying to do?

Others could also argue that some of the rules have grey areas that are open to interpretation, both for and against. I can’t disagree with that, so shouldn’t this then be the only scenario where the referral, consultation and appeal process should apply?

The good news is that we are not pioneering in this space. Queensland have a similar system in place which has been operating for some time now. The Melbourne Metropolitan Authority (formerly Growth Areas Authority) have also done some work in this area already, which can only be helpful.

Whatever comes of this new ‘VicSmart’ process will not please everyone, but that would be an impossible task. If at least the new rules are designed to provide more certainty and clarity, it might just provide for the greater good of Melbourne.