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My Opinion Pieces

Council bypass a shonky plan for Melbourne

   Wednesday, 2 June 2010
Planning power is being ever more centralised, and residents lose out.

A land use planning document for Melbourne that predicts the demise of the United States and the ''rebalancing'' of the globe in favour of China was always going to be slightly provocative.

The Committee for Melbourne's Shaping Melbourne Taskforce Report does not disappoint.

Beginning with the extraordinary assumption, unbacked by evidence, that it's ''feasible that the city will surpass 8 million people in the late part of this century'', the report evokes worrying images of a tsunami of people, buildings and cars in a future megalopolis.
After its initial utopian vision of a massive Melbourne, the report gets down to business by calling for a single city-wide planning agency and questioning the role of local government in the current planning process.

It contends that: ''The job of the mayor and councillors of local government councils is to service their local community, not greater Melbourne. It is impossible, therefore, to expect the greater good of metropolitan Melbourne to be served by this tier of government, particularly for a city growing well beyond 5 million.''

The implications of this are unclear. There is no mention of whether this would be an elected body or some sort of quango.
When I hear the phrase ''greater good for metropolitan Melbourne'' or ''metropolitan imperatives'' bandied around by the development lobby, planners, bureaucrats, staffers or ministers, I am forced to ask what is the ''greater good''? Surely it should be for the very people who live here now and have legitimate concerns about the amenity of their suburbs.

There is a disturbing tendency for these abstract notions of progress to morph into what my constituents describe as ''inappropriate development'', too often decided centrally between bureaucrats at the Department of Planning and Community Development, the minister and the developer.

In my experience, almost every month controversial planning applications are removed from local decision-making.
In an unprecedented decision, Planning Minister Justin Madden recently abolished a Section 173 agreement for the development at 670 Chapel Street, South Yarra, entered into freely and fairly by the developer and council. This decision excised the site from the local planning scheme, meaning the community no longer has control of the project. The reasons for the intervention remain unclear.

In Prahran, Madden has ''called in'' proposed new social housing developments, giving locals very little say in the size and scope of the development, or whether they are happy about any further social housing in their local area at all.

Better yet, Stonnington was given an ultimatum by the department that we must find room for 8000 new dwellings or 14,000 more people - a fairly tall order when you consider we have the smallest area of open space of any municipality in inner Melbourne.
In all these examples, local community concerns and knowledge were totally ignored, as was the council. Development was approved by the minister, claiming ''state planning imperatives'' - or the ''greater good''.

Our planning policies should never be reduced to a Spartan utilitarian consideration of the greatest good for the greatest number - they must always protect the rights of the individual.

Certainly, we need a broad, strategic view - but we also need to make sure that every person has the right to be heard. And that's the unique role that councils play - understanding and respecting the nuances of their constituencies, and making sure that real people are not forgotten.

In Britain, the new coalition government has been elected on the platform of building the ''big society''. Prime Minister David Cameron said recently: ''This big society is about decentralising power, about empowering communities . . . transferring power from the centre to the local.''

Planning power has centralised enough under this government. Balance must be restored by taking into account the concerns of local communities. Any move to further centralise planning will be strenuously opposed by residents and councils across the political spectrum.

If the Committee for Melbourne wants to look at improving ''governance structures'' in Melbourne's planning framework, they might start by asking Premier John Brumby to appoint a competent minister for this vital portfolio area, someone who is serious about genuine consultation.

Without a significant shift in our thinking, we will all pay a heavy price.

Tim Smith is mayor of the City of Stonnington.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June 2010