How would you define a “minor” building project? A garden shed? A carport, perhaps? A paling fence?
You would almost certainly be thinking of some small project, for which you would dread seeking council approval. Never mind the cost – you’d see it taking months to get through the bureaucratic mill, getting paperwork approved and stamped, all the while sapping your will to live.
But now we have VicSmart, the state government planning scheme change that’s faster than a speeding bullet, able to erect tallish carports in a single afternoon, almost.
VicSmart got a run recently down at Sullivan Bay, where an applicant is seeking to build a boundary fence on the historic Eastern Sister headland. The application went direct to the shire CEO, who delegated it to the planners, who had 10 days to examine and approve/reject it.
Simple! Smart! That’s how VicSmart works. It does away with irritating impediments such as yellow planning advertising notices on the fence, eliminates objections from neighbours and the right to appeal to VCAT. And scrutiny by councillors.
Planning Minister Richard Wynne: a photoshopped picture if ever Bandicoot saw one!
The scheme is being introduced gradually after appearing with little fanfare and a public softening-up as bring in sensible minor adjustments that the public would welcome. The first release included a reassuring list that included “remove, destroy or lop one tree” and “construct a front fence in a residential zone”.
Simple. Simple and smart. VicSmart’s definition of “minor” is ” ︎‘buildings and works’ associated with a non-residential [land] use with a cost of development up to $100,000″ or a “single storey extension to a single dwelling” on land of a certain size which meets specified standards.
That’s not a misprint. VicSmart defines “minor” as $100,000 of work. That’s a fair-sized garden shed and/or extension.
The figure is in the legislation and in a letter from the shire to a senior state planning bureaucrat, advising that “the Shire supports the intention of the proposed amendment and welcomes measures to remove complexity of planning regulation to create a more efficient system for more straight forward and scheme compliant development”.
The letter is dated 6 February. Councillors did not discuss VicSmart until their meeting on 27 February. But no matter: they are irrelevant to VicSmart, as are we all.
For the record, councillors rejected the officer’s recommendation, “to adopt and submit the draft letter [which had been sent], as its submission to the Minister for Planning on the proposed Amendment to the Victoria Planning Provisions to extend VicSmart to Residential Zones”.
It was moved by Cr Antonella Celi (Seawinds ward,) but lapsed for want of a seconder.
The meeting then carried a resolution that “the item be deferred, pending a briefing to Council on 6 March, 2017 and the meeting of Council on 14 March, 2017”. Moved Cr Hugh Fraser (Nepean ward), seconded Cr Rosie Clark (Briars ward).
Clearly, the majority of councillors were miffed. Extremely miffed, in fact.
Smart for whom? The word “Smart” usually signals we have been outSmarted. Your electricity can be turned off remotely, your money can be extracted by the mere tap of a plastic card, by whomever possesses the card. Pictured: a Smart meter.
VicSmart strips citizens of several fundamental rights – you will not know via a yellow advertising notice of a neighbour’s building plan until the workers arrive; you are prohibited from protesting against the development; you have no right to appeal to VCAT against a planner-approved monstrosity built next door. It also cuts councillors – elected to look after the citizenry – out of the planning process.
Bandicoot views this is an assault on democratic rights. In whose favour? Planning departments will embrace it. So will developers and builders.
Back to the meeting.
The shire’s executive manager, planning services, Mr David Bergin, told councillors VicSmart was proposed to be extended into all residential zones. Already it allowed the following:
▶ “The construction or extension of front fences; (Pictured: a fence)
▶ “Subdivision to realign the common boundary between two lots subject to conditions; and
▶ “Subdivision into two lots if construction of a building or carrying out of works has lawfully started, does not create a vacant lot and the construction has been approved in accordance with the provisions of the Planning Scheme.”
Now VicSmart was to enable swift approval for the minor ‘buildings and works’ up to $100,000 and the single storey extensions mentioned above.
Council officers “are generally supportive of the intent of the changes”, the officers’ report stated.
Then came councillors’ questions. Some have been edited for brevity but meanings have not been changed. Edits are indicated by absence of quote marks:
Cr David Gill (Red Hill ward) was told only 12 applications in the new VicSmart categories had been made over the past 12 months out of some 2400 planning applications received – a “very, very small number in the grand scheme of things”, according to senior planning officer Ms Rosa Zouzoulas.
All these applications “are in the [shire’s] planning register, which is publicly accessible”, councillors were told.
Cr Bryan Payne (Nepean, pictured) asked: When was this proposed amendment advertised?” Ms Zouzoulas could not say.
“Why wasn’t this brought to a previous meeting?” he persisted in an indignant tone. “This is the 6th of February, this letter was written.” Mr Bergin: “We had 28 days to respond. It is standard practice for most of the councils throughout Victoria to submit officer responses and then ask the department to formally receive the official council response when a chance is provided to take it to a council meeting.”
“Time and time again, even when I was working at the [planning] department, I would suggest that longer consultation periods were required to allow councils to consider responding to government consultation periods, but unfortunately those requests fall on deaf ears.”
Cr Payne: “Well I’ve never heard of that and I’ve participated. [Cr Payne is a former five-times council CEO.] Why didn’t it go to the council before this day?” Mr Bergin: If we hadn’t submitted anything we wouldn’t have had a seat at the table at all.
Cr Payne: You said before it came in, in January, we had plenty of time to consider it before the 6th of February. Mr Bergin: Unfortunately, due to agendas and so forth … the agendas were already filled up before the consultation was received. I think we had one meeting on I think the 30th of January and we had one two weeks ago and one today.”
Cr Hugh Fraser (Nepean): “This brings up a wider question – why couldn’t councillors have had an urgent briefing in relation to the matter?” Mr Bergin: Again I suppose due to the timing. The briefing sessions were full … we’ve had only two briefing sessions since the resumption of council, so it was difficult to respond back to the department.
Cr Fraser: “This is an important matter, it’s an urgent matter. A request is required by the department within 28 days. This council has a capability of dealing with matters on an urgent basis.
“We even called a special meeting to deal with the Pillars [the Mt Martha coastal cliff site that was attracting big crowds]. This could have been slotted in at the end of that meeting as a special item of business.”
Mr Bergin said he had “actually (requested) that but it was unfortunate that I couldn’t place it on the agenda”.
Cr Fraser: “Well, who refused this request?”
Mayor Bev Colomb (pictured below) intervened, saying: “I don’t think that’s appropriate for …”
Cr Colomb … for Mr Bergin to …
Cr Fraser … how is it that …
Cr Colomb … to reply …
Cr Fraser: “How is it that urgent matters are not able to be brought to this council?” Mr Bergin: Well, as Miss Zouzoulas said, these are a handful of applications that come before council that would fall into such categories.
Cr Fraser: “[There] seems no prejudice to defer [this matter] pending a proper briefing.” Mr Bergin: No, there’s not, but with only a few applications a year I don’t think its a significant matter.
Cr Antonella Celi (Seawinds): Is the draft letter [included in the agenda] strong enough? Mr Bergin: Yes, from a professional perspective.
Cr Simon Brooks (Seawinds): Would you share my concern that this may well open a mechanism for people to do significant residential development using the term “extension” perhaps in conjunction with demolition and retention perhaps of a small part of the original structure: then the extension [would be] a significant percentage of the new building works, therefore getting past any sort of external scrutiny?
Cr Brooks, continuing, said this might mean no scrutiny of such matters as neighbourhood character, where residents are usually able to object to the type of development being sought.
Mr Bergin: The risks you are articulating are minor for the Mornington Peninsula because of our planning scheme controls. The majority of our residential zone land have design and development overlays … only applies to smaller lots.
After several more minor questions, Cr Celi moved that the officers’ recommendation be accepted.
Cr Sam Hearn (Briars ward, pictured) suggested that the issues had been assessed by officers “and the trust is therefore placed by councillors and residents solely in the officers’ hands in terms of the way they interpret the applications … rather than having the opportunity for objections.
Mr Bergin responded that the planning scheme policy “provides some guidance for design parameters and the expectation of the community”.
Cr Celi’s motion failed to attract a seconder and therefore lapsed.
Cr Fraser moved “to defer further consideration of the item pending a detailed briefing to council on the 6th of March and further consideration at its meeting on the 14th of March”. An alert and devoted reader of council minutes will note that the meeting minutes are differently and incorrectly worded.
Mayor Bev Colomb stepped in to end a side conversation – perhaps better described as a squabble –between councillors Gill and Celi.
Cr Julie Edge (Watson ward) asked: “What is likely to change between [this] meeting and the 14 March meeting?”
Cr Fraser: “Until we have a briefing we don’t know.”
Mr Bergin had the last word. The state planning department was trying to fast-track Smart planning, he said, warning: “The minister may have every right to make a decision without council’s formal resolution.”
The Fraser motion then passed, with that terrible possibility hanging over the chamber.
Please, dear patient, reader, indulge Bandicoot with a few words about briefings.
They are the essential, invisible glue of decision making. Every decision maker needs to be fully informed to come to the right conclusion. Barristers take instruction then brief hizzonner, so innocents aren’t sent to the slammer; briefings are given daily, even hourly to national and state governments, firefighters and boards of directors. Even kindergarten committees are briefed.
If councillors – described by former state premier Jeff Kennett as boards of directors – are not informed, or are inadequately informed, or even inadvertently misinformed, they cannot reach proper decisions.
Councillors were not briefed on the VicSmart proposal, probably because the state government relaxed over the holiday period. Mr Bergin, lately an employee of the state planning department, laid the blame at its door.
But the fact remains: councillors were asked to make a decision about an important matter on which they had, for whatever reason, not been briefed. That briefing will now take place. As it should.