SHIRE TAKES BOLD LEAP BACKWARD

Shire planning took a brisk and decisive long leap into the past at Monday’s (27 Mar 2017) council meeting, when a councillor move to make planning more accountable, efficient and publicly accessible was firmly quashed.

gateway-simonjpgCr Simon Brooks (Seawinds ward) had, by way of a Notice of Motion, proposed that a committee be formed comprising councillors, staff and members of the public with relevant planning expertise to advise council on planning matters.

Similar committees have been established at Moonee Valley Council and the rural cities of Shepparton and Ballarat, the meeting was told.  Pictured – Cr Brooks

Notices of Motion are generally dealt with late in council meetings. On Monday night an earlier agenda item (item 3.6) dealing with planning gave an opportunity to “gazump” Cr Brooks’ proposal.

And gazumped it was, by Cr Antonella Celi (Seawinds), an ardent disciple of council staff advice. Surprisingly, agenda item 3.6 – ‘Review of Planning Items Going to Council Meetings’ – contained no planner recommendation for Cr Celi to follow, instead offering three options.

DAC 190514 cancelledCr Celi knew precisely which option she wanted: supported by Cr David Gill (Red Hill ward) she advocated passionately for the backward leap, to reinstate almost-forgotten meetings that dealt with planning applications separately, and regularly did so little business that they were finally deemed unnecessary and were rolled into Ordinary Council Meetings (OCMs).

The Celi-Gill motion was commendably professional:

“1. That [the second option] be implemented to introduce a separate Development Assessments Committee that is a full committee of Council to determine all planning matters referred to it under the normal Council procedures and be held on a separate evening to the Ordinary Council Meeting on a fortnightly basis at 5:00 p.m. on Mondays or Wednesdays as determined by the Committee commencing from May 2017.

“2. That Councillors receive a briefing from officers and the opportunity to workshop the details required to establish an advisory committee to be known as the Strategic and Statutory Planning and Heritage Advisory Committee of the Mornington Peninsula Shire Council to provide advice to Council.”

The implications of this for councillors, and the shire, are significant.

First, councillors and senior officers will meet weekly rather than fortnightly. Senior officers who will need to attend include CEO Carl Cowie, chief operating officer Alison Leighton, and governance manager Joe Spiteri. Chief financial officer Matt Green and director–communities Robin Adam could also be required, as might other staff.

Second, Parkinson’s Law will inevitably apply to the length of the meetings. (British scholar C. Northcote Parkinson formulated the truism that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.)

Third, the cost of meetings – mundane matters such as long staff hours, light and heating, various additional councillor and officer costs such as vehicle allowance (councillors can claim up to $1.09/km for private vehicle use) and child care, provision of evening meals for attendees – is likely to rise dramatically.

And, of course, the additional pressure on attendees, including loss of family time, will be considerable. Some officers have long trips to and from work. They are not likely to appreciate this further separation from their partners and children.

Why were DACs abandoned? Partly because the need for them diminished. The number of development applications did not fall and they probably could have been dealt with by a committee smaller than the whole councillor group – as was part of Cr Brooks’ proposal. The number of councillors who attended them also varied.

About five years ago councillors delegated to officers all planning decisions in the shire’s green wedge zone, meaning that only significant urban applications plus GWZ planning matters “called in” to meetings by councillors, came to DACs.

Cancellation of DACs became common. Bandicoot recollects one year where all but four were cancelled “as there are no items listed” for discussion, according to public notices posted on the shire website. Many DACs were brief, dealing with only one or two items, such as the meetings held on 21 October 2013, 17 February 2014 and 21 April 2015.

David GillNewly elected Red Hill ward councillor David Gill recently “called in” some 21 applications to be considered by councillors. This could have prompted planners to propose the “back to the future” solution, despite the fact that Cr Gill, under some pressure, Bandicoot believes, has been culling his list.  Pictured – Cr Gill

Cr Gill’s calling-in certainly has not been well received by some planning staff. They may have seen it as a prelude to councillors seeking to revoke the delegation power ceded to planners. Handing back power is a rare trait among bureaucrats.

Shire planning services manager David Bergin stated in his report advocating DACs that the number of planning applications called in since the new council was installed, “combined with our significant number of strategic planning projects, has filled a number of Council Meeting agendas in the first part of this year”.

This trend, he said, “will continue throughout the year with the delivery of a number of planning scheme amendments, strategic planning projects and significant planning permit applications anticipated.”

What are the facts against which this assertion is made? This new council has met 11 times since last October’s elections. Most were OCMs. First up was the annual general meeting, where the major business was electing the mayor. Several were Special Council Meetings (SCMs).

The list is:

28 November 2016: planning (3 items) – 180 Bentons Rd; Willow Creek Winery; proposed rezoning of Melbourne Water land in Rosebud.

12 December: planning (1) – application for a brewery in GWZ.

24 Jan 2017 – SCM, called urgently to deal with the Pillars issue.

30 Jan: planning (nil). Changes to an environmental significance overlay; VicSmart changes.

13 Feb: planning (2) – Rye boat ramp; Tucks Rd farmhouse.

20 Feb: SCM. No planning applications.

27 Feb: planning (1) – camping/caravan park.

14 Mar: planning (nil).

20 Mar: planning (nil) – proposed budget.

27 Mar: planning (nil) – proposed Shoreham land rezoning; not a planning application.

That’s seven, probably only six, planning applications spread across 11 meetings, of which seven were OCMs, when planning was or could have been discussed. The Melbourne Water item was not strictly a planning application.

Three, possibly four of the planning applications were either GWZ or quasi-rural – and councillors have not yet been briefed on green wedge planning, for reasons only senior officers could explain.

Two, possibly three, of the approved GWZ matters are highly contentious. Of two of them Bandicoot has written that information in planning officers’ reports was imprecise or wide of the mark; in another, councillors were not provided with information that could have altered the outcome.

One, possibly two of the decisions, contravene planning law, Bandicoot believes; and one is at odds with at least two VCAT decisions.

These planning applications certainly could not be said to have “filled” any council meeting agendas, as councillors were told.

Mr Bergin, having stated this, made no mention of the potential for VicSmart planning applications to thin the applications that might go to councillors.

bc-carl-cowieVicSmart applications do not come to council meetings, DAC or otherwise. They are dealt with solely by the CEO and planners. Their number is likely to swell once their advantages become widely known and as the number of categories to which they apply continues to expand.  Pictured – shire CEO Carl Cowie

Bandicoot has written previously about this odious system, which permits planning applications, from a simple front fence up to $1 million commercial developments, as well as $500,000 developments in the GWZ, to be processed with no requirement to advertise them and denial of people’s rights to object to council and to appeal a council decision to VCAT.

VicSmart is effectively a state-imposed state-wide system of delegation to council officers, to the exclusion of councillors and their constituencies which, Bandicoot predicts, will have colourful consequences, stemming from its astonishing naïveté and contempt for the democratic process.

Continuing his case for DACs, Mr Bergin’s report to councillors states that in 2016, 33 planning-related matters went to councillors. Of these, 12 were planning permit applications, two were strategic project items, two were unspecified “general items” and 17 were planning scheme amendments.

As detailed above, three of these dozen 2016 planning applications (25% of the total) went before the newly elected councillors in a rush last November and December.

Bandicoot argues it was unfair to put these complex proposals to a new group who were not – and still have not been – briefed on GWZ planning law, by officers who have sometimes seemed vague on the detail of the propositions they were putting to councillors.

Mr Bergin goes on to state that at the time of writing “there are 57 planning related items to be heard by Council”. Of these, 21 are Cr Gill’s called-in GWZ applications, which are now being culled by Cr Gill after his initial rush of enthusiasm.

cowie-signature-pThese 57 items are not necessarily all development applications. In fact Mr Bergin states they include planning scheme amendments and other non-planning applications that have properly been dealt with at OCMs since DACs were abolished.

Of the other matters, seven are “planning scheme amendments (at various stages of the process) and 27 are strategic planning projects (this constitutes the eight agreed projects to be presented to Council at multiple stages) and two are general items.”

This listing does not include urgent items, such as those that must be decided prior to a VCAT decision, Mr Bergin’s argument concludes.

It appears Mr Bergin has used the term “planning related items” to expand the range of matters he argued would be dealt with by DAC meetings, and which would simultaneously thin OCM agendas, possibly resulting in two short meetings.

Mr Bergin does not mention the effect of VicSmart applications in his argument for this additional fortnightly meeting. But his case was big on cost implications. 

Bandicoot calculates that, with Cr Gill’s pruned call-in list, the loss of VicSmart applications to the CEO, more efficient handling of other planning matters and a focus on ensuring planning applications do not go to VCAT unnecessarily, there might well be no need to reintroduce DACs.

Thus councillors might be looking at one or two planning applications per ordinary council meeting, as occurs now. None of the “on the other hand” case was canvassed in the report to councillors, indicating, in Bandicoot’s view, a rather less than objective case for a return to fortnightly DACs.

Incidentally, curbing applications to VCAT would also be a money-saver – VCAT is expensive and councillors must make an ex post facto decision on all cases that go to the tribunal anyway. The shire would save money, perhaps enough to hire another planner or two, and would stymie developers whose plan is a clear run to a developer-friendly hearing.

Bandicoot believes councillors might, on reflection, wonder if their DAC decision was sound. Perhaps the matter should have been deferred until after they were briefed: Bandicoot is surprised no such briefing occurred.

bryan payneThe council minutes record that those who favoured reintroduction of DACs were councillors Antonella Celi, Bev Colomb, Frank Martin, Rosie Clark, Kate Roper and David Gill. Against were councillors Bryan Payne, Hugh Fraser and Simon Brooks. Pictured – Cr Bryan Payne

Councillors Sam Hearn and Julie Edge did not attend the meeting. Their votes would not have changed the result.

Councillors’ choice was to vote for the status quo, a fortnightly meeting cycle of OCMs that include planning applications, or a weekly cycle of alternating OCM-DAC meetings. 

After watching CEO Carl Cowie constantly suppressing yawns at last week’s OCM as this matter was debated, Bandicoot thinks he knows where Mr Cowie stands, privately at least. And Bandicoot knows where Bandicoot stands. Winter can be a wicked, wicked time for night meetings.

Finally, a little history. DACs were scrapped on 25 May 2015. The then mayor, Cr Bev Colomb, backed the decision. She told a newspaper that adding planning matters to the OCM was a positive step, although she would have preferred a trial period.

Such a trial period undertaken now would test whether DACs should be reintroduced, Bandicoot suggests.

In May, 2015, Cr Colomb said: “I’ve spoken to many councillors across Victoria in my travels and it is common practice to have planning at OCMs. In our region, Frankston and Greater Dandenong councils have [at that time] this and so do many other councils across the state.”

Cr Hugh Fraser, a strong advocate then and now for streamlining shire practices, said council meeting procedures and briefings had been “simplified and regularised” by abolishing DACs.

A multi-layered complex of council committees has been dismantled and the community will now be able to review the whole suite of council business at one fortnightly public, open and transparent council meeting,” he said then.

Cr Fraser is one of the three councillors re-elected last October, alongside Cr Colomb and Cr Celi. The latter voted against abolishing DACs back in 2015. Now she has been triumphant in having DACs restored. Councillors who supported her on Monday evening may rue their decision on sleety sou’westerly nights.

The 25 May 2015 arguments for retaining DACs were replete with sophisticated sentiments such as “shame on you” “disrespect, contempt for the community” and “a joke, and so is anyone who supports it”. Not a lot of logic there.

After one such outburst from a councillor came a pause and a thumping noise, as if the councillor’s microphone was malfunctioning or had fallen off the desk. But no; it was the councillor, reinforcing the power of his argument by headbutting his microphone.

Bandicoot understands a move might be made soon to reverse the 27 March DAC decision. Sanity might prevail, with common sense and goodwill all round. Fond hope, or fair prediction?

 For more information on the 27 March meeting, see the meeting minutes on the shire’s website – http://www.mornpen.vic.gov.au/About-Us/About-Our-Council/Council-Meetings/CouncilCommittee-Meeting-Agendas-and-Minutes?dlv_OC%20CL%20Public%20Meetings=(pageindex=1  Also available is the meeting’s audio.

 For those wanting to know more about VicSmart, go to https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/planning-permit-applications/vicsmart

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