Councillors approve state-wide campaign

Mornington Peninsula Shire is writing to every council across Victoria to seek support for its campaign to have the state government withdraw or amend recently introduced planning laws – imposed state-wide – that are strongly tilted towards development over homeowners.

Councillors approved sending the letter at their 27 June meeting, at which they also called for at least three public meetings in the shire to explain the new planning rules and the urgent need to counter them.

shire 1 - popularThey had, at their previous meeting on 13 June, endorsed the shire executive-initiated campaign to adopt “a clear advocacy position” against the changes imposed by state planning minister Richard Wynne, including using all forms of media, including social media, to get its message out.

But as at Friday 30 June – nearly three weeks after that endorsement, with a weekend to come – neither the shire website home page nor its Facebook page contained so much as a hint of its “clear advocacy position” in any prominent position. 

Top to bottom: the shire’s Home page, tabs 1 (Popular), 2 (News) and 3 (Events); and the shire Facebook main page. No mention of the planning crisis, but fresh news – chief operating officer Alison Leighton’s resignation got a run.

shire 2 - newsThe new laws hand many development applications, some valued up to $1million, directly to council chief executives, over the heads of councillors, who have no role in the decisions. The laws also remove neighbours’ existing rights to object, either to the council or to VCAT, the state planning tribunal.

Introduction of these “VicSmart” laws began in early January this year, fast-tracking minor matters such as boundary alignments and fences, but has already burgeoned to include million-dollar commercial developments and rural projects up to $500,000.

Shire 3 - eventsThe state government is also having state planning laws rewritten so they reflect the VicSmart rules, meaning all the state’s planning rules may exclude residents and councillors from planning decisions. Such an outcome would exceed developers’ wildest dreams, especially coming from a Labor government planning minister.

Growing community anger about these planning changes could be an unwelcome problem for federal opposition leader Bill Shorten as he prepares for a possible early federal election. His message to the electorate is strongly pro-battler – including rocketing house prices. Mr Wynne could be a big vote loser in Victoria.

Shire FacebookAnother possible change likely to be hugely unpopular is the zany Committee for Melbourne’s proposal that Melbourne become one massive municipality, stretching from the City of Hume in the north to the tip of the Mornington Peninsula in the south.

An alternative proposal is for Melbourne – including the Mornington Peninsula – merge into six giant municipalities.

This hush-hush six-council plan is currently under way. It involves council CEOs (including shire CEO Carl Cowie) but no councillors or other elected officials, as far as Bandicoot has been able to discover.

This puts Mr Cowie on what Bandicoot fervently trusts are the not-too-painful horns of a pro/anti-councillor dilemma.

On one hand Mr Cowie is publicly leading a councillor-approved campaign against undemocratic new planning laws that no doubt many council planners would embrace, since it cuts out two of the banes of their lives – angry ratepayers and meddling councillors.

On the other hand he is privately involved in a secret council amalgamation scheme that would enhance and amplify the power and importance of six lucky CEOs and further dilute ratepayer power.

Mr Cowie, as CEO, will approve the shire letter seeking wide support to oppose the VicSmart changes, as well as other changes, under planning Amendment VC110, which became law in late March with no public consultation, in particular the crucial matter of maximum building height in certain residential areas, or zones.

■ VicSmart removes the existing requirement to advertise planning applications by way of a yellow notice on the affected property’s boundary. It also removes neighbours’ right to object to the planned development and their right to appeal a CEO-approved development to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

■ The other changes, made under Amendment VC110 of the state planning provisions – raise the permissible height of residential buildings from two to three storeys in some residential zones and approves more intensive development – more dwellings per block – in certain residential zones.

More than 24,000 blocks of residential land across the peninsula are now susceptible to three-storey dwellings, most of them in Mornington/Mt Martha, Rosebud/Capel Sound and Hastings/Somerville.

The state planning department states Amendment VC110 is aimed at coping with the massive anticipated growth of metropolitan Melbourne, estimated to grow from 4.5 million to 8 million by 2051, and regional growth from 1.4 million to 2.1 million.

It treats the Mornington Peninsula as part of Melbourne – ignoring the peninsula’s shire-specific planning scheme, which acknowledges its unique attributes and the consequences of encouraging a steep population rise on infrastructure such as roads, electricity supply and sewerage, and an almost total absence of public transport south of Frankston.

While the department states the amendment was a “response” to a report from the Managing Residential Development Advisory Committee, that report did not recommend the three-storey height that Mr Wynne has imposed on some residential zones, including those on the peninsula.

Planning experts, including Professor Michael Buxton, head of RMIT University’s school of global, urban and social studies, are deeply concerned by the changes.

Professor Buxton told a packed meeting at Hastings on 22 June that VicSmart, originally designed to get minor planning matters through council in 10 days, “is dumb”.

“I love the way governments, whenever they want to do something dumb, call it ‘smart’,” he said.

“The government has talked to the industry in terms such as ‘We’re going to free planning up, we’re going to get rid of red tape.’ Whenever I hear ‘We’re going to get rid of red tape’ I want to yell from the rooftops, because that’s a cover-up for ‘We want to give over the planning system to the development community’.”

Professor Buxton urged Mornington Peninsula Shire to take “a couple of really important steps” to protect the area from rampant development:

■ Formulate a mandatory regional statement with a powerful strategic framework stating that the current state policy to protect areas such as the Mornington Peninsula is woeful, that the shire needs the policy to be revised to include very clear statements about the need to protect the values of this area.

■ Declare this area a food bowl, or part of Melbourne’s food bowl.

“Adelaide has just done this,” he said. “The South Australian government, instead of looking at an Urban Growth Boundary, to stop the urban area [intruding] into the rural area, declared the non-urban areas – biodiversity, food production, high scenic landscapes – sacrosanct.

“They put a line around the rural values (such as the Barossa Valley), including the townships, and said, ‘Hands off!’ ”

The peninsula is the second most productive agricultural area in Victoria, Professor Buxton said.

On the prospect of a mega-Melbourne, or a Melbourne comprising six huge councils, a former member of Parliament who did not wish to be named said:

This is indeed a terrible proposal. It is straight out of the big end of town playbook – amalgamate councils to reduce the say of local residents and increase the power of property developers.”

Other side-effects of such merging “are that election campaigns become much more expensive, freezing out inspired civic-minded amateurs and increasing the involvement of political parties and would-be parliamentarians”.

Smaller councils are less careless of ratepayers’ money and more inclined to stick to the traditional roles of local government, the former MP said. “And they are closer to their voters.”