By Cr David Clark, President of the Municipal Association of Victoria

Major planning reform is coming, and Victorian councils not only understand this, they are also embracing it.

A fit for purpose planning system

Councils have been calling for system-wide improvements for years. The Planning and Environment Act is now 36 years old and despite updates to the edges along the way, Victoria deserves a planning system that clearly articulates what our growing communities need today and tomorrow.

Both the State Government and councils are critical players in planning. It is essential reform is designed in partnership by both levels of government and that it outlines clearly both levels’ respective roles.

A genuine partnership on reform will go a long way to ensuring we have a planning system that is fit for purpose and delivers on community expectations and the infrastructure individual communities require.

As the level of government that deals with the overwhelming majority of planning applications (as well as having input into all) we urge the State Government to tap into the technical expertise and local knowledge that councils and council officers, as subject matter experts on planning, hold.

Community input has been a strength of the Victorian planning system for decades and has helped deliver better development outcomes. Communities need to have confidence that not only can they be heard, but that they have a meaningful place in the planning of their neighbourhood.

A legitimate partnership with councils is the best way of ensuring the reforms can tackle 21st century issues like climate change, and the housing affordability crisis.

Where does housing fit into all this?

Planning reform has hit the headlines because it has been linked to the housing affordability crisis across the country. In August, the National Cabinet announced a housing package that includes incentives for states if they can reform their planning systems to allow additional housing stock to be introduced.

Planning, however, is broader than just housing. The ultimate role of planning is to create a transparent, rules-based way to progress development towards a shared, community goal. Good planning delivers liveable, sustainable, and connected communities and balances the needs of future generations with those of current residents.

Councils support increasing density where it enhances community, however this needs nuance and diversity – in building types, and consideration of transport and employment options.

To deliver the housing Victorians need, the MAV would like to explore inclusionary zoning, mandatory social and affordable housing contributions, strategic planning that supports increased housing capacity, and economic levers to convert the current stockpile of approvals into supply.

It’s a falsehood that housing affordability problems are driven largely by hold ups in council planning decisions. House construction today is a private, for profit, undertaking. There are many issues driving the scarcity of housing which underlies the affordability crisis, including warehousing of permits, land banking by developers, infrastructure costs, and delivery and national tax settings – issues that planning reforms alone cannot fix.

The MAV is currently collecting data on this and early indications show a significant number of approved developments are not being built, simply because they are not profitable. Planning is not the obstacle that many loud voices – often with vested interests – claim it to be.

Acting on operation sandon recommendations

The chorus for planning reform has only increased with the long-awaited release of the IBAC’s special report into Operation Sandon.

Operation Sandon’s first recommendation clearly notes the need for all parties affected by the reform to be involved in its design and implementation. An important first step is for the MAV – as the peak body for local government – to be included on the Inter-departmental Taskforce, to be established, to coordinate the implementation of IBAC’s recommendations.

This would demonstrate a willingness to meaningfully engage with the local government sector and ensure council’s views are represented and considered in any change. Local Government will push for accountability, transparency, a place for the community to have a view, and decisions being made at the most appropriate level in reform. Independent planning panels are another key recommendation. The MAV sees merit in such panels, provided they are applied in a strategic manner.

What Operation Sandon does make clear is that transparency is key and it will not be acceptable to simply replace councils in the planning system with what is currently an opaque planning process at the state level. The MAV will seek that the planning powers of the state minister have the same principles applied to them as any applied to councils.

Sandon is only one part of the picture. Recent reports by Infrastructure Victoria, the Building Regulation Commission, and the Red Tape Commissioner all provide practical and sensible issues for consideration on broader planning reform.

Where to next?

Our message is clear. Councils and councillors are best placed to understand the needs of developing and changing communities, and this is assisted significantly when we are working to set, clear, goals. The best way to ensure the system continues to deliver is to have its subject matter experts at the table, so that planning is re-designed to provide the best possible outcomes for Victorian communities, both existing and future.

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