«December 2011 Victorian Planning System Ministerial Advisory Committee Initial Report. Geoff Underwood, Chair. Catherine Heggen, Member. David ...»
Long standing problems often remain unresolved, as new issues arise with increased complexity and volume. For many stakeholders within the system what were once minor problems, have now become major hindrances. For example, a number of the submissions point to the lack of response to retail policy issues in Victoria, with the more recent review, that commenced in 2007, still not implemented or publicly reported. The failure to determine an appropriate retail strategy for the development of retail centres, has lead to an ad hoc approach to planning decisions that rely on clear direction.
Many of the submissions also make reference to the failure to come to a conclusion on other review projects such as the car parking provisions review, which is currently being reviewed again.
KEY FINDING DPCD’s Planning Role The Committee considers that the role of DPCD should be reviewed and appropriate structural and management changes be made to instil a high standard of leadership and advocacy of state strategies and policies.
7.4 Local Government’s Planning Role The leadership role of local councils is vital in the current planning system. The Committee supports the role of local councils in undertaking strategic planning for their communities and their contribution to strategic planning at the regional level.
In the submissions, Local Government was criticised for the way it handles and carries out its role as the planning authority and the responsible authority.
7.4.1 Delegation of Decision Making Powers Councillors are elected for four year terms. At the commencement of their term councillors are required to prepare a Council Plan that will outline the strategic objectives of the municipality for the four year term.
Upon commencing their term, apart from having to develop a Council Plan, councillors are suddenly expected to absorb a number of other key documents and policies. Some of these important documents include the Municipal Budget, the Strategic Resource Plan, the Municipal Health Plan and most importantly the Municipal Strategic Statement and associated Planning Scheme.
There is a great expectation placed on a person who may have been elected for the first time, often on a single issue, to obtain an immediate comprehension of the plethora of polices and strategies that have been developed by a municipality, with linkages into a similar number of State Government policies and objectives. This expectation is made greater by the requirement for that person to practically use the system and be involved in a complex decision making process upon election.
It is therefore not surprising that many councillors do not have knowledge of the MSS for their relevant municipality, let alone some of the more complex aspects of the planning controls. It may be unreasonable to expect a councillor to have a clear comprehension of such a complex system and associated structures.
A number of submittors suggest that the involvement of councillors in the planning permit process is unnecessary and without any obvious benefit and increases the time required to process an application.
Some submittors suggest that a system of centralised decision making, removing the need for councillors involvement in the decision making process, would create significant efficiencies within the planning system.
Some submissions question whether the current system that allows councillor intervention in day to day planning matters adds any value to the planning
system or potentially creates significant blockages within the system itself and leads to inconsistent decision making. For example, Submission No. 209 put
forward by Stuart Strachan, makes the following observation:
“There is a lack of understanding, perhaps even a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude by Councillors, when they are in the role of an application review body. When they determine a planning application, on politically opportunistic grounds, the result may take decades before the land use fully returns to its intended strategic use.” It is evident from the PPAR that there is currently a relatively high level of delegation in decision making. For instance, according to the latest statistics from the PPAR, 96% of applications are decided under delegation. Under the current Act, there is provision for a Development Assessment Committee Committee to be established and receive delegated authority to determine planning permit applications. This Committee notes that only one municipality has established a Development Assessment Committee to date.
The Committee also notes that the policy of the current government is to remove and dismantle the provisions relating to the Development Assessment Committee and to establish a Planning Referral Authority. Under this proposal there will be an ability for a council to delegate planning responsibilities to such a body for a part of the municipality or a class of applications.
However, under existing legislation there is significant scope for a council to devolve decision making powers to committees which they establish or to a senior officer. The Committee endorses the principle of delegated decision making.
The introduction of Code Assess and potentially the streaming of planning applications discussed in Part 10.1.1 of this report will increase efficiencies.
The PPAR identifies a range of performance benchmarks for planning permit activity across the State. However, there is also an added dimension to planning governance at the local level which is not borne out in the PPAR.
While there are likely to be reasonable differing opinions in relation to planning proposals, a number of submissions and even some council officers note that planning was too susceptible to local political influence. In some cases, councillors played to the gallery or made decisions focussing on a vocal group of individuals comprising a relatively small part of the community.
It is of course important not to tar all Local Government with the same brush.
Overall, those submissions which comment on this issue sought a greater level of professionalism from councils and specifically from councillors. Perhaps for this reason, some submissions seek to remove planning powers from local councils, with a preference for these powers to be vested in a metropolitan
planning authority or a particular officer within council. Those responsible for the planning system at a local level should be mindful of such calls as they generally gain strength from the conduct of poor performers.
7.4.2 Local Government as Planning Authority Local Government performs an integral function within the planning system as a planning authority. In its role as a planning authority, council has the dual role of setting the strategic direction through the Municipal Strategic Statement and amending, where necessary, this strategic direction through various planning scheme amendments.
The planning authority role of council is supported by some of the submissions and criticised by others. Many see councils as being well placed to deal with planning scheme amendments of a strategic nature. Criticism in relation to councils as a planning authority usually relates to the failure of council to maintain a regime of strategic planning or the failure of councils to deal with amendments in a timely manner.
In relation to the first criticism, a number of submissions have indicated that councils have not undertaken the necessary strategic planning to update their planning schemes with relevant studies, policies or structure plans. This criticism would appear to be valid, as many of the submissions put forward by councils themselves indicate that attempting to maintain an up to date suite of policies and strategies is almost impossible.
The Committee also heard from a number of councils that the review process for their MSS had not occurred since the original MSS’s were developed over a decade ago. This is despite the Act requiring the MSS to be periodically reviewed.
The second comment in relation to Local Government’s role as a planning authority is with regard to the time it takes to deal with an individual planning scheme amendment. The planning scheme amendment process is a laborious one.
Submittors argue that the length of this process is often extended out in the pre exhibition period of time through the various reports, studies and additional work that is required by councils. This issue is highlighted by the submission put forward by the Appropriate Development for Boronia Group (Submission No.
“The frustration experienced by Boronia residents over the lack of progress in the last five years is beyond belief.” Further criticism is levelled at councils as a planning authority, when council goes through a planning scheme amendment and, at the end, upon receiving a
panel report, refuses to adopt the recommendations of the panel. This criticism about indefinite time frames and lack of consistency in the process is
highlighted in the Urbis submission (Submission No. 216):
“The current Planning Scheme Amendment process is unclear for proponents, with little structure around timeframes or certainty around decision making processes. Industry concerns regarding the Planning Scheme Amendment process are well documented in the Modernising Victoria’s Planning Act Response Paper 2 (2009). We
concur with these issues, which can be summarised as follows:
The current process is lengthy with no statutory time frames.
The amendment can be abandoned by Council at any time.
There is no appeal process if the amendment is abandoned by Council.
The DPCD authorisation of the amendment can take considerable time and often focuses on details.
The same process applies for all amendments, regardless whether amendment is to correct a planning scheme anomaly or implement a broad strategic vision.” It also may be argued that councils’ role as a planning authority is directly impacted upon by the lack of direction coming from the Department in relation to state wide policies.
7.4.3 Local Government as Responsible Authority The role of Local Government as a responsible authority is discussed widely in submissions. The comments ranged from praise to criticism. Some councils were identified as being too political. Others were seen as pro development or anti development. The issue for this Committee however is the leadership role of Local Government. Some submittors noted that local councils have had to take a leadership role in certain areas where there has not been sufficient guidance provided at a state level. This is particularly so on issues such as sustainability, accessibility and climate change.
Some councils were singled out for showing leadership in improving the permit application processes. Glen Eira City Council and the City of Greater Dandenong were noted as councils that had taken an initiative in streamlining planning permit applications within the parameters of the current Act and planning scheme. From the Committee's own enquiries it was also apparent that Darebin City Council has also shown initiative in improving processes within current constraints.
A number of submittors commented on the desirability of having decision making at a local level by local representatives. Others submitted that decision making should be centralised into a metropolitan responsible authority.
Overall, the Committee endorses the role of councils as ‘responsible authority’, recognising the importance of administering and enforcing the planning scheme at a local level. The Committee considers this to be a fundamental part of the Victorian planning system that should not change. Rather, it is the way that planning applications are dealt with that needs to improve.
Local government has a critical leadership role in strategic planning for their communities and for efficiently and effectively administering their planning responsibilities.
The Committee believes that a reduction in the requirement for council to consider routine planning permit applications through a range of streamlining measures, will allow councils to focus on the important task of developing strategic planning policy.
KEY FINDINGS Local Government’s Planning Role The Committee believes local councils have a key role in the planning system
The number of times a council needs to make a decision in a planning scheme amendment process should be reviewed;
The council’s primary role in strategic planning should be given more emphasis. The focus should be the setting of strategic goals and objectives for a municipality;
Encouragement should be given to establishing bodies that enable a council to delegate decision making powers on selected matters; and At the beginning of any four year term, and throughout the term, councillors should undertake training in the planning system.
7.5 The Role of VCAT VCAT was established under the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act
1998. The Planning and Environment list forms part of VCAT. This list hears and decides applications by permit applicants, objectors and others in an informal manner and in a ‘non court’ environment. It allows a broad range of people whose interests are affected by a decision to participate in a hearing.
The Planning and Environment List hears and determines applications to review decisions made by Councils and other authorities; applications for enforcement orders, applications to cancel or amend permits and applications
for declarations relating to the use and/or development of land under the Planning and Environment Act 1987.
VCAT operates on the basis that each party to a proceeding bears its own costs. In this context it is an accessible forum to a wide range of stakeholders in the planning process.
The Planning and Environment List considered 3,326 matters in the year 2009 2010 and is under increasing pressure to maintain timely listing and hearing schedules.
VCAT is an essential component of Victoria’s planning system.
Many submissions to the Committee addressed to the processes and associated costs and delays experienced once a matter is referred to VCAT.