In May 2008, following 75 objections from residents, Stonnington Council refused an application from a neighbouring school to develop its land with a new school building that included an auditorium. The school is in a Residential 1 zone, the zone under the planning scheme that offers the highest degree of residential amenity. Following council’s refusal, the applicant sought a review at VCAT at which council strongly defended its position and the residents paid for representation to defend theirs.

In March this year, VCAT agreed with council and the residents and refused to grant the school a permit stating in its decision: “In our opinion, the design of a new school building on this site needs to start again having regard to its interfaces with, and amenity impacts upon, the surrounding residential properties”.

But then the Education Revolution arrived.

In June, council received correspondence from the Department of Planning and Community Development notifying it that, despite VCAT’s refusal and vindicated opposition from residents and the council, the school had asked the Minister for Planning to approve its application for development under Amendment VC56. Amendment VC56 was introduced to the Victorian Planning Scheme in May and allows schools funded under the federal government’s Building the Education Revolution Fund to bypass the planning system when developing their sites.

The minister’s media release talks about slashing red tape and fast-tracking applications that may otherwise take 18 months to get through the system. It doesn’t mention facilitating applications that have already been through the system and been unsuccessful.

In another case, the state government earlier this year introduced legislation into Parliament for the creation of development assessment committees, government-stacked decision-making bodies that would determine development applications in major shopping centres, thus removing that responsibility from councils. Under this legislation, council would be required to fund the bulk of the administration for the committee and, even if council disagreed with the committee’s decision, would have to pay to defend that decision at VCAT.

Following a vocal media campaign and protests from councillors and residents the legislation was rejected in the Upper House in June.

But during its second term in government the Victorian ALP changed the constitution and created a Disputes Resolution Committee. Any Bill that fails in the Upper House can be referred to the Disputes Resolution Committee, where it is reviewed and amendments made before being reintroduced into Parliament. Under the charter of the Disputes Resolution Committee all discussions must take place in secret and no consultation with outside parties may occur.

Once the Dispute Resolution Committee has made its amendments and the Bill has been reintroduced into Parliament, both houses have little choice but to approve it or trigger an early election. On September 15, the Development Assessment Committee Bill was reintroduced into state parliament. On  October 13 it will be debated by the Upper House and, presumably, passed. Once again, completely disregarding the umpire’s decision in June.

Planning in this state no longer operates under this system of fairness. Under the auspice of stimulating the economy and creating jobs the Minister for Planning can, at the stroke of a pen, overturn the umpire’s decision.

In all the political hype surrounding the need to act decisively to combat the global financial crisis lest we all end up in rags, many are losing sight of the fact that many of the developments being approved by the minister will not come online for years.

They may create jobs, yes, but in 2012 when the global financial crisis is a blip on Australia’s economic historical radar.

It’s time for residents to sit up and take notice. In our busy lives, political debate can become nothing more than white noise unless you’re directly affected.

The current problem with planning in Victoria is that unless residents start entering the debate, informing themselves of the changes to the system and strongly voicing their opposition, they could find themselves directly affected sooner than they think and there won’t be a thing they or their councils can do about it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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