Planning ministers in Victoria have a habit of trying to cut corners and then coming unstuck.

The current minister, Matthew Guy, finished last week dogged by a lawsuit stemming from his September 2011 decision to rezone a piece of Phillip Island farmland for housing, and the subsequent back-flip in the face of a storm of publicity. Yet a decision about big-box retailing earlier in the week, seemingly of interest only to urban planning nerds and the business interests directly affected, may haunt him for longer.

Guy has reason to be familiar with the perils and benefits of planning on the run. He benefited greatly from the mishandling by his Labor predecessor, Justin Madden, of the planning process surrounding the redevelopment of the historic Windsor Hotel. Yet Guy’s chief-of-staff, Meg Bartel, was also chief-of-staff for the Kennett-era minister Robert Maclellan. Maclellan was notoriously and unapologetically interventionist, and despite the ultimate fate of the Kennett government, his “can-do” attitude mostly benefited him politically.

History since then has not been so kind to Victorian planning ministers when they attempt to fast-track or cut corners, however. Labor minister Mary Delahunty, for example, expedited redevelopment of the Hilton Hotel in East Melbourne to allow the refurbishment before the 2006 Commonwealth Games, only to have the Supreme Court of Victoria find that “no rational minister could have believed that a building such as that proposed … was likely to have been completed in time for the Commonwealth Games”.

Madden’s own brush with hotel redevelopment was even more damaging. In that case a media adviser mistakenly sent a media plan to the ABC foreshadowing release of an independent report supporting the proposed Windsor redevelopment, which would be used to galvanise community opposition ahead of a seemingly pre-ordained refusal. The refusal, it was suggested, could then be flagged as an example of “listen[ing] to community views”.

It was appallingly cynical, and the resulting outcry was ultimately completely unnecessary, since Madden could easily have achieved his objectives without the intrigue. The lesson for all from the Windsor case should have been that transparency and due process do not only lead to better planning outcomes: they are also far less risky politically.

Interviewed by myself and the other then-editors of industry journal Planning News before the election, Matthew Guy seemed to have absorbed this lesson:

“… one of the issues I found astounding about that whole Windsor affair was that if the government had come out and been frank and honest about what had occurred at the very start there would have been almost no issue to follow on for almost the next seven or eight months. And it’s always the case that the cover up or the denial creates the issue rather than being open and frank and admitting that there was a problem.”

Part of that cover-up had been preventing the media adviser in question from fronting inquiries, effectively making them a shield for the minister. In the same interview Guy promised a more transparent approach if he became minister:

Planning News: In the Kennett era there was a lot of criticism of the Liberal government about lack of transparency.  Just to be clear, you’re saying things like political and media advice, those sorts of people would be required to appear before inquiries, and that media plans would be required to be made available?

Matthew Guy: Both. We’ve said both.

Those claims seem hollow, now, as the fallout from the Phillip Island rezoning continues. In that case the departmental report justifying the original decision contradicts crucial aspects of the minister’s original reasoning: he cited housing affordability, while the report noted there was adequate land supply on the island. Echoing Madden’s deflection of scrutiny, Matthew Guy has subsequently refused to release two earlier versions of the report that might shed light on his thought process.

The situation is strikingly similar to the Windsor affair, with both involving an apparent backdown in the face of embarrassing publicity, and the minister seeming throughout to be driven by public opinion rather than planning merit. Like Madden before him, Guy has been left looking stubborn and foolish, waiting for the media scrutiny to move on, and with only the flimsiest of arguments to justify his position in the meantime.

The Phillip Island situation is notable for the indefensibleness of the original decision, and the tale it tells — well chronicled by The Age on Saturday — of the connections of those seeking the rezoning. Yet the good news story Guy created for himself earlier last week saw him privileging business interests over planning process in a manner that has far more wide-reaching implications.

The announcement related to apparently arcane changes to the planning controls around bulky goods retailing, which Guy was pitching as a win for business.  Speaking at a Baby Bunting shop, Guy had orchestrated a chorus of approving voices for the announcement. The Bulky Goods Retailers Association congratulated the minister, as did an alliance of retailers including Beacon Lighting, Officeworks, and Petstock. (Nobody else could make informed comment on the day, because the full details of the amendment were not released until later in the week.)

The changes relate to a long-standing policy debate. Bulky goods retailers have long been given special treatment in the state’s planning schemes, as a concession to their needs for larger display and loading areas. Unlike other retailers, so-called “restricted retailing” is able to locate in industrial areas from which other shops are banned.To prevent abuse of this commercial advantage, only retailers selling a certain range of goods can be considered as restricted retailing, and the shops were subject to minimum floorspace limitations: generally, a shop had to be at least 1000 square metres in area. Both controls were aimed at ensuring that bulky goods retailers genuinely needed a large floor area, to avoid a wider flight of retailers to cheap industrial land.

The changes Guy announced last week reviewed both safeguards. The definition listing goods that could be sold was widened, and the floorspace requirement was completely removed. The changes will be a bonanza for one particular sector of the retail industry at the expense of the others, and is likely to entrench the shift of retailing away from traditional centres into big-box centres at fringe locations.

What is striking about the decision is how blatantly it flies in the face of ongoing strategic work. The Department of Planning and Community Development is still at least nominally running a Retail Policy Review, initiated in the era of the previous Labor government. The question of how to deal with bulky goods retailing was central to that study.

Guy had a swipe in his press release at former minister Madden for not completing that review, but Guy hasn’t finished it either. It now exists as a rather forlorn page on the DPCD website, with the most recent release being a discussion paper from October 2008. Many interest groups and councils had spent time preparing submissions to that review in good faith.

The discussion paper acknowledges the pressure created by the privileged treatment of restricted retail, noting that “there is significant concern about the increasing number of ‘non bulky’, high-value goods on sale at restricted retail premises (such as small household electrical goods) which were traditionally sold from in-centre locations”.

The classic example of this is a shop such as JB Hi-Fi, which sells some bulky goods but in practice makes much of its revenue from small items such as CDs, DVDs, cameras, and phones.

The discussion paper proposed to maintain the then-existing list of restricted retail goods, and to prohibit any new restricted retail in industrial zones. If retailers wanted to set up in such areas, they would need to pursue a rezoning of the land. That rezoning process could then include a proper analysis of whether there was a shortage of viable alternative sites in business-zoned land that could support the use.

At that point, it seems, the review got too hard, and has not publicly progressed any further. Yet Guy’s announcement last week has pre-empted one of the key issues that it was supposed to resolve. What’s more, it headed in the opposite direction to that suggested by the review’s existing work, by loosening rather than tightening controls.

The ramifications are wider than that, however. One of the key challenges that the minister must confront in the coming year is a review of Melbourne’s metropolitan strategy, to replace the Labor era documents Melbourne 2030 and Melbourne@5 Million. Activity centre strategy will be at the core of that work.

Successive metropolitan strategy documents have supported concentrating retail and employment uses in designated activity centres. This facilitates better provision of transport and allows more genuinely multipurpose centres.

Guy’s changes cut against those objectives by increasing the scope for retailers to locate at remote out-of-centre locations. Such premises are likely to be accessible only by car, and by their very nature do not serve the wide range of roles that traditional community hubs do.

The losers commercially are those retailers left out of the “restricted retailing” club. As the restricted retailing category widens, those businesses still paying premium rents in traditional centres are placed at a further disadvantage. Industry, meanwhile, will now see more pressure on limited industrial land.

The bulky goods changes therefore cut against one the core objectives of established metropolitan strategy, before the review of that strategy has even taken place. The Retail Policy Review itself is now hopelessly compromised. The only justification Guy has offered — beyond a press release that makes repeated incantation-like use of the word “sensible” — is a painfully thin explanatory report. It is shoot-from-the-hip policy development at its worst.

The Phillip Island debacle will continue to generate the obvious headlines. Yet Guy’s bulky goods reforms will seriously constrain his fundamental policy work an ongoing basis. They are an even more telling demonstration that Guy has not learnt the lessons from his predecessors.

After all, when the minister announces a policy change surrounded by representatives of the benefiting interest groups, but without completing the underlying studies, it all becomes a little too obvious.

At that point, he’s not even pretending to plan any more.

Stephen Rowley is an urban planner working in local government, and former co-editor of Planning News. He writes on urban planning matters at