It’s not often that a cabinet minister voluntarily releases a large volume of sensitive departmental reports, so hats off to Victoria’s energetic Planning Minister Matthew Guy for what he did on Tuesday morning.

Seven weeks earlier, on September 7, Melbourne City Council unanimously passed a motion (see item 7.2) that “politely” requested the minister reveal what his bureaucrats were telling him to do on all these new skyscrapers he was approving in the world’s most livable city.

Lo and behold, Guy walked into Jon Faine’s ABC Melbourne studio on Tuesday morning and delivered a major data dump, declaring that it made him the most transparent planning minister in Victoria’s history. Indeed it does.

Councillors responded positively on Tuesday night, unanimously passing a resolution that they “welcome the minister’s positive response to council’s request for access to departmental reports on applications in the central city area where he is the responsible authority”.

The most surprising element of the 70 reports was that every single one of them approved by the minister were also recommended by the Planning Department.

This contrasts with the equivalent Melbourne City Council reports, which only supported 46 out of 70, as Guy noted in his press release.

The obvious conclusion is that Victoria’s Planning Department is staffed by officers with a very permissive and facilitative approach to development approvals. Indeed, many of them have worked in the development industry.

Just like the Australian Securities and Investments Commission’s approach to facilitate corporate transactions, Victoria’s state planners have a lot of informal back-and-forth communications with developers to try to secure a set of plans they can recommend to the minister. Until now, there has been very little visibility around this process.

One of the major upsides from the disclosure is that in an apartment market awash with an unprecedented pipeline of new supply, potential purchasers now have access to two independent reports from the council and the state government on the quality of each particular residential tower.

Sydney operates under a very different and more transparent regime, with a Central Sydney Planning Committee which that with all applications worth more than $50 million. The committee has three representatives from the council and four from the state government, including two former planning ministers in Craig Knowles (Labor) and Robert Webster (Liberal).

If you’re in Sydney tonight, you can see them work through this detailed agenda in public at Town Hall from 5pm tonight.

As was explained in Crikey on Monday, in four short years Victoria’s all-powerful Planning Minister has used his sole responsibility for applications above 25,000 square metres to approve what would historically be about 25 years’ worth of apartment supply in the City of Melbourne.

With such a high volume of approvals and with lower design standards than apply under Sydney’s planning regime, this new departmental information will prove useful for investors seeking to peer through the marketing guff of real estate agents.

One interesting theme in the Victorian reports is the lack of enthusiasm to levy much in the way of developer contributions to help fund local infrastructure that is required when land use is intensified.

Melbourne City Council has only extracted about $40 million from developers since a light-handed low tax regime was first introduced in 1988. In another example of transparency, every single contribution made by developers over the past 26 years will soon be released on the council’s website (see item 7.2 approved at the July 2014 council meeting).

Under the regime run by Clover Moore at the City of Sydney, developers have recently been averaging contributions of about $2 million per week.

This is one of the major differences between Australia’s two biggest cities. Sydney’s effective 1% tax on the total cost of a development has delivered hundreds of millions to council and helped build the strongest finances of any government in Australia. It has also made Clover Moore one of the few progressive Australian political leaders who has governed without relying on debt.

The City of Melbourne’s alternative has been to go a lot harder on parking, which is possible courtesy of streets that are generally 30 metres from building to building , compared with just 20 metres in Sydney.

But Melbourne has now hit “peak parking” such that ongoing total gross revenues of about $100 million a year is not regarded as sustainable into the future as more and more street space in Australia’s fastest-growing municipality will need to be turned over to pedestrians, cyclists and the world’s biggest tram network.

Indeed, during Tuesday night’s council meeting even a street trading permit was granted to Melbourne’s first pedicab operator.

* Stephen Mayne is a Melbourne City councillor.

Peter Fray

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