Streamlined or autocratic? Minister’s planning powers gradually grow

Victoria’s planning minister Richard Wynne has amassed unprecedented powers, approvals and oversight over the state’s planning system.

Power has been taken away from local authorities to expedite the development process for state projects including the Homes Victoria public housing renewal scheme and the Suburban Rail Loop. Meanwhile, there has been an increase in special control overlays where developers can request state intervention.

Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne’s increased powers have drawn scrutiny.Credit:Eamon Gallagher

Mr Wynne has defended the increase in his powers as necessary to get major projects off the ground. However, critics warn local and community interests are being usurped.

Melbourne planning veteran Michael Buxton, a former professor at RMIT and Monash universities, said the new powers were “autocratic” and allowed the government to impose major projects and higher density developments onto large sections of Melbourne.

He pointed to the Suburban Rail Loop legislation, which gave planning control for all land along the 90-kilometre loop to a non-planning agency within the government.

“It’s a fundamental change as it will lead to a multi-centred Melbourne with all these large activity centres based around suburban rail loop stations,” Mr Buxton said.

The minister for the Suburban Rail Loop, Jacinta Allan (left), under the elevated rail near Clayton Station.Credit:Joe Armao

Mr Wynne has also exercised his powers by calling in five matters under the Heritage Act over the past five years, whereas his predecessor Matthew Guy only intervened under the legislation once.

The Planning Minister declined to be interviewed by The Age but said in a written statement the government had to balance building for Victoria’s needs with consulting councils and communities.

“Our long-standing position to fast-track important projects with demonstrable benefits to our community, like level crossing removals, schools, ambulance stations and disability tram stops, means we can deliver these projects more quickly,” he said.

“New state project provisions require public consultation, including consultation with relevant public authorities and the municipal council before a development commences.”

Mr Buxton’s criticism of Mr Wynne came after the pair had a falling out following years of working closely together on planning reforms.

Planning experts agree there has been an expansion of the minister’s powers, but whether this is positive or negative is debatable.

Melbourne Centre for Cities director Professor Michele Acuto said there could be problems with an accelerated pathway to the public sector.

“But on the other hand, the government has made some pretty sizeable infrastructure investments, so we have to give that to them,” he said.

Urban designer Andy Fergus said there was a time and place for appropriate state intervention where projects crossed multiple municipal boundaries or there was a clear public interest at play, such as social housing projects.

Planning veteran Michael Buxton has criticised the increase in powers as extraordinary. Credit:Josh Robenstone

“When it comes to projects where the public benefit is less clear, then it becomes questionable to me,” he said. “I do worry about perpetuating the idea that local communities don’t have a role to play in planning. I think there’s already huge suspicion in the Victorian community towards planning because of its ineffectiveness over the past 20 or so years.”

Developer lobby group the Property Council of Australia was supportive of the move to more of a “one-stop shop” for the private sector to engage with government through the planning process.

“If the private sector isn’t able to deal directly with government in a really efficient way it makes it really unattractive to come along and invest,” Victorian executive director Danni Hunter said.

However, local councils and community groups have expressed frustration at being sidelined on major developments.

Melbourne Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece wants more debate on planning reforms.Credit:Luis Ascui

City of Melbourne Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece said the new major projects powers excessively limited the local community’s ability to have proper input. However, he acknowledged the strong public support for the government’s “Big Build”.

“The removal of local planning powers around the Homes Victoria program is pretty egregious, but on the other hand some local councils seem incapable of having a mature debate about community housing development,” he said.

Cr Reece said it was worth scrutinising the minister’s increased powers, and any changes must not be allowed to overtake the need for proper public oversight.

“It’s important that we continue to debate these things. Successive efforts to streamline the planning processes have a cumulative impact.”

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