Architects play a vital role in crafting our cities one building at a time. However they are just one player within an ecosystem of professionals, bureaucrats and politicians that are actively shaping our built environment. In a booming city such as Melbourne, new building proposals are being unfurled on a daily basis. The decisions about what gets built and what doesn’t often rest with the local council and in particular the Councilors on that council, who ultimately vote yes or no for a building.
These democratically elected Councilors have a very difficult task. They are presented with a set of planning application plans and series of expert reports from the proponent. Accompanying this documentation is a further report prepared by the Council’s in house planning experts which provides a recommendation to either refuse the project or grant the permit with conditions. The Councilors also need to weigh up the evidence of any objectors to a proposal.
To get a view from the other side of a planning permit, I put some questions to Cr Rohan Leppert from the City of Melbourne. Cr Leppert is the Chair of the Arts and Culture portfolio and Deputy Chair of the Finance and Governance Portfolio. He has a background in music but is also very well versed in politics having managed the successful federal election campaign for Adam Bandt MP.
Red + Black Architect – What do you look for in a good planning application? What makes a proposal a good building?
Cr Rohan Leppert – Our planning scheme does need constant review and improvement in line with community expectations, but a good planning application still must meaningfully respond to the various policies in the Melbourne Planning Scheme. I love seeing proposals come through the Council agenda which go far above and beyond the minimum requirements with regards to the provision of green open space, or of energy and efficiency design requirements, or of outstanding architectural design.
R+BA – Are there any general guidelines given to new Councillors about how they should evaluate planning applications, balancing the wishes of residents and the recommendations of the planning department?
Cr RL –Surprisingly little! There are some general guidelines available, but there was no training for new Councillors (in my Council at least) at the beginning of the term. And so it has ended up that Councillors interpret their responsibilities to assess planning applications under the Planning and Environment Act very differently. This is a real oversight I think, and it’s because of this lack of understanding of the role that some Councillors (in my opinion) vote for or against a planning application for reasons irrelevant to the planning scheme and the set down assessment process. There is definitely room for more training and better guidelines for new Councillors; after all, our decisions help shape the city – literally – and determine the amenity and value of private property. Our decisions need to be fair in law.
R+BA – There has been some recent controversy about an application which offered new public space in exchange for being allowed to overshadow the Yarra River. How did you decide which civic outcome had greater importance?
Cr RL –The decision to support the planning scheme amendment to allow a Collins Street tower to overshadow the Yarra Southbank was a hotly contested one. I spoke strongly against it. Arguments for the support focused on the developer’s commitment to building more public open space than they would otherwise have been required to (the addition being more than 1,000sqm) right in the heart of the city. Arguments against focused on the overshadowing of the Yarra Southbank and, importantly, the precedent that supporting this planning scheme amendment would set.
The debate therefore wasn’t simply about the new public open space versus the diminished value of the Yarra Southbank due to overshadowing. The decision, in my view, was akin to telling every developer in town that ‘sacrosanct’ rules in the planning scheme can be got around; that mandatory planning controls aren’t mandatory at all; and that if you buy property in the City expecting a certain level of amenity, too bad – Government will just change the rules.
R+BA – In what circumstances do you think Councillors should vote against the recommendations of the council’s planning report?
Cr RL –It’s a complicated question. It’s not enough to overturn the officer recommendation simply due to overwhelming community opposition to that recommendation; the Planning and Environment Act doesn’t work that way. There needs to be a justifiable planning reason to do so – if the officers have recommended a permit, and the Council has overturned this and determined instead to refuse a permit, the reason for refusal will almost always be aggressively interrogated at VCAT; it therefore needs to be a solid reason. There are quite a few planning applications which come before our Council which require permits under relatively subjective clauses in the planning scheme; it is often much easier to arrive at a different conclusion to the planning officer on these applications because there aren’t any ‘right answers’ under the Act in these cases. I have voted to overturn the officer recommendation a few times, often in line with community sentiment, but I have made sure that in every instance of this I have been confident that my reasons for voting have a defensible justification under the Melbourne Planning Scheme, and a good chance of surviving tribunal.
One of the most frustrating things I see at Council from time to time is when a Councillor will vote to overturn a planning officer recommendation but not give any justification for doing which is relevant to the planning system. A politically savvy move, perhaps, but it’s an abrogation of duty if it’s not backed up with a defensible justification.
R+BA – Many people are alarmed at the number of very tall buildings being approved within the CBD. What is your view on the approval process of these towers and the transformation of our city?
Cr RL – I have no qualms with height per se, and am generally committed to urban renewal at the expense of an ever expanding urban growth boundary, but I have serious concerns about the vast tracts of land in the central city which have very broad brush planning guidance, rather than clear controls. The abundance of discretionary built form controls, in particular, has led to some shocking tower approvals in some areas, and there is overwhelming evidence that ‘discretionary’ and ‘preferred’ built form controls are resulting in very different outcomes to those expected by the communities who have worked so hard with Government to develop area Structure Plans. The discretionary controls would be much more effective if the built form which goes beyond the stated preferred height, or tower separation, or setback provision, etc, comes with tangible benefits. The current system, however, doesn’t require that – and so the preferred heights, separations and setbacks are often ignored. That’s before I even get to internal design: there have been quite a number of Southbank, CBD and Docklands towers approved in the last few years of remarkably poor quality!
The process for assessing the largest buildings is highly problematic – the ‘25,000sqm rule’ sees the Minister become the Responsible Authority, and that instantly puts the entire assessment and decision-making process in the hands of one person, behind closed doors. Transparency in decision making is an important means of discouraging poor decisions from being made, and I have no doubt that the shape of our city would be different – and more care given to that question – if the Planning Minister’s decision making processes were more transparent. I also have a pretty strong objection in general to decisions of such importance being made by an individual rather than by a collective.
R+BA – Parkville is to be decimated under the State Government’s East West link, given that this suburb is within the City of Melbourne boundaries, what scope does the council have to influence the finer details of the project, such as the new car park and educational centre in Royal Park?
Cr RL – As the East West Link project is approved under the Major Transport Projects Facilitation Act, which circumvents dozens of other Environment and Planning related Acts (for which we have the previous Labor Government to thank), Council’s usual influence is absent. Our influence to date, therefore, has mostly been the same as any other ‘third party’ – to submit to the Comprehensive Impact Statement process, to lobby State Ministers and, essentially, to protest. Council has done all of these things. We also have some respected and reputable experts on staff, which I understand have been able to informally influence some LMA (Linking Melbourne Authority) decisions at some level.
This process is, of course, highly anti-democratic, secretive and dangerously blunt.
The Minister for Roads, and the LMA, have both rejected the City of Melbourne’s request to be involved in the creation and scrutiny of the Development Plans for the East West Link as required by the overarching approval of the project issued by the Planning Minister.
I understand that the Planning Minister this week has confirmed that the new car park in Royal Park is not permitted to proceed. This is very welcome news.
Council will continue to express its opinion on the details of the project, as well as the project as a whole, where it is effective to do so. There are differing opinions among Councillors about this, of course, and my opinion that Council should be frequently addressing the East West Link project at our meetings is not one shared by some other Councillors.
R+BA – What are you most proud of in your time as a Councillor?
Cr RL – In the area of planning, I have made a series of significant changes to planning scheme amendment C190 (Arden Macaulay) and related proposals, in response to the overwhelming response from the community. In the space of a couple of months, with some persistent lobbying of my colleagues of course, I managed to secure a vastly different streetscape for Macaulay Road (effectively the entrance to Kensington), huge planning incentives for a new Government school in the western end of North Melbourne (which is already coming to fruition), a brand new park at the intersection of Rankins Rd and Eastwood St (an additional 1,400sqm of green public open space to add to the existing roundabout) and a requirement that development above the ‘preferred height limit’ and below the ‘maximum height limit’ return tangible community benefits above and beyond the other provisions of the planning scheme. All of this was in response to community submissions, and it is a significant package of reforms to the Arden Macaulay plans which I am proud of.
R+BA – How would you like to see our city develop in the next 20 years?
Cr RL – Sustainably! We need to dramatically reform the planning system so that communities have a more genuine say over the shape of their city, and can participate in strategic planning in a more deliberative and accessible way.
In inner Melbourne, I accept that growth is largely a given for the short and medium term, and that is the context we need to accept we are working in. The task for Government is to ensure that growth is planned, and planned in an integrated way. New populations require new public open space, new schools, new community infrastructure, new infrastructure full stop.
Our State Government in particular needs to tackle these planning challenges head on: I believe we need some quick leadership to finally pull Melbourne’s transport network into the 21st century and build a quality Melbourne Metro, and to clearly articulate a staged plan for the construction and proper staffing of new government schools in the inner city.
If we’re going to get on top of these planning challenges, we need to solve our revenue shortfalls. Victoria lags behind other States on developer contributions. As Melbourne experiences a development boom, some of the uplift in property values needs to be returned to the community so that we can maintain a quality education system and infrastructure networks.
R+BA – Do you have a favorite building in Melbourne?
Cr RL – The Meat Market on Blackwood St in North Melbourne is a quirky, beautiful, grand old thing. It has gone from a meat market to an unusual artistic performance venue – and there’s a dedicated crowd of artists and audiences who love it for its unique place in Melbourne’s arts scene.
R+BA – Thank you for your time.
This discussion raises some interesting points for those who care about how our cities are shaped. Do we need to provide better resources to newly elected councilors such that they are more equipped to make the big decisions? How do we open up the really big planning decisions to greater transparency?
If you have strong views about how our city is developing make sure you speak up. Write to the papers, talk to your elected officials and most importantly engage in the debate.
Architecture is for Everyone