It is almost 1 year since the Andrews Labor Government swept to power in Victoria. As noted at the time, the 2014 election was dominated by built environment issues. The then Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, had recently rezoned Fishermans Bend had been given the title of ‘Mr Skyscraper’ from certain sections of the mainstream media. Tony Abbott was in the action too, by proclaiming the state election as ‘a referendum on the East West Link’. Architects, planners and urban design professionals were becoming increasingly frustrated, as experts were ignored and undermined by political ideology.
Enter a new Planning Minister, Richard Wynne.
After such a polarizing election, there is a lot of expectation about the new direction that is currently being navigated. Plan Melbourne, the strategic document that sets the agenda for the growth of Victoria’s Capital, is being given a refresh. Public transport is now back on the agenda, aided in no small part by the change in Prime Minister. Apartment standards are now being given serious and substantial attention.
Nearly 12 months into the job, Richard Wynne took the time to answer a broad spectrum of planning and built environment questions.
In part 1 of this interview, the Planning Minister fields questions on Plan Melbourne, the resolution of the East West Link planning approval and the progress on apartment design standards.
Red+Black Architect – To begin with, why does Plan Melbourne need a refresh? and what do you hope to achieve with the update plan?
Richard Wynne – We have just released the refresh, because when we came to Government, it was a clear to us that whilst Plan Melbourne had been subject to very extensive consultation, significant community input, submissions, and enormous public exposure, and essentially 75% of it was agreed in a bipartisan way, however there were three areas which were either deficient or in fact not addressed at all.
The first issue was climate change. There was no real mention, understanding or acknowledgement of climate change being obviously an issue for the cities.
The second issue was the major transport initiative was of course the East-West road tunnel, which is clearly no longer proceeding. We are unambiguously in the space of public transport, with the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel and the fifty level crossing removals which are our priority.
Thirdly, there was virtually no commentary on affordable housing. So having put the band back together, so to speak, with Roz Hanson and her crew, they looked at all those issues. They have now produced a a very balanced discussion paper that I hope gets good community traction.
R+BA – With urban sprawl continually absorbing substantial amounts of productive farmland, what do you think is needed for Melbourne to restrict the Urban Growth Boundary on a permanent basis regardless of the politics of the day?
RW – Plan Melbourne speaks to that question. We are very clear, our policy is that the urban growth boundary is not to be breeched. However, we have to face the challenge of housing another 100,000 people every year, year on year on year. That’s very significant so really what we would like to see is a community conversation about this.
Obviously our regional cities will have an important role to play. There is a very big appetite for people to enjoy the quality of life that attends to our regional cities, Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong, LaTrobe Valley. With the fast rail links now, many people commute in three days a week and work remotely a couple of days a week. So the regional cities have got a role to play.
Obviously our growth corridors have got a significant role to play. We’ve got fifteen years worth of zoned land with plenty of capacity. Our middle ring suburbs will also have to play a role.
And obviously our inner ring inner city central city areas, Fisherman’s Bend, the biggest urban renewal project in the country, E-Gate and Macaulay which will have the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel coming through. There are huge opportunities there as well.
The very significant shift in housing from stand alone dwellings to apartment style dwellings is not going to abate. It will be the new form of housing, particularly for young couples, but not just young couples, who in the past would have looked for a house in Parkville or wherever, will now be looking towards apartment style living when they are forming up into family formation.
R+BA – Is the planning approval for the East West Link still ‘active’ or has this now been removed?
RW – I have removed the overlays that were put in place for the East West Link. In addition to that, Heritage Victoria is addressing the issue of the heritage controls through Royal Park. They’re looking at it and considering the options now and will be reporting their findings in the coming weeks, prior to Christmas.
R+BA – The East West link was the first attempted use of the Major Transport Projects Facilitation Act 2009. One of the big criticisms of this process was the use of a ‘reference design’ during the planning approval process. The consequences of this meant that the final design was in fact quite different to what the public were led to believe. In Parkville for example, substantial additional buildings were included after approval for the project was already given. Do you think the East West Link debacle demonstrates a need for a revision to this legislation?
RW – Not necessarily, I think it’s a bit horses for courses. I think it’s a good piece of legislation where you have a clearly articulated project scope, for example, freeways in greenfields areas, where you are not dealing with the complexities you’re dealing with in say, East-West Link, as to how, in a built-up community you’re going to try to address these issues.
You may recall they at one point they had an exit going out onto Flemington Road into a T-intersection, which was complete madness. Proposed, I might say, by the City of Melbourne’s consultants who didn’t, in my view, clothe themselves in much glory in some of this.
So I think it’s good for some projects but it’s not good for others. Clearly it would work well on a major freeway through a greenfields area, but clearly it did not work as well in this context. Certainly with Melbourne Metro we are not taking that course of action. We’re going through a planning scheme amendment and an Environment Effects Statement (EES) process. So that will give full exposure and full public scrutiny of the project. This process allows for some flexibility, if something untoward has happened that was unforeseen in terms of the route and so forth.
R+BA – So using a ‘reference project’ for the planning approval process, instead of the actual proposed design, is acceptable?
RW – We don’t exclude it, but it would have to be on the basis of a good fit
R+BA – One of the most significant pieces of work your office has undertaken is in regards to the Better Apartments discussion paper. Where is that process at and what feedback have you received so far?
RW – We have had very significant feedback with over a thousand responses, which is sensational. We’re at the moment collating all of that work and I think we’ll be going out with some further options hopefully before the end of the year. It will be a case of “Ok, here’s what’s happened, let’s keep the conversation moving along” because we are working on reaching a conclusion probably in the first quarter of next year as to what this might look like. You’re next question will be, I’m sure, what’s it going to look like and we’re not sure. Pretty much everywhere I go, people have all got a view about this. Recently I was with some urban planners from Melbourne University who were just graduating and they’ve all got different views on how it should work. I think the one size fits all, like the Sydney model where there is mandated 50 Square metres for a one bedroom apartment, 70 for a 2-bedroom apartment and so on, isn’t the way forward. The industry is very worried about affordability so we’ve got to weigh all the up and things that have popped out so far have uh things like storage. Where do I store my bike, where do I store my gear? Stuff like that. Obviously light is, very, very important, there are places with no window in the bedroom. I mean heights of ceilings, stuff like that can all have a big impact. So it’s been a really good exercise and really engaged a lot of people and the trick now is to try and get an outcome that is sensible and brings both the community and the industry along with us.
R+BA – Do you think applying minimum design standards will significantly impact apartment affordability?
RW – It’s certainly put pretty strongly to me that if you increase size or you make mandatory sizes it will have an impact on affordability. That’s something we’ll have to weigh, because I’ve been in apartments that have 38-40 square metres. Beautiful. However I have be in others that are a really a really poor outcome for people. Design is at the heart of it.
R+BA – If we got the better apartments framework right, do you think it may be possible to allow developers to build a three or four storey apartment building as of right in a proscribed zone, in the same way you can construct a stand-alone house, provided you comply to a set of criteria? Do you think that’s something that could be looked at, or is planning always going to have a role in approving apartment buildings?
RW – I think that planning should legitimately have a role. Absolutely. Because if you’re going to build a four level apartment next to my single storey house, I might have a view about it.
R+BA – In September you implemented overnight, a restriction on new CBD towers. This amendment requires new proposals to adhere to strict plot ratios, which will limit the floor area yield. The exception to this is if a project can demonstrate ‘state significance’. How do you assess if a project has ‘state significance’, and how much, if anything, does the economic benefits of a project weigh into the planning decision?
RW – The economic benefits are not a consideration under the planning act. There are are a number of developments that got caught right at the cusp. So what’s one of state significance? The National Mutual Building down in Collins Street that’s a whole city block. If you’ve literally got a site which is a whole city block, well that’s of state significance. Where you’ve got buildings that are going to be a major contributor to the built form of the city, obviously we would look at those. The proposal at 85 Spring Street was a classic example and there was some fury about that. It was a building that was very significant, literally next door to the Bourke Hill precinct, and it needed to be reworked to get a better outcome.
The plot ratios overall have been, interestingly, very well received. And it is obvious that the people within the community are very supportive of it, as I’ve said publicly on a number of occasions. Most of the first tier builders have also said that we have made the right decision.
End Part 1
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