Speech on Planning and Environment Amendment (Recognising Objectors) Bill 2015
Ms SANDELL (Melbourne) — I rise to affirm that the Greens in this house will support the Planning and Environment Amendment (Recognising Objectors) Bill 2015. However, I take this opportunity to raise a few concerns that we have and ask the minister kindly to clarify a few aspects of the bill. The Greens are of course in favour of more effective and genuine community participation in the decision-making around the planning process. If we want to sustain a truly livable city, we need to empower communities to be involved in decisions about their city and about what they want the city of the future to look like.
The lived experience of residents and communities is so important. It can provide some crucial insights into the potential impacts of a development, and of course those voices should be heard. My concern is that this bill does not take many meaningful steps to address this need for the community’s voice to be heard. Simply asking the responsible authorities to take note of the number of objectors, and only in some circumstances, does not really go to the heart of what the Greens believe are some of the problems with the planning process. As others have mentioned, it could simply falsely raise people’s hopes and expectations and indeed create more confusion for residents and responsible authorities, particularly councils. Real, meaningful change, as I believe was promised by the Labor Party before the election, would mean properly looking at some of the failings of the current planning system — things like, for a start, reinstating notice and appeal rights for residents in the capital city zone, who have greatly diminished rights to know what is proposed to be built in their suburbs, where and when, and a restricted ability to participate in the decision-making process around planning in their neighbourhoods. There is no good reason for this fundamentally anti-democratic restriction except to fast-track developments by circumventing the voicing of community opposition, which can eat into the social licence of a project and raise questions that can be uncomfortable for developers and governments. As we know, it is often the same developers which have poured thousands of dollars into the coffers of both the old parties in order to secure favourable outcomes for their developments. As long as political parties take donations from property developers, it will be in the interests of those political parties to keep the community quiet and to favour the big end of town over the interests of local residents who are fighting to keep their city livable. Really meaningful change to the planning system would start with banning donations from property developers. It is not an onerous task. It is not a hard thing. Even our colleagues in New South Wales have been able to do it. It is time Victoria stopped indulging in the mutual back-scratching that goes on between property developers and the Liberal and Labor parties.
Those issues aside, I have some questions for the minister in relation to the operation of this bill. On the face of it, it does not seem that it will do too much apart from give some community groups the false impression that they may be listened to more than they have been in the past. I could perhaps be a little bit cynical about this, but it seems to be a policy concocted to win the votes of those opposed to a certain development in the electorate of Prahran, unsuccessful as Labor’s bid for that seat was. But it would be unfair and really untruthful of this government to get residents’ hopes up that they will have more say in the planning system than they really do. In fact, as we have heard, one of the reasons that this bill is before the house is that the Labor Party wants to curry favour with residents of Tecoma, who opposed an inappropriate McDonald’s in their town. But if we look at the substance of this bill, if it had been in place during the Tecoma campaign, it does not look like it would have made any difference at all. As I mentioned, it does not look to us like this bill really addresses some of the fundamental problems with the planning system. But even though it looks like it will not do much, we need to be totally sure that it will not have unintended effects and be used against the interests of the community. It says community objections must be taken into account ‘where appropriate’, but what does ‘where appropriate’ actually mean? Is the objective to consider appropriateness in the context of the relevant planning scheme? This would seem sensible, but I do not want to assume, and I would like some clarification from the minister on this point. The bill offers no clarity about where this new requirement to consider the number of objectors will actually intervene. Will objections only be considered if they relate directly to social impact? What about environmental impact? Will the number of objections be considered when they relate to the environmental impact of a development, or do we say that these types of objections do not count?
Of course the Greens support the right of communities to oppose inappropriate and uncontrolled development, but equally we cannot allow a small, unrepresentative group with vested interests to prevent appropriate and necessary community infrastructure like wind farms, mosques, safe injecting rooms, health clinics or public and social housing. What if a council or government decides — and I dearly hope they do — to build new public and social housing in an area, but a small, noisy, unrepresentative group does not want a group of people from a lower socio-economic class to live in their suburb? What if a noisy minority opposes a mosque simply due to its own prejudices? What about a wind farm? We know fossil fuel companies have been known to create fake community groups to oppose wind farm developments, and we need to know if this bill will impede the development of new renewable energy projects. Will this bill allow these types of really beneficial community infrastructure to be stopped? I would like to hear from the minister about whether he will exempt certain types of development if they have a clear and beneficial social purpose, and if so, which types of developments will be exempt from this new requirement in the bill. Will he confirm that the applicable planning schemes will remain the core standard for decision-making by responsible authorities despite this new provision? I would also like to ask the minister to assure everyone that this provision will never be used as a reason to expand the areas where developments are exempt from notice and appeal rights for residents. This would surely be a perverse effect at cross-purposes with efforts to increase community participation in the decision-making process. We need some more clarity. We need to know whether this bill will have any effect, and if it does, we need to know that it will be an improvement and that it does not create further loopholes or encourage interference based on narrow vested interests in planning processes against the community’s interests.
I also sincerely hope that this bill is only the first move on the part of the government to address planning reform overall. Dipping a toe in the ocean here really needs to be a precursor to diving in; this cannot be all there is. The Greens have a very powerful vision for a livable Melbourne, and we know that planning reform is a central part of making that vision a clear reality. When Melbourne has higher densities than New York, Hong Kong or Tokyo, but a fraction of their population, it is time to look very hard at our planning process overall. As I have said, the no. 1 priority is banning developer donations, and we hope that if the government is serious about listening to the community, it will also reinstate third party notice and appeal rights in the capital city zone. But they are just a few of our suggestions, and it does not stop there. We need to take the politics out of planning. We need to return control of large-scale developments over 25 000 square metres to councils as the responsible authorities with the expertise and holistic view of their communities. We need minimum apartment standards — and I do understand that I am digressing, which I thank the minister for — to stop profit-hungry developers building floor upon floor of shoddy apartments, with no natural light or proper ventilation. We need these approved before the minister signs off on any new skyscrapers, and especially for developments such as Fishermans Bend, so that it does not fall victim to some of the problems we have seen in the Docklands. Although there are some great apartments in Docklands, it also has many unsafe, unlivable apartments that are now having to be retrofitted or indeed are unfit for people to live in. I also call on the minister to urgently review the residential zones in the city of Melbourne. The zoning recommended by the City of Melbourne and by the Residential Zones Standing Advisory Committee was rejected by the previous Minister for Planning in favour of higher densities and more development, yet the current minister has not fulfilled his promise to revisit this decision. These decisions have been revisited for other councils but not yet for the City of Melbourne, so on behalf of my residents, I ask him to do so urgently — and of course we absolutely need to get rid of the Melbourne City Council gerrymander, which sees businesses given two votes whereas residents are only given one. It is fundamentally undemocratic.
The Greens support the rights of local communities to oppose inappropriate developments. However, I am worried that the bill will not do that, and instead is a token attempt by the Labor government to convince the community that it is listening, but that it will not give residents much more say at all. Our other concerns are now on the record also, and we will continue to seek assurances from the government prior to the bill passing in the other place that it will not be used to derail considered and holistic approaches to planning, or be used as a substitute for actual and necessary reform of our current planning system. The Greens welcome the opportunity to work with the Andrews government to fix the more fundamental flaws in the system I have outlined, and I very much look forward to working with the government on reforms that will make a real difference to our city and ensure that Melbourne continues to be the most livable city in the world.