Experts sceptical of new Plan Victoria development strategy

In September, the government it would replace the current “long-term” metropolitan strategy, Plan Melbourne, with the first statewide strategy, Plan Victoria.

Now-Premier Jacinta Allan and Planning Minister Sonya Kilkenny in 2021. Joe Armao

The move came as the government also forecast the Victorian population would grow to more than 10 million by 2050, with more than 8 million – the size of London – living in the capital.

As part of the preparation for the new strategy, Planning Minister Sonya Kilkenny in November promised “probably the biggest community engagement ever in the planning space” and to take a consultation roadshow to “every corner of this state”.

While developers have welcomed Plan Victoria and the accompanying roadshow, both have received a cool reception from many in the planning fraternity.

“We’re good at producing these plans,” said University of Melbourne associate professor of planning Crystal Legacy, “but we’re not good at actually adhering to them and implementing them – using them as guidelines for planning big infrastructure, for planning places, and for thinking about urban growth boundaries.”

Crystal Legacy, associate professor of urban planning at the University of Melbourne. Chris Hopkins

State governments have run similar consultations over the decades to help shape long-term strategies for Melbourne. But planners have long noted how short-term political and economic interests have tended to trump well-meaning strategies.

Since the 1960s, a key plank of such metropolitan plans has been reining in urban sprawl and consolidating Melbourne – to make better use of the city’s existing footprint and infrastructure, and to protect farmland.

But Melbourne has continued to spread, joining cities such as Los Angeles in the ranks of the most sprawling, car-dependent metropolises in the world.

In 2002, with his plan Melbourne 2030, Labor premier Steve Bracks vowed to stop urban sprawl, to reduce car dependence and make housing more affordable; hard lines were drawn on maps supposedly marking the final frontier of the city’s expansion.

Melbourne’s fringes have continued to spread. Fairfax Media

However, the Bracks/Brumby government was also intent on attracting newcomers to Melbourne, including by ensuring an ample supply of cheap (compared with Sydney) fringe housing lots, thus adding to outward development pressure.

In 2008, Melbourne 2030 was reworked as Melbourne @ 5 million, and the growth boundaries moved outwards.

Those boundaries were redrawn yet again by the Baillieu Coalition government in 2012, before planning minister Matthew Guy appointed a special advisory committee to oversee development of a new blueprint, Plan Melbourne.

Chaired by prominent planning consultant Roz Hansen, the committee conducted its own consultation roadshow, including a public forum at Docklands attended by more than 1000 Melburnians.

Planning expert Roz Hansen. Eddie Jim

Then, in 2013, five of the six advisory committee members resigned in protest after the government rejected key recommendations, including around greater housing density in Melbourne’s then Liberal-voting middle suburbs, affordable housing and climate change.

When Labor returned to office in 2014, it reworked Plan Melbourne, adding a target of at least 70 per cent of Melbourne’s new homes being built in established suburbs.

However, in 2023, the Andrews government conceded it had fallen well short of the 70/30 target, with government data showing that since 2014 just 56 per cent of new homes had been built in established suburbs, with the proportion declining each year since 2016.

Like Melbourne 2030 before it, another key principle of Labor’s Plan Melbourne was increased housing affordability. In September, when the government released its much-awaited housing statement, it conceded the city faced a housing affordability crisis.

As for transport, the proportion of trips in Melbourne taken remains stubbornly high; much of Melbourne beyond the city’s train and tram network is still served by slow and infrequent bus services. Some growth areas have no bus service.

Critics ask, therefore, given the history of metropolitan strategies being politicised and/or unrealised, what is the point of drawing communities, councils and business into yet another consultation process for yet another plan?

This week, Kilkenny did not respond directly to such questions from this masthead. Instead, she issued a statement in which she said Plan Victoria would “give Victorians a once-in-a-generation opportunity to have a say on how we shape our cities, towns, regions and communities for decades to come.

“We want to talk about a wide range of topics that affect how we live now, and what people’s lives will be like in the future: that includes housing affordability and choice, jobs and equity, liveable and thriving neighbourhoods, and climate action and sustainability.”

Kilkenny has already met with key industry groups as part of the consultation.

Property lobby the Urban Development Institute of Australia Victoria has encouraged people to have their say about Plan Victoria, noting the top priority must be increasing housing density in Melbourne and in regional centres.

“We are supportive of the holistic approach to planning that Plan Victoria aspires to offer,” said institute chief executive Linda Allison. “It is commendable that the government is engaging so closely about what our community, city and state will look like in 2050.”

But Professor Andrew Butt from RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research questioned the value of such an elaborate process.

“It’s unclear what the ‘largest consultation ever’ is set to achieve,” said Butt. “The goals of previous strategies like Plan Melbourne and Melbourne 2030 were always looking to shift growth to established areas and have been discussed for decades – the critical issue remains ‘how’, not ‘why’.”

He said crucial to the ‘how’ question was the provision of infrastructure, from public transport to schools and open space.

“Melbourne has added a population close to that of Adelaide since the 1990s, but we have certainly not added the same social and physical infrastructure.”

University of Melbourne associate professor Legacy said Victorians would reasonably be concerned about the Andrews/Allan government’s record on consultation, with some of the biggest decisions affecting the city’s future made behind closed doors, removed from the public planning process, noting as examples the multibillion-dollar and the $10.2 billion , which was a “market-led” project from toll road giant Transurban.

“We have parallel planning processes. There’s the one that communities have access to and might produce a glossy, beautiful document, and then there’s the other more hidden one where the real game is played,” Legacy said.

Professor Jago Dodson, also from RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, said public consultation for Plan Victoria should be “genuinely open” and “not merely a show to give a veneer of legitimacy to a scheme already cooked up in a ministerial adviser’s office, as has been a tendency with this government”.

Planners and councils have also expressed concern over the government’s abandoning of a specific planning blueprint for Melbourne, noting the city will house an increased proportion of the state’s population and economy by 2050.

The Municipal Association of Victoria and the Planning Institute of Australia have jointly called for separate metropolitan and regional strategies to accompany an overarching plan.

But the government appears committed to a single state approach and has promised to release its final Plan Victoria by the end of 2024.

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