Housing reforms would make sense, if implemented with caution

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On paper, at least, the planning reforms reportedly being developed by the state government to help squeeze an extra 1 million homes into Melbourne’s established suburbs seem good policy.

Our city cannot keep growing ever outward. It makes little sense to keep building new neighbourhoods entirely from scratch, furnishing them with schools and shops and roads and maybe even one day a train line, when we should be using our existing infrastructure more efficiently.

Continued urban sprawl makes little sense.Credit: Jason South

And as we have argued previously, the right kind of medium and high-density housing, implemented appropriately, can prove more of a blessing than a burden, attracting young renters and families whose demand for shops, cafes and services can organically revitalise tired middle-ring suburbs.

It is evident, though, that this is not happening quickly enough, that if we are to accommodate the extra 4 million people expected in our city by 2056, we need to rethink how this type of development is planned, approved and implemented. According to Planning Minister Sonya Kilkenny, since 2014 just 56 per cent of new dwellings have been built in established areas against a target of 70 per cent. “We’re not tracking well,” Kilkenny told a Property Council forum last month.

Our current planning system, largely controlled by local councils, can be conservative, pernickety and weighted towards the demands of the more vocal ratepayers. In some suburbs, getting approval for even a minor renovation can take years.

It appears now the Andrews government is considering stripping powers from local councils to remove some of the roadblocks for in-fill development. Detail is thin, but the working model is likely to echo that of NSW, where councillors are distanced from planning approvals and expert local, regional and state planning panels are tasked with much of the decision-making, according to the value and scale of proposed projects.

Again, on paper, a cohesive system across all of metropolitan Melbourne that does not rely on the foibles of particular councils seems sensible. A strategy to, for example, promote housing development around rail hubs would surely benefit from a broad overview. Overall, more homes will mean more affordable homes, which everybody recognises as a necessity.

Yet there are reasons to be wary of too many entirely state-level planning controls. High-rise towers in and around the CBD, for example, were too often allowed to suit the economics of property developers but are not necessarily appropriate for everyday would-be home buyers: a missed opportunity that will take generations to undo.

David Clark, president of the local government peak group, the Municipal Association of Victoria, is concerned the state government will “seek to force change that likely will only support a discrete group of private interests (the property industry).”

Indeed, a clash between local and state jurisdictions seems inevitable. As we reported on Sunday, it is likely the government will use a report into allegedly crooked land deals in Melbourne’s south-east to bolster its case for radical change.

For their part, local councils will certainly seek to undermine the government’s credibility in return, pointing to the findings of the Operation Daintree investigation, which raised concerns about the Andrews government’s insouciance towards ensuring ethical obligations were met and the risk of “grey corruption”.

If the government is to successfully prosecute its planning agenda, then, it will have to ensure all necessary safeguards are in place to deter special interest groups from benefiting unfairly, convince us that the new regimen can operate equitably and reasonably, and guarantee that the current amenity and rights of local residents are not arrogantly subsumed to the demands of the bigger picture. If it can bring the councils along, too, so much the better.

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