Planning to protect the natural and social amenity of our neighbourhoods  

By 13 February 2024March 11th, 2024No Comments

Planning to protect the natural and social amenity of our neighbourhoods

John Mosig

Here we are, at the backend of an El Niño summer. At least, that’s what we’ve been told. While it’s certainly been a scorcher elsewhere, we’ve had regular bursts of cooling rain that has kept the subsoil moist and the lawn mowers active. But how long has the Leafy East got before the only trees are along the nature strip?

This summer has been a nature wonderland for us here in Kew. It started with a pair of tawny frogmouths rearing their offspring in the peppermint gum right outside our sunroom window. They nest somewhere nearby most years and hang around our yard till the young’uns are fully fledged.

Bright Copper Butterfly

The wet early summer has brought an abundance of insect life. (Some welcome, some not so welcome) We’ve even had an orange winged butterfly that I haven’t noticed before. It has a furry moth like head and body and can’t seem to make up its mind if it’s a moth or a butterfly when it settles, but they’re mainly open. And returning ladybirds and miniature spiders to the garden is a regular part of preparing the leafy greens and herbs for cooking.

Then there was the dance of the cabbage moths. I know; not everyone took a romantic view of these mothers of the green brassica eating grubs, but you have to admit; it was pretty spectacular to see them in such numbers. And there’s plenty of organic sprays around to minimize their impact on the kale.

Recently we’ve had a ringtail possum sleeping on the sunroom window ledge amongst the bells-of-summer vine that shades the area. Our family have deliberated over the possible reason she/he has abandoned his/her usual abode in the roadside melaleuca. At this stage, a matrimonial breakdown is the clubhouse leader. Maybe it’s a summer thing. You’d imagine those stick nest would be stifling even in the mildest of summers.

Right now the spiders are dominant. Everywhere you look there’re spider webs harvesting the smorgasbord of insects the benign season has brought. We’ve got an orb spider near the back door whose engineering skills are nothing short of incredible. As the warmth of summer gives way to autumn, they’ll get a hammering from the paper wasps that build under our eaves. It’s an annual realignment, eh?

While this embrace of nature feeds the soul, it has to be asked: how long can it last? Maggie and I aren’t doddering, but we’ve accepted our dotage. No one with the money to buy a house in Kew is going to accept a 120-year-old Federation weatherboard with one, albeit renovated, bathroom and no lock-up car space. One by one, the old free-standing homes will be dropped, the trees removed, and the natural habitat concreted over. These remnant natural worlds will be replaced by two storeys piles of air-conditioned space.

With no open ground to sponge up the rain, the flood of urban detritus flushed down into The Yarra will surge, carrying with it the urban chemical residue that this year made half the beaches of Port Phillip too polluted for swimming.

It doesn’t have to be like this; nor should it. Somewhere, say 20 years or so ago, municipal planning, based on ecological outcomes rather than rateable value, would have given us by now, exceptionally liveable suburbs. The irony is, land prices are based on their amenity, and a suburb where birds wake you in the morning, the houses aren’t heat banks, and everywhere you walk or ride a bike is shaded would be just as rateable as the ecological timebomb we’re building for ourselves today.

Ringtail possum

Tawny Frogmouth

Orb Spider

Preserving Community Voices in Planning

John Friend-Pereira

Recent planning reforms introduced in the State Government’s 2023 Housing Statement will have far reaching impacts on our suburbs. The Statement includes 32 planning reforms, granting the Minister for Planning more power. However, the changes fall short of effectively addressing the housing crisis and reduce input from community and local councils.

Markham Estate Redevelopment in Ashburton.

The original Markham Estate comprised 56 public housing units. Over eight years, various proposals were made for redeveloping the estate, often overlooking community concerns. The initial 2016 proposal planned for a mere 62 public units (an increase of 6) out of 252 new units. Despite community opposition, the subsequent 2018 proposal retained the same number of public units. Only through persistent advocacy by the Ashburton Residents Action Group (ARAG), supported by the City of Boroondara, did the final 2020 proposal see an increase to 111 public units out of a total of 178. The worry is that under these new rules, the community might not have a say at all.

In its February 2024 report, the City of Boroondara Urban Planning Committee highlighted numerous problems with the Markham planning process including:

  • Lack of community and council input
  • Lack of transparent processes and external scrutiny of final approvals
  • Minister’s wide-ranging power to agree proposals without clear enforcement oversight
  • Unstreamlined and untimely processes causing significant delays

Redevelopment in Alamein Avenue

Nearby public housing at 1-9 Alamein Avenue is currently two-thirds unoccupied (only 10/36 units occupied) and slated for redevelopment by Homes Victoria. There is concern it could face a similarly flawed process under the planning powers granted to the Minister. Those powers would exclude community input and council involvement and enable the stealthy privatization of prime public housing. Based on the approach taken at Markham in 2018, this could see up to 162 units replacing the current 36 units, with only 41 units for public housing. It will once again depend on the tenacity of the local community to fight for a better outcome in terms of design and retention of public use.

Why is State Government making these changes?

They claim it is to address delays in planning processes and lay the blame on local councils. However, evidence shows that local government processes aren’t the main issue. Over 98% of housing permits are granted without councilors voting, and delays often occur after planning approval. A report by planning consultants SGS showed that almost 90% of approved multi-unit dwellings are processed, yet about 25% do not commence construction, with industry experts noting that developers act on their permits when it suits them economically.

Other possible approaches

Another approach to ensuring there’s enough of the right kind of housing would be to include communities in the process. The use of inclusionary zoning could mandate developers to include affordable housing units within market-rate developments (eg 30% of all new developments of 15 units or more would be public and affordable). Instead of diminishing power from councils and sidelining communities, the government should focus on improving the speed and quality of housing construction.

A Traffic Light System could help expedite approvals for developments prioritizing sustainability, affordability, and community benefits – these ‘greenlight’ developments that have enhanced standards and affordability would have shorter approval timeframes than those that only met minimum standards or lack affordability. To tackle the housing crisis, we need a public builder, like the Housing Commission, constructing 100,000 public homes in the next decade at a fair cost. Additionally, a ban on political donations from property developers is essential. Finally, let’s enforce the vacancy tax on unoccupied properties of which there are over 8,000 in the City of Boroondara alone, to encourage owners to rent or sell these units.

In the face of the housing challenge, engaging not marginalizing the community is crucial. I’m running as a Greens candidate for local council because I’m concerned about recent planning changes by the State Government, and I want to ensure our community has active progressive representation on this issue.

John Friend-Pereira from Ashburton is the Victorian Greens Candidate for Solway Ward, City of Boroondara.

To access the references that John has used as the basis for this article, click here.