RTPI News - Letter from Melbourne: sustainable development is high on the agenda

Melbourne is setting an example for the world in the implementation of sustainable development, reports Philip Rawle.

The aim of my exchange trip to Australia was to re-establish the links that once existed between Oxford City Council and the City of Melbourne.

In the mid 1980s, two of my colleagues participated in a job exchange with their counterparts in Melbourne. Twenty years on they still talk enthusiastically about their experiences. This was definitely something that I had to try for myself.

By early 2005 I had organised to exchange not only jobs, but also accommodation with a fellow planner in Melbourne. There were times when I thought that we would never get to this position, but after convincing my managers of the benefits of an exchange, sorting through the various insurance headaches and finally getting the all clear from the Australian immigration department, I was ready to go.

Eight months on, what are my main impressions of working in the planning department in Melbourne? A prescriptive approach was the most distinctive element that I noticed about the planning system in the state of Victoria.

Although each development and land-use application is assessed on its merits, the planning scheme is quite extensive in its layers of policies, objectives and controls.

The system is based on zonings including residential, business and industrial zones. These are complemented by a range of overlays applicable to certain areas, such as land subject to inundation overlay and the design and development overlay. The system attempts to tackle each form of development or change of use in an area, categorising the uses into those that require a permit, those that do not and those that are prohibited.

But does the Victorian approach to planning work? I have embraced the zoning system and believe it is effective. However, I am unconvinced by the provisions placed on a specific area by the overlays. For example, the heritage overlays, which could be compared to extremely large conservation areas in the English system, are not specific enough in preserving the character and appearance of a heritage area and appear only to cover large areas with parts that have little, if any, heritage merit. These controls also require planning permits for many trivial things including any external alteration to a building, regardless of how minor the works and the heritage significance of the site.

Every street in the municipality is graded for its heritage significance on a streetscape level of one to three, with one being the highest grade.

Individual buildings are also graded on a scale from A to D, with A-grade buildings being of national or state importance.

Urban design is high on the agenda. Building heights and set backs are controlled by design and development overlays. For instance, the inner suburb of Carlton predominantly comprises one to two-storey buildings and is controlled by a maximum building height of eight metres.

A detailed planning scheme, which is at least four times the size of most of the local plans I have worked with in England, brings a higher degree of certainty to the planning system and helps officers to reach and justify their decisions. However, the planning scheme inevitably offers challenges to council decisions from both applicants and, in the case of Victoria, neighbours and resident associations through a third-party right of appeal process.

As a consequence, planning consultants, lawyers and barristers are involved in the Victorian planning system on a daily basis. It is common practice, even for a simple residential development, to have a lawyer or barrister represent the applicant at a civil and administrative appeal tribunal, the equivalent of the English Planning Inspectorate.

Planning consultants are frequently employed as expert witnesses, with lawyers and barristers seizing on the opportunity to cross-examine them on their written submissions. This can lead to a very legalistic approach.

Council planning officers appear at hearings, which are similar to the English public inquiry procedure, as advocates rather than expert witnesses.

In addition, there is no written representation procedure, which means that the most simple appeals are dealt with as a hearing.

One issue that is high on the Victorian planning agenda is environmental sustainable development, also known as green building design. Melbourne is leading the way in this field. A local policy specific to the Melbourne planning scheme, entitled Clause 22.19 - Environmentally Sustainable Buildings, is currently with the Victorian planning minister awaiting approval. This would apply to all land in the municipality including houses and offices.

The council is setting an example of the way in which environmental sustainable development could be fully implemented through the construction of its Council House 2 (CH2) office building, which will house a number of council departments by early 2006.

CH2 is a visionary building with the potential to change the way in which Australia, and indeed the world, approaches environmentally sustainable design forever. It is setting a world standard in green building design.

In April, the Green Building Council of Australia awarded six green stars to CH2, which represents world leadership in office building design. This is a first in Australia. The building has sustainable technologies incorporated into every conceivable part of its ten storeys including a water recycling plant, phase change materials for cooling, automatic night-purge windows and a facade of louvres powered by photovoltaic cells that track the sun.

It is a big investment, but the council feels that such an outlay is justifiable in providing Melbourne with a landmark green building.

Philip Rawle is a principal planning officer at Oxford City Council.

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