Planning and Environmental (Vicsmart Planning Assessment) Bill 2012

Second reading
Debate resumed from 29 August; motion of Mr CLARK (Attorney-General).

Mr Wynne (Richmond) – I rise on behalf of the opposition to make a contribution to the debate on the Planning and Environment Amendment (VicSmart Planning Assessment) Bill 2012. In doing so, I indicate to the house that we have very serious reservations about a number of aspects of this bill. I say by way of introduction that one of the fundamental issues with planning in this state is that we have a very robust framework.

The state sets the broad planning principles and strategic framework, which is entirely appropriate, and they are implemented and adopted at a local government level with appropriate checks and balances in place for both applicant and objector through the third-party appeals right that is so fundamental to ensuring that the voice of the community is heard in the planning process.

Mr Brooks interjected.

Mr WYNNE — Indeed, as my colleague the member for Bundoora so rightly says, it provides a transparency in the process. These are fundamental principles which we hold very firmly. We believe that these principles of transparency, openness and accountability through the planning process are being eroded through this bill.

The Minister for Planning in a press release dated 7 June said that the genesis for this bill was the need to speed up the planning process. He indicates that VicSmart, if the bill passes through the Parliament:
… has the potential to deal with approximately 10 per cent of annual permit activity which represents more than 5000 permit applications a year and can reduce assessment time from an average of 62 business days to 10 business days.

Essentially what underpins the philosophical positioning of this particular bill is the question of efficiency through the planning process.

In general terms many of us would argue that it is not a bad thing that we have an efficient planning process. But you cannot afford to have an efficient planning process at the risk of shutting people out of the process.

That is why we in this state have such a robust and strong planning process which has evolved over a long period of time. It is to the great credit of the Cain government that it established a venue, through the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal process, where third-party objections can be ventilated through an independent process, and it is one of the many great legacies of that government. I think it is absolutely fundamental to the process that we ensure that those third-party rights are not eroded through this bill.

It is absolutely clear that communities will not have a say in what is in effect the built environment in their own communities. This bill restricts those rights. We say that is wrong. As we know, planning permits are required for many things, from modest renovations or extensions, fences and pergolas to major renovations and multistorey developments. A massive number of planning permits go through the system every year — something in the order of 55 000 permits are processed annually.

I note from the excellent parliamentary library research service research brief for this bill — I recommend it to members of the house; as is so often the case, it is a very thorough review that has been undertaken by the library — that my local council, the City of Yarra, is sixth in the top 20 in terms of planning permit applications in the state. The top five are the Mornington Peninsula shire, which is first interestingly with 3149, followed by the Yarra Ranges shire with 2116, the City of Greater Geelong with 1763, the City of Boroondara with 1695 and the City of Stonnington with 1560, just pipping the City of Yarra with 1549.

If we think about that number in a municipality as tightly laid out as my local municipality, with the historic subdivisions around Collingwood and Fitzroy, which are very narrow and small subdivisions, it is clear that extraordinary pressure is being placed upon the planning authorities, which is a very significant issue. It is certainly one that is raised with me very regularly by residents of the city of Yarra.

I know from the point of view of the council that the volume of applications — in the order of 1500 a year — for a relatively small municipality places planning staff under siege, particularly applications which are extremely large and complex. We have seen many of these large developments and multistorey developments being hotly contested by our local communities.

The complexity of assessing those applications is an enormous challenge for the planning authorities. I want to acknowledge that the planning department in my municipality of the City of Yarra is under enormous strain and does a terrific job in trying to manage what are inevitably the competing demands of applicant and objector in the planning process. But what is also important in that is that we continue to maintain those third-party rights, which are under attack in this bill.

The sorts of matters that would be removed from the normal planning processes are indicated in a fact sheet from the Department of Planning and Community Development entitled VicSmart — A Simpler Planning Permit Process. They include matters like realigning a common boundary between two lots, subdividing existing buildings to create separate titles, building or extending a fence within 3 metres of a street, constructing a service station on land in an industrial 1 zone, carrying out development in a heritage overlay which is already exempt from public notice and review, managing vegetation in urban areas, building in the land subject to inundation overlay or special building overlay, and on it goes.

What is not in any way clear from the bill is what other class of permit can be created. The failure of the government to address in any definitive way anywhere in this legislation what class of permit will be exempt from the normal planning processes is a fundamental deficit in this piece of legislation.
There is no surety to it, and in that context, not surprisingly, this has caused great concern within the broader community, and I submit that it is a major deficit.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER — Order! The time has come for the house to rise for lunch. The member for Richmond will have the call when the matter is next before the house.

Sitting suspended 1.00 p.m. until 2.02 p.m.
Business interrupted pursuant to standing orders.

Mr Wynne (Richmond) – Speaker, I thank you for the opportunity to continue in this debate after my brief interlude out of the chamber. I say to the lead speaker on the government side, the Parliamentary Secretary for Local Government, the member for Mornington, untruths and mendacity — goodness gracious! I submit to you, Speaker, that I listened to his contribution, and it is clear that the member has not thoroughly assessed the bill because the essential element that I was outlining prior to the luncheon break was that a number of fundamental rights which currently pertain to planning permit process, particularly the voice of the community and third-party appeal rights, have been taken away. They are being taken away by this proposal. It is simply a fact.

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr WYNNE — Yes, that is a fact.

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr WYNNE — Speaker, with respect, I ask for your protection. I am under the pump here today and feeling a little fragile given the events of question time. I ask you, Speaker, for a bit of protection here today.

The SPEAKER — Order! I will give it some consideration.

Mr WYNNE — Thank you so much. Nonetheless, I was outlining before the lunch break that we on this side of the house believe in some fundamental things. One of the things we absolutely believe in is that hard-fought-for third-party appeal rights should not be wiped away.

I would have thought that the member for Prahran, who formerly practised law, would be a strong supporter of the proposition that we are putting here today — that is, where there are situations in the planning process, and I indicated that the Parliamentary Secretary for Local Government was somewhat derisory of my earlier contribution where I described the planning processes in this state as being extremely robust, that are supported by third-party appeal rights, why would we as a Parliament stifle the voice of our community? Why would we take away a right that currently exists in our community? We say: you should not and ought not do that, and we will oppose it happening. Unsurprisingly, Speaker, we will oppose it, and we will oppose this bill.

The bill allows for a certain class of permits to be exempted from a range of provisions within the Planning and Environment Act 1987.
I say to the Parliamentary Secretary for Local Government that this bill does not circumscribe what a class of permits might look like, either from the point of view of state planning or the local authorities themselves. There is the opportunity to widen the scope of classes of permits, thereby obviating the need for any referral to the community or any notification process or referral to third parties.

Indeed I see the Parliamentary Secretary for Local Government nodding his head in affirmation. What sort of process is it when a piece of legislation can come into this Parliament which does not prescribe where and when the normal planning process — one that we fully understand, robust as it is — should be enacted and in what circumstances some matters will be exempted from it? This is a complete nonsense. Let us go through what is potentially exempt under this class of permits.

You do not have to take account of the objectives of the planning process, third-party community views, as I have already indicated or the view of referral authorities. What an extraordinary thing that is: you do not need to refer to the water corporations, VicRoads the power companies or any of the other relevant authorities whatsoever. You do not have to take account of the significant effects the development will have on the environment or which the environment will have on the development. Again there is no need to refer to anyone, and my colleague the shadow Minister for Environment and Climate Change will have plenty to say about that. You do not have to take account of the economic and social effects of the development, any approved regional strategies, state government environmental protection policies under the Environment Protection Act 1970, relevant strategic plans, policy statements, codes or guidelines of the state government, a public authority or a local council. If that is not a free ticket, I do not know what is a free ticket. What an extraordinary situation we now find ourselves in.

The government says, ‘This is about only 5 per cent of planning permits; we are talking about the pergola or the front fence’. Anyone who knows anything — in fact I could bow to my learned colleague the member for Prahran, who would be very well attuned to this — knows that some of the greatest legal battles concerning issues at a neighbourhood level have been about fences.

Mr Newton-Brown interjected.

The SPEAKER — Order! The member for Prahran is listed to speak so he should save his comments until he is called.

Mr WYNNE — Thank you, Speaker, for your protection; I appreciate it. Those are situations where the government has sought to curtail the issue because it thinks they are only little simple things, day-to-day activities that we would all normally expect to go through the process in a quick and expedient fashion. I can tell members that there are a whole range of these sorts of issues that cause enormous grief between neighbours, and we know that. I have been through local government, as have many other members of this house, and I can tell all members that such issues cause some of the biggest debates that occur at a neighbourhood level. To also find yourself in a situation where there is no need for you to give any notification to your neighbour about what you might be on about — no notification to your neighbour of the proposition you are about to undertake — seems to be an extraordinary aspect embedded in this legislation.

If there had been better definition of how this class of permits would be enacted, we would at least be provided with some comfort that the way the government has sought to pitch this particular proposal could give some comfort and that it was, in effect, about only minor matters. But we are deeply suspicious about the motivations of the government. Why are we suspicious? Because there is some history here, and we know of the Minister for Planning — who is an interesting character, no doubt — that the history of some of his performance over the last almost two years has been at best, shall we say, a little colourful.

In your own part of the world, Speaker, as you would be well aware, there was the Phillip Island matter, and I am sure we do not need to canvass that. I will simply put that in its broader context as one of a range of examples where the minister, perhaps on more mature reflection, might have thought that may not have been the most sensible course of action he needed to take.

We have not forgotten that we had to fight in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to have the advice granted to us, which was about a directive from the minister to his department to change its advice to him — a very dangerous course of action for the minister to have taken. There is a bit of form in this space, and that is why, not surprisingly, the opposition is deeply suspicious of the motivations of the government in this particular amendment before us today.

In conclusion, we simply say to the government that when these bills come before us in the Parliament — any of these planning bills, and members have heard me talk in the past in relation to green wedges and so forth — we believe that there is no planning matter, whether it be at a state level or a local government level, that is not enhanced by ensuring that the voice of the community is heard.

It is a very simple proposition, but in our view it is a powerful proposition because ultimately you make better decisions when you go to talk to the community, when you inform the community and when you are transparent in your processes. This is not the case with this particular amendment, because simply put it shuts the community out of the process. It shuts the community out of hard fought for third party appeal rights where, if you feel you have been aggrieved, you have the opportunity to go through an independent process — you can have your matter heard independently, contest the matter and get a decision. That right has been taken away from the community in this process.

I know speakers on the other side will say, ‘This is a crock of nonsense, what are you talking about, this is tightly contained and it is only about very minor matters’, but until such time as the government can satisfy us that the class of permit, undefined as it is, will not by some incremental creep expand the purview of that class of permit thereby exempting many checks and balances that are inherent in the planning process, why would the government expect us to support it?

How could the government realistically expect anybody to support it? Why do government members think that all of those community organisations out there feel completely aggrieved that they have not been heard by the government and that it has not understood just how crucial it is when making these changes to the planning process that it brings people along with it, that it consults with them, that it at least engenders in those groups some understanding of what it is trying to achieve.

The government simply did not do that, so all the government has done is have its Minister for Planning roll along. Away the minister has gone and now he says, ‘Here we are. Here is the great new world of planning in Victoria; and sorry, community, but you are not a part of it when it comes to this amendment’. It is a very shameful thing that this government has taken this course of action, and it will cost the government.

This will cost the government because ultimately not only are we on this side of the house looking but the community is looking as well. The government has bushfires out there all over the place — that is, issues on which it said one thing in opposition and it is doing a different thing in government. It is doing an entirely different thing in government, and let me tell you: when the community gets itself organised, look out! There is no better way to galvanise community opinion and community opposition than to strike at the heart of people’s fundamental rights in the planning process. Government members know that, and we know that as well. I can assure them that they have lit a flame underneath community groups right across metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria, because this will affect all communities in this state. The government has lit a flame, and I am not sure its members realise ultimately where this is going to end, because I can assure them that we will be watching. We will be watching and we will be vigilant.

Mr Morris interjected.

Mr WYNNE — There is nothing like a little bit of arrogance. The early days were happy days — they were in government and it was a fantastic thing — but we are now coming up to two years. I would have thought that the Parliamentary Secretary for Local Government would have been advised to turn down the volume a little bit on the arrogance. Just turn it back a bit, brother; that is my recommendation to him.

He is not a bad fellow, but he should not get too excited about this, because every day in government is one less day that he may be in government. He ought to be careful about this, as arrogance could completely overwhelm him. This fire has now been lit, and we will watch across metropolitan Melbourne and right across regional Victoria to see whether this class of permit — this new planning proposition that we have got — which is going to cut out local government, the voice of the community and third-party appeal rights — —

Mr Morris interjected.

Mr WYNNE — The elected representatives are going to have a go at this, are they? Is that right? Has the member opposite read the bill? Clearly he has not read the bill. This is going to be dealt with administratively through the councils.
There will be no say for elected representatives, no say for other authorities extraordinary, no third-party appeal rights and no voice for the community.

In conclusion, I simply say that every time you are dealing with a planning matter, when you bring the community along with you and when the voice of the community is heard, it is a better outcome. This absolutely is not the case in relation to this particular amendment bill, and that is why we will be opposing it.

I add, Speaker, my thanks to you for the opportunity to continue my contribution to this bill.