Once and Future State

Victoria’s Department of Planning and Community Development

First, says Minister Guy, it is important to note the change in emphasis in the way the Victorian government considers planning in the state. “The key point is that the government now sees the planning portfolio more as an economic one rather than simply a social portfolio,” he explains. This swing has prompted initiatives such as planning zone reform, a new urban renewal authority and an investigation into how to manage population growth in the coming decades. “We are focussing heavily on the new metropolitan planning strategy around job clusters in the suburbs, new employment centres there; new activities areas which we need to define and provide a zoning system for that incentivises growth.” Planning, he said, is “the greatest regulator of growth in an Australian state’s economy. We have to provide a level of flexibility in that system that encourages growth.”

It is important that the planning process be made “simpler and more transparent,” says Minister Guy. But can the construction industry and the state’s residents trust that such a ‘user-friendly’ approach might be a long-term one rather than just an electoral promise, a political football that could be punctured at any time? Reform is clearly not an option, says Minister Guy. “It has been mandated for nearly 15 years – every 15 to 20 years the system does need reform – and governments of both persuasions have gone through some level of reform over time. There is a genuine desire in industry as well that what we are building now will be longer-lasting. The actual [regulatory] structure is something that will be quite long-lasting.”

The Department is not in itself responsible for instigating growth in the state but rather for creating an environment which attracts people to it. “We have to make sure that either local or international investors are interested in investing in Victoria, which requires interaction with the planning system and that the system they will use is straightforward.” It should not be necessary to hire a team of lawyers to interpret planning law, says the Minister. “I think with sensible reform we can get away from that level of complexity.”

It’s not only theory, and projects are starting to flow, although a delicate balance must be struck between metro (i.e. Melbourne as a world-class city) and regional and rural development priorities. The first tranche of a community works programme – more than $3.1 million for physical infrastructure projects across Victoria to help councils revitalise their municipalities – was approved in October, when nine metropolitan councils and ten regional councils received grants of up to $200,000. The 19 projects include playgrounds, community gardens, river trails and community infrastructure to improve accessibility and amenities in both regional and metropolitan areas. Minister Guy promises an imminent ’round two’ of similar projects and says he recognises their value as jobs generators. “In some of the small towns it certainly helps in terms of local jobs.”

As regards the state capital itself, a new Metropolitan Planning Strategy is being prepared to provide a blueprint to guide Melbourne’s future over the next 30 to 40 years. The Department itself says it is intended “to ensure the valued aspects of Melbourne are protected while allowing for future needs. The strategy will include links with the Regional Growth Plans and together these plans will provide a long-term vision for Victoria.” Among the most important elements of the vision are the Melbourne-Geelong corridor (and the pressing need to upgrade connections between the two centres), the Ballarat corridor and the Fisherman’s Bend Urban Renewal Project 3km south west of Melbourne’s CBD.

This 240 hectare area has been declared a site of State significance, rezoned as part of a Capital City Zone and expanded by more than 50 per cent. It is expected to accommodate around 25,000 jobs and 50,000 residents. The department says construction work is expected to “provide thousands of additional jobs in the high rise building industry over the coming years with 5,000 apartments expected to be built in the next 10 years with an economic impact of approximately $1.5 billion and potentially creating 13,500 construction jobs.”

Minister Guy himself recently officially unveiled Melbourne property developer MAB’s 240 Uni Hill commercial development. Designed by Watson Young architects and constructed by Pellicano Builders, the development has quickly become a signature building in the north and is an example of the way forward in the city’s plan to mix the roles of centre and suburb. MAB Chief Operating Officer David Hall described the development as “a new-generation business environment, providing inner city convenience in a well positioned suburban location… close to public transport, major arterials and a short stroll to the University Hill Town Centre.”

Meanwhile Victoria’s largest fully master-planned, mixed-use development – Merrifield at Mickleham – has been approved. A joint venture between MAB and Gibson Property Corporation, Merrifield will see the transformation of over 900 hectares into “a bustling city,” creating up to 30,000 new jobs and providing new homes for more than 20,000 residents. Approval of the Melbourne North Growth Corridor Plan and the Merrifield West Precinct Structure Plan was “a key milestone in delivering the overall Merrifield master-plan.”

Recent news has centred on the plan to scrap the Victorian Building Commission and replace it with an Authority instead. The former was audited early in 2012 and seen to be 96 per cent non-compliant; so why should a new Authority be any better? “The structure will be completely different,” explains Minister Guy. “It is important to reform the building industry and in many ways to go back to basics, focus on being a regulator first.” It should not be “a participant in sponsorship and industry events,” but must focus “on being a regulator first. Education is obviously part of that, but [it should be] in a sensible and targeted way instead of just a level of corporate sponsorship that doesn’t befit a regulator.”

Better regulation would help the construction industry with its working practices rather than adding another layer of bureaucracy. An Authority “must focus on the performance of the industry and how it can help in assisting and raising standards in the industry, rather than being just similar to an industry association or a reactive regulatory body when someone has done something wrong.”

The Authority, Minister Guy concedes, would not have any of the responsibilities of the now-defunct ABCC. He confirms the state government deplores that abolition, which “has had a detrimental impact on the building industry – cost of construction is a major issue in this state.” However, it would not be practical to legislate for a state replacement of that federal body because “there would be issues of jurisdictional power for us.”

The Minister agrees with many in the industry that harmonisation of building and construction regulation around Australia would be a good thing. He would be less enthusiastic about having to adopt any other state’s model as its own – precisely because he sees the Victorian version as best-practice. But he would certainly be happy to apply the revised regulations in Victoria as the basis for a nationwide code – should the day ever come when individual state restrictions in this area are relaxed.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

February 23, 2020, 5:53 PM AEDT