The Victorian Planning System: Practice, Problems and Prospects

Dr Stephen Rowley discusses his new book 'The Victorian Planning System' – the perfect introduction to the Victorian planning systems for new planners and the wider public who need to deal with the planning system.

My book The Victorian Planning System: Practice, Problems and Prospects, which is now available from Federation Press, is intended both as an introduction to, and critique of, the Victorian Planning System. While an entirely new book, it is intended partly as a successor to Des Eccles and Tannetje Bryant’s classic Statutory Planning in Victoria, which was also from Federation Press and appeared in four editions between 1991 and 2011.

The early chapters of the new book are intended as an accessible introduction to the system, aimed at both budding urban planners and also wider members of the public who may need such a guide, including developers, building designers, objectors, and councillors. In framing this material, I have drawn on my experience teaching statutory planning at RMIT over recent years, which has made me conscious of the need to gain an overview of the system before diving into detail. The book therefore starts with a summary of the system’s different parts and players before expanding on details of processes such as planning permit applications, appeals, and planning scheme amendments.

Similarly, I have saved discussion of various particular complications and special cases – such as covenants, code assessment, environmental impact assessment, and decision-making principles such as the National Trust principle and the relevance of economic and social effects – until after the basics have been established.

In choosing topics to cover I have particularly concentrated on areas I felt were not well covered in other standard sources such as Using Victoria’s Planning System. The book therefore spends time on common points of confusion such as secondary consent, the functioning of ResCode objectives and standards, and VicSmart. Similarly, a priority was covering significant recent debates such as the rollout of new zones in 2013-14, and the role of sustainable building design in the planning system.

A major theme of the book is that planners need to stop thinking in terms of a divide between statutory and strategic planning. I argue that it is vital to break down the perceived division between plan-making / policy roles, and the frequently-derided regulatory aspects of planning. Planning strategies that are not accompanied by a sophisticated and resolved regulatory expression are doomed to fail.

The discussion of the operation of the system in the latter parts of the book is therefore structured around discussion of various urban policy challenges, including activity centre planning, housing supply, heritage, and environmental issues. In each case, I have focussed on regulatory design as the point of interface between traditional statutory and strategic roles. How do planning schemes inform decision-making and policy outcomes in these areas?

To help answer that question I have also included a detailed discussion of system design, aiming to more precisely define the options available in designing planning controls. Too often, the discussion in Victorian has focussed on simplistic dichotomies such as a perceived choice between performance-based vs prescriptive controls. I argue that we need to more precisely define our terms in such discussions, and get better at matching our tools to our policy dilemmas.

The discussion in the latter sections of the book therefore turns to the theme of “prospects,” considering where the Victorian system has fallen short of its aims and suggesting ways forward. In doing so, I argue for an incremental response: I believe that the VPP system presents a very sound foundation and has enormous strengths that are sometimes under-recognised. At the same, however, I think certain problems with the core system have been understated in previous rounds of reform, and that some previous reform efforts have been misdirected.

I therefore close the book with some specific suggestions about how the current system could be improved. With signs from the government that we may see significant reform in the next 12 to 18 months from their “Smart Planning” program, I hope the book can contribute to ongoing discussion about how the planning system can better achieve its goals.

Originally published in the March 2017 edition of Planning News.