Melbourne planning at its worst.

Posted by on Dec 10, 2012 in Blog, Opinion, Planning | 2 Comments

Saturday morning: coffee in left hand, croissant in right hand, The Age newspaper in front of me. It’s a good Saturday morning so far. What I didn’t expect was the front page and page 5 to contain two articles on separate debacles in the Melbourne planning system. I felt a mixture of frustration and disbelief at what I read, but also some joy in the knowledge that there were two extra side orders of planning farces on the menu at cafes and homes across Melbourne. I hope these articles bring greater awareness of how the future of our beloved city is being decided, and with that eventually bring change.

The front page: “Melbourne City Council could be denied a say on key building projects, with the majority of councillors unable to vote because of developer donations that bankrolled their election campaigns.” Hmmm, did they not realise a conflict of interests? One developer named is Central Equity, who has built the majority of residential towers in Melbourne.  The article also stated they have a major project in the planning system every year… This is appalling! I’m going to have a go at how the conversation might have gone:

Cental Equity: We’d love to give you some money for your election campaign, you know us, we’re Central Equity, we deal with your council every year, and feel we should give a little something back.
Councillor: Oh you build those huge towers we get so many objections to.
C.E: They may object, but look how successful Southbank and the docklands has been.
Councillor: <pause> These campaigns are expensive; I could do with your support. What can I do in return?
C.E: Well just remember us when our next planning application comes in. You might also want to remember the money we gave you too…

I’m just lost for words; it makes my blood boil. There is nothing more to say anyway.

Page 5: A proposed new development in Port Melbourne next to Station Pier. The original proposal was for an 11 and 14 storey tower. Due to public backlash, the council set a new height limit of 6 storeys, from the original 3 when the application was lodged. I feel 6 storeys is fair, it represents incremental change. This is a great spot for increased density, the infrastructure is in place to cope with it, and it’s not out of character along this main road.

What happened next and what the article covered is a story I hear happening too often. Developers put in applications that propose significantly less than they want to get approval for. This makes for an easier permit. In this case the council said no, the developer goes to VCAT and I know from experience what happens next: The cashed up developers fight to overturn the refusal with high powered QCs. The council planner and the neighbours don’t stand a chance, and are obliterated at the hearing. The developer has their permit.

Stage two of developer onslaught: They apply to “vary the approved plans”, which is what occurred in the case mentioned in Port Melbourne. When this happens no public notification or consultation is required. The developers now increase their proposal to 19 storeys! The matter is yet to be heard at VCAT, but I am confident without the public/objectors allowed to have their say, now it’s just the QCs of the developers against the council, and soon the papers will be talking about the furore of 19 storeys passed by VCAT in an area with a height restriction of 6. That’s just over three times higher. Even if they aren’t successful, they will then re-apply for 16 storeys. The worst case for these developers: they have to stick to their 14 storeys they already have a permit for.

Do stories such as these regarding the Melbourne planning system upset you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

If you would like to be informed when new blog entries go online, and other architectural content we share, ‘like’ our Facebook page.



  1. Illan
    December 12, 2012

    Nice blog piece Darren, enjoying following your weekly posts!

    My thoughts on the planning system stem from my own personal experiences in getting permits for a multi level mixed use development.

    Whilst I see the points you are making about the loop holes that allow developers to try and bankroll their way to larger building envelopes, and I totally agree about contributions to campaigns being a joke – It should also be pointed the role of local councils.

    They are so poor at being able to make a decision, follow local and state policy AND properly engage the developer and their consultants in trying to work together through the application. This often results in no consultation in the planning stage, poor guidaince of height levels (when compared to the thoughts of private consultants and other permits approved via VCAT) and this can leave a developer little choice but to push to VCAT.

    You only get one shot at developing a site, so you need to get the best result possible. Do I like the system? No way, it costs a small fortune if you can’t get any back and forth from council, but if you can’t – then what, just walk away?

    Another issue is the time applications can exist in the local and VCAT system (even on the major cases list) and the fact that local council at the same time can introduce planning amendments, which whilst not approved, are deemed to carry weight.

    Ok – I’ll stop now, but it isn’t all one way traffic!

    • Darren Naftal
      Darren Naftal
      December 13, 2012

      Hi Illan,

      Great to hear from you, and I’m so pleased to hear you are enjoying my posts. Thanks for your support.

      I agree, often developers have to go to VCAT, myself and my clients too for the same reason: the council are often so conservative and not open to any consideration of design that meets the standards in new and better ways. This blog post however was in regards to developers who disregard everyone, the council, the policies, and the objectors. 19 stories is just not right in this area, and my point is that money should not be able to buy this. The neighbours and the objectors have a right to their amenity and the 6 storey limit protects that. As you rightly state, the council often won’t offer fair consultation during the planning process, and all too often it is a political decision not one based on good design, but they can’t be one set of rules for rich developers and one for the rest of us.

      I also feel your pain in regards to proposed amendments in the local council planning policies. They are”proposed” as they are open to public opinion and yet to be decided if they serve the community well. So for them to lean on these and decide they have weight when it suits them and they are not yet approved, is not right.

      It’s my continued battle: I just want good housing to see the light in Melbourne, not more of the rubbish that is a blight on neighbourhoods everywhere you go. The likes of you and I who believe in this, must keep fighting.

      Thanks for your comment. I look forward to your input on other topics.




Leave a Reply