Focus: Planning reviews abound Part III
26 June 2012
In brief: The initial report of the Victorian Planning System Ministerial Advisory Committee on the operation and effectiveness of the Victorian planning system and the Government's response to its key recommendations have been released and indicate important reforms to the planning system. In the third of our series on Victorian Government reviews and state planning laws, Lawyer Sarah Dynon and Special Counsel Meg Lee (view CV) look at the proposed changes.
- What does the initial report recommend and what was the Government response?
- How will code assessment work?
- What are the next steps?
How does it affect you?
- With the Victorian Government agreeing (at least 'in part' or 'in principle') with most of the recommendations in the initial report, all involved in the development and projects sectors can expect some significant changes to the planning system.
- Permit applicants with straightforward, low impact applications should be aware of the streamlined assessment process proposed by the recent Planning and Environment Amendment (VicSmart Planning Assessment) Bill 2012 (the VicSmart Bill) introduced into Parliament in June 2012.
On 14 June 2011, the Victorian Minister for Planning appointed the Planning System Ministerial Advisory Committee (the committee) under section 151 of the Planning and Environment Act 1987 (Vic), to advise on ways to improve the operation and effectiveness of the Victorian planning system. The review did not extend to the content of planning policy or a detailed review of the Victorian Planning Provisions (VPPs).
The committee held over 130 meetings and received 547 submissions and its first task under its terms of reference was to prepare a report and prioritise matters raised in submissions.
The initial report compares the planning system to a once powerful computer that is now being asked to do too much. It notes that in order to improve its operation and have it perform effectively and efficiently, it needs either to be unburdened of some of the tasks it is being asked to perform or to be rebuilt. The initial report states that the implication in all submissions is that major change is required.
Based on the issues the submission raised, the initial report makes 67 specific recommendations for change. The recommendations are classified into four key themes:
- Leadership of planning in Victoria;
- Architecture and structure of the planning system;
- Administration of the planning system; and
- Processes within the planning system.
Leadership of planning in Victoria
The initial report makes 15 specific recommendations on the leadership of planning in Victoria. It recommends that the role of the Minister in day-to-day matters be clarified and that the Practice Note relating to Ministerial Powers of Intervention be reviewed. The way the planning system is led by the Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD) is a key issue for the committee. The initial report notes that the DPCD's leadership role is central to the performance of the planning system but is also critical about the current level of accountability and lack of transparency. The committee also notes that local government has a critical leadership role and recommends that there be a greater emphasis on councils' role in strategic planning policy.
Many submissions addressed the costs and delays experienced once a matter is referred to VCAT. The committee recommends that VCAT should be adequately resourced to reduce the waiting time for matters in the planning & environment list, and that action in response to other findings in the initial report (eg the proposal to stream permit applications) should lead to fewer referrals to VCAT.
The committee recommends that changes to the role and operation of Planning Panels Victoria should be considered, and supports the use of expertise within Planning Panels Victoria for a wider purpose.
The Government response notes that it agrees (in some cases, 'in principle' or 'in part') with all these 'leadership' recommendations.
Architecture and structure of the planning system
The committee makes five specific recommendations on the architecture and structure of the planning system. It recommends replacing the Planning and Environment Act with an entirely new Planning Act. It notes that it is in need of 'modernisation' and, to the extent possible, simplification. The Government response notes that this is 'agreed in principle', however it states that '[t]his is a longer term objective'.
The initial report questions whether the VPPs, in their current form, continue to fulfil their intended purpose efficiently and effectively and recommends further consideration of the role of the Municipal Strategic Statement and the form of local planning policies. In its response, the Government agrees with these recommendations.
Administration of the planning system
The committee makes 22 specific recommendations in relation to the administration of the planning system. These include recommending a review of the schedule of application fees (which the Government response notes as 'Agreed, underway') and reviewing all stages of the planning scheme amendment process, to reduce costs for all parties (which the Government response also agrees with). The initial report notes that the amount of human and financial resources involved in the planning scheme amendment process is significant.
The committee also recommends a review of the structure of permit triggers within overlays and investigating multi-purpose overlays in order to reduce the amount of layering. Again, the Government is in agreement with this.
Processes within the planning system
The remaining 25 specific recommendations relate to processes within the planning system. The initial report recommends streaming planning scheme amendments, along the lines of:
- technical amendments;
- 'normal' amendments; and
- state significant amendments.
It also recommends reviewing the steps in the planning scheme amendment process and the need for authorisation, in order to increase efficiency. The Government response notes that this will form part of the State Government's reforms to the planning scheme amendment process.
In terms of the permit application process, a number of submitters considered that the current 'one size fits all' planning permit process needs to be changed. The initial report recommends a streamlined approach for different land use and/or development categories that align with revised notice provisions, referral authority procedures and adjusted timelines for decision-making.
The suggested approach in the initial report is a two-stream process: code assess and merit assess. In terms of the proposed code assess stream, if a buildings and/or works application complies with clear qualitative criteria, it would be exempt from notice requirements and the statutory timeframe would be reduced. However, for land use applications and where a decision-maker needs to make a judgment on a qualitative objective or a particular design outcome, the merit assess stream would be appropriate.
The initial report recommends that the streamlined permit process be progressed via careful testing with councils and the community, and suggests a pilot program across various municipalities.
The Government response to this recommendation is 'Agree, underway'.
Since the release of the Government response, the Minister for Planning has taken steps to implement a code assess system by the introduction of the VicSmart Bill, which amends the Planning and Environment Act to introduce a streamlined assessment process for straightforward, low impact planning permit applications. The VicSmart Bill will enable the new assessment process to be introduced in planning schemes (rather than the Act itself), which will set out the process' operational aspects.
According to the VicSmart 'Fact Sheet' on the DPCD website, the planning scheme will set out the types of applications that will be subject to the new process, so that it is known in advance how these applications will be handled. Examples of applications that are listed in the fact sheet as those being considered for VicSmart include building a service station on an industrial lot and subdividing land to align it with the layout of a planning permit for two dwellings.
Once a VicSmart application is submitted, a council officer will assess the application against the pre-set assessment criteria, which will be set out in the planning scheme. According to the fact sheet, the VicSmart application will be assessed within a short timeframe 10 business days is currently being considered. The VicSmart process is expected to be in place later this year, following changes to the Act and an amendment to all planning schemes.
The proposed code assessment process is similar to the two-stream process that exists in Queensland, where applications are classified as code assessable or impact assessable. Code assessable applications in Queensland require assessment against a limited number of documents and are exempt from notice requirements. However, the code assessable process still takes a significant amount of time, approximately six months from the time the applicant submits its application to approval (compared with 9-12 months for impact assessable applications).
It is understood that the committee is awaiting a renewal of its appointment and revised terms of reference to set out the work the Minister wants it to do to further investigate matters suggested in the initial report. The next steps in the VicSmart process will be a state-wide planning scheme amendment. It is likely that the amendment will be the first of several required in order to get the VicSmart or the codes assessment process operational.
- Meg LeeSpecial Counsel,
Ph: +61 3 9613 8154
- Chris SchulzPartner,
Ph: +61 3 9613 8772
- Paul LalichPartner,
Ph: +61 2 9230 4026
- Bill McCrediePartner,
Ph: +61 7 3334 3049