Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A community say on local development

Community concerns about development are often dismissed as NIMBYism, an expression of the Not-In-My-Backyard culture. The reality is that valid planning objections are too often given short shrift by a Council falling in line with the Brumby State Government's rampant development agenda.

We all know that sprawl must be contained for the benefit of the environment, but we are not faced with a stark choice between no development and over-development. There's a balance between those extremes that comes from including the community in planning decisions and listening to their voice. That isn't happening with the current Council and, having served on Council's Planning Committee, current Rucker Ward Councillor, Steven Tsitas, must take some responsibility for that sad state of affairs.

In 2004, Councillor Tsitas was elected in part on the basis of his support for community planning group, Save Westgarth Village, for which I acted as spokesperson and also ran as a Council candidate. Well, in terms of Councillor Tsitas' performance since then as a community planning advocate, I'd say there just aren't any significant runs on the board.

As well as the general failure of democracy when it comes to the openness and responsiveness of Council on planning matters, the community is faced with a technocratic approach to planning, where the onus is on ordinary residents to understand obscure structure plans and planning schemes. Council must do more to explain clearly the reasons for planning decisions - especially the claimed basis on which community objections are too often rejected. There must also be genuine scope for communities to influence the outcomes of planning decisions.

Council must also be more transparent about what's in the pipeline. Unfortunately, an online planning information service is being designed without significant community consultation on what the public would like to know. It is also our misfortune that the system has already been delayed for more than a year. That's a pity when it might help us keep track of the number and type of developments planned for our ward, and perhaps to actively campaign on them when necessary.

You might hear the defence that Council is subject to State Government policies and legislation, to the vagaries of VCAT, and to statutory timelines, but where in all this is Council advocacy for a saner planning process that is understandable and accountable to the people? The trouble is, when every current Councillor is a member of the same political faction as the Premier, you're just not going to get any decent advocacy for residents.

It falls to groups such as the Darebin Appropriate Development Association (DADA) to remain eternally vigilant on planning matters, and to serve as a focal point for valid community concerns about inappropriate and excessive development projects. Yet why the need for such vigilance, when reason and moderation should be built into the system in the first place? With new representation on Council, this is possible.

A key focus of DADA's efforts has been the ten-storey Northcote Plaza development of 90+ units. Rammed through by the State Government, there was too little advocacy from Council to protect the community's investment in the wonderful All Nations Park. The Plaza was never a development opportunity when the park was a tip, so why should it become a site of commercial exploitation just because there has been strong public investment to create such a fantastic open space?

The number of such projects will only increase. Former industrial land on Separation Street/Arthurton Road has been slated by Council for eight storeys, but there is already talk of potential twelve-storey development. Where's the community interest? At present, it's overshadowed by the commercial interests of developers.

Council also plans to redevelop the Preston Market, and to spend around $140 million on the redevelopment of the Preston Civic Precinct on the corner of High and Gower Streets. What kind of community input would you like to see on such projects, and others that will fall closer to home, in Rucker communities and neighbourhoods? What kind of community scrutiny would you like to see within Council itself? Again, this is possible if alternative voices are elected.

When you're reading Councillor Tsitas' prolific campaign material, delivered in bulky envelopes to your letterbox time and time again, consider ringing him to ask if he accepts a share of Council's poor performance on planning - especially when he is so quick to claim his share of Council's collective achievements in other areas.

If I am elected as a Rucker Ward Councillor, there'll be a pretty big light shone right on Council's planning activities. You'll find my full planning policies at my campaign website, and I hope you will consider them if local planning and development is of concern to you.

One thing I will strive to achieve is to bring the community in on planning decisions - not through shallow consultation in which your views are collected and ignored - but togive the community a role in making planning decisions. Why is that so hard for Council and the State Government?

Back to my campaign website

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Comments are most welcome on any of the posts at Northcote Independent. I encourage feedback - positive or negative. Feel free to disagree, but remember that posts are moderated to ensure they are on the topic and in the spirit of open debate, as outlined in my editorial policy.