Off the plan: development chaos adds to Bracks' woes
Nicole Lindsay

Wags in the property industry joke that Victorian Planning Minister Mary Delahunty must have a "bloody big desk". Whenever they ask what's happening to a long-mooted project or policy, they're told: "It's on the Minister's desk."

But Delahunty is not the only one with a laden desk. Problems with the planning portfolio are just one of a number of festering mid-term political sores afflicting Premier Steve Bracks's government.

The Premier is under increasing pressure to back down and appoint an independent commission of inquiry into a police corruption scandal that worsens by the day.

Delahunty and Victorian Police Minister Andre Haermeyer, two of the weakest links in Bracks's ministerial team, are tipped to be dumped when the Premier reshuffles his cabinet in a bid to regain control of the political agenda.

Bracks is known to be concerned about both Delahunty and her office, which is seen as a "shambles - even dysfunctional", according to well-placed sources.

A Bracks favourite, Tim Holding, is widely rumoured to be the next planning minister and could squeeze out Delahunty, who was recruited by Treasurer (then opposition leader) John Brumby in 1998.

Holding's faction, Labor Alliance, in partnership with the Left faction holds control of the Victorian ALP, edging out Brumby's Right faction.

But the joke about Delahunty's desk sums up what many in the development industry think about the woeful state of planning in Victoria after a litany of planning disasters during the frenzy of the property boom.

"She's just not interested and she just doesn't know enough about what's going on. Her decisions are inconsistent and she's got no backing from the government ... I'll tell you everything about Mary Delahunty on the record after there's a change of government," says one developer, who declined to be named.

But it's not just developers who bag the minister. Actors such as Barry Humphries and Geoffrey Rush have taken to the streets to protest about controversial plans to build on top of Camberwell railway station.

The collective but private view held by players from all areas of the debate - including community groups, councils, developers and planners - is that Delahunty is distant and remote. She is, they assert, not interested in planning and is isolated within the government.

But no one will be quoted directly for fear of retribution by a government that looks set to be in power for at least another six years.

Just before last month's budget, Delahunty rejected rumours she was going to be dumped or would resign:

"There are always rumours about Mary Delahunty," she says. "I don't know why. I guess it's because I was an ex-journalist ... remember how I came into politics: I was invited to be part of the Labor renewal among a lot of other people and so I came into politics in a very unconventional way.

"I guess I will always attract rumours. They are baseless. I haven't heard the rumours for a while but I know every six months it will pop up. And that's the nature of Mary Delahunty and the way I came to politics.

"I'm amused about the rumours and I'm chuffed about the job."

But conflicting statements from Bracks and Delahunty about policy and projects just add to the confusion. The problems have been triggered, essentially, by the government taking control of projects from local authorities and then making inconsistent decisions.

Developers and other property industry figures believe it's a self-made mess. They are particularly frustrated by the slow and fractured roll-out of the first strategic metropolitan plan since 1971, "Melbourne 2030".

This was the government's highly lauded but troubled planning blueprint unveiled in 2002. It was supposed to determine development across the city for the next 30 years.

There is now a view that Delahunty is so closely associated with the flailing Melbourne 2030 and the planning morass that she is being left in the job only until political necessity demands a scalp for the mess. That scalp will be hers.

Bracks did not appear to have much to say when asked by The Australian Financial Review about his Planning Minister's performance.

When asked if he had full confidence in her performance in the planning portfolio and asked to comment on widespread dissatisfaction with her from within the industry and the community, Bracks replied through a spokeswoman: "In answer to your first question, of course, the minister is doing a good job.

"I think this cancels out the need to answer the second question."

But Bracks has twice this year undermined Delahunty's policy statements - once on rural rezonings and, more recently, on the development at Camberwell station.

Opposition spokesman Ted Baillieu, who is an architect, said: "Delahunty is going through the motions. She is out of her depth in all regards and gets it wrong in parliament all the time.

"She hasn't got the confidence of her colleagues - Justin Madden, John Brumby and Rob Hulls. All look after projects and legislation in her portfolio.

"And she won't go to public meetings. She won't put herself in a position where she has to answer questions."

Population expert Bob Birrell from Monash University's Centre for Population and Urban Research says he doesn't believe Melbourne 2030 will work at all. "It's fatally flawed," he says.

Birrell says the government's urban growth boundary has pushed up the price of land and will therefore make the outer suburbs upmarket.

"Population pressure will fall back on established suburbs and opportunistic infill. It's an ugly phenomenon that's not talked about," he says.

"The whole thing is misconceived because it claims you can pick up an extra million people and maintain Melbourne's liveability. We don't believe that this is achievable."

And almost two years after 2030 was put in place, the first report to Delahunty from her hand-picked 2030 Implementation Reference Group shows concern about the slow pace.

The group's chief, Bill Russell, head of PricewaterhouseCoopers' property group, has called on the government to spend more on marketing Melbourne 2030 and to ensure that transport infrastructure is built before any development in the outer suburbs.

"It won't happen without that [infrastructure]," Russell says.

While planning got a showing in the government's recent pre-budget economic statement, there was only one mention of Melbourne 2030 in the actual budget itself, even though it was supposed to be a "whole-of-government" policy.

Its showing in the budget related to only three initiatives that had already been announced - online conveyancing, cheap planning reforms and new priority development zones.

"Rail infrastructure is the absolute key to it going forward and it would have been nice to get some funding for that," Russell says.

"A lot of people do not understand what it's about. It needs rebadging. And we've got to get councils on side and the government has got to commit funding.

"We've got to make sure council plans are in place and the infrastructure is there. There are concerns that there aren't enough planners at the local level."

A residents' lobby group, Save Our Suburbs, is also frustrated by the slow progress of Melbourne 2030.

"It's taking longer than anyone would have hoped to show some clear direction. It's two years already into a 20-year program," says SOS president Nigel Kirby.

"Melbourne 2030 is dead in the water if the government does not adopt our reforms. It has to be prescriptive about enshrining neighbourhood character and setbacks and height limits in the suburbs. People are getting frustrated and concerned and the government has to act.

"It would have been better to have a system that was created from ground up rather than from on high. The government is imposing it on the community."

The trouble in Camberwell centres on the 2030 issue. It is especially significant because Camberwell is an affluent middle-class neighbourhood that people don't wish to leave or be changed.

Yet it has a thriving commercial and retail hub around Burke Road and the junction of Burke, Riversdale and Camberwell roads - a location highlighted in 2030 as the perfect spot for intense development.

Several developers have said if Melbourne 2030 can't work in Camberwell, it can't work anywhere.

Despite all this, Delahunty dismisses claims that industry is unhappy with her performance.

Melbourne 2030's most important elements are its legislated urban-growth boundary, its green-wedge areas that cannot be developed and its encouragement of medium- to high-density development in "activity centres" around public transport and shopping centres.

But these elements are in question.

Delahunty points to the "unsexy work" she has done to audit land supply in the five mooted land corridors, the legislated green-wedge zones and the urban-growth boundary.

She says the recent building boom in new houses and renovations has produced tensions between developers, local councils and residents.

She also points to the pre-budget economic statement and its so-called Better Decisions Faster initiative, which allocated $3 million over three years to cut planning process times by 50 per cent.

The government's economic statement also provided for $1 billion in land tax cuts, an announcement that Delahunty says drew "effusive and strong" praise from "key stakeholders in the property industry", mentioning her personally.

"You can't get much better than press releases from key stakeholders singling you out for praise," she says. Some were almost "herograms".

She is reading her press releases like a minister, rather than the ABC journalist she once was: the much-needed land tax cut that business praised was a decision taken by Bracks and Brumby, not Delahunty.

She was given the planning portfolio in February 2002 after a bruising couple of years as education minister. Her husband, Jock Rankin, had died less than one month before her appointment.

She had no experience in planning, architecture or the building industry, yet had carriage of Melbourne 2030.

Because Delahunty is not seen to have firm control over her portfolio, other ministers have been allowed to cherry-pick some of the more interesting parts of her job.

The Docklands Authority and the Urban and Regional Land Corporation, which are jointly responsible for billions of dollars of residential development, were merged last year to form a new organisation, VicUrban, under the control of Transport and Major Projects Minister Peter Batchelor.

VicUrban's job is to spearhead more private-sector development into publicly owned residential projects along the lines of the $8 billion Docklands precinct and is supposed to be a crucial tool in making Melbourne 2030 work.

With the Major Projects portfolio controlled by Batchelor, the rhetoric of planning for the whole of Melbourne sounds hollow.

While Docklands and Major Projects were never part of planning previously, the Urban Land Corporation was, and all three operated out of the department of Infrastructure where they worked closely with the Department of Transport.

These agencies and departments were reshuffled when Delahunty was put in the job, so that the Planning Department moved out of the Department of Infrastructure and into Deputy Premier John Thwaites's Department of Sustainability and Environment.

These moves have fuelled the impression that Delahunty does not really have her own hands firmly on the wheel.

The Victorian government's push as part of Melbourne 2030 to build high-density apartments in suburban activity centres could be stymied by building costs.

Developers have repeatedly warned the state government its higher-density strategies outlined in Melbourne 2030 are unlikely to be successful while multistorey developments cost 30 per cent more than low-rise residential.

There is also likely to be a mismatch between the government's forecast of future need and what has been built in the past 10 years during the building boom, according to a new report on apartments across the suburbs by property valuers Charter Keck Cramer .

Melbourne 2030 calls for 250,000 households to be located in activity centres over the next 30 years, or an average of 8300 a year.

"In reality, there has been an annual average of only 5300 medium-density units delivered in the past decade across the entire metropolitan area," the report says.

"In order to satisfy Melbourne 2030 objectives, there needs to be a radical increase in apartment supply, particularly in suburban activity centres."

Charter Keck Cramer strategic research director Rob Papaleo says: "Melbourne 2030 is very optimistic and strategic but it's forgotten about market reality at this point in time".

Papaleo says it is flawed by having a "top-down approach" that leaves implementation to an under-resourced local government sector.

"But it's the first review of the metro strategy in 20 years and these things always take a long time to bed down. There's a long gestation period in getting the principles adopted."

One recent positive is that the Better Decisions Faster reforms mean residents and developers will have to have their planning applications vetted by a council-approved certifier before the application enters the official planning system.

About 95 per cent of planning applications are estimated to be incomplete, which adds to the cost and time of processing.

The BDF reforms have been tested in Glen Eira, in Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs, where the average application decision time has been reduced from 160 days with a 73 per cent approval rate to 55 days with a 92 per cent approval rate.

Delahunty says she hopes the proposed system can further reduce approval time to 35 days.

But even the usually compliant Property Council of Australia has called it "better decisions faster-ish" in its weekly newsletter.

The PCA has told members that the BDF changes merely started the clock at a different point and will not really reduce the time developers spend in the planning system.

The president of the Municipal Association of Victoria, Brad Matheson, says: "What does gum up the system is a lot of incomplete planning applications ... and referrals stuck on somebody's desk for two weeks. These are the sorts of things that stop the clock."

While the Bracks government has a huge majority in the state's lower house and is expected to easily win the next election, it has made some enormous planning-related errors in many of its sensitive regional and outer-suburban electorates.

Maybe the solution to the problem is not to replace the minister, but to give her a smaller desk.

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