There is a story in The Age today about a group of lefties who worked out their utopian plan for Melbourne to the year 2050 (you know the sort of thing – emissions targets, more public transport, in-fill development, innovation clusters, restricting the outer boundaries to prevent bogans ever affording a house) on the invitation of Liberal Planning Minister, Matthew Guy.
What was he thinking? Why would you subcontract this task to this group? But why does Melbourne need a plan? Surely a few set of principles, including enlarging the size of the city boundary (or not having one, even better) should be sufficient?
There have been a few interesting documentaries recently (I think on SBS) about the tragedy of town planning in London and New York. Large swaths of those cities were demolished and low income families with strong links to an area were forced out. Beautiful buildings were demolished and in the place monstrous high rise blocks were erected.
And has anyone been to Milton Keynes, that poster child for town planning?
My advice: never ever listen to town planners, let along Professors of Urban Planning.
Here’s the story:
Roz Hansen remembers the meeting at No. 1 Spring Street as particularly unpleasant. Hansen and her handpicked team of six had been working away on the draft planning strategy for Melbourne, a vision that would guide the burgeoning city to 2050.
The group had the official title of the Ministerial Advisory Committee, appointed by Planning Minister Matthew Guy in May 2012 to ”direct the development of the strategy”.
That is precisely what it had done for the previous 12 months, which included exhaustive public consultations to tap into the concerns of everyday people.
Planning expert Carolyn Whitzman: “It’s a plan built around the justification of the East West Link, which nobody involved, with the possible exception of the premier’s office, was talking about in the initial stages.”
The Spring Street meeting in June 2013, at the Planning Department, was the culmination of this work, a chance to discuss a draft strategy produced by Hansen’s committee and working groups comprising external experts and government staff.
Around the table were senior planning public servants, staff from the minister’s office and, at the start of the day, the minister himself.
”Some of the public servants and ministerial staff at the meeting were snotty and arrogant, and quite frankly, offensive at times, in my view,” says Hansen, an internationally renowned urban planning expert.
As Hansen tells it, the day-long meeting was the start of the demolition of the draft document: it was too long, it shouldn’t have targets, they didn’t want to talk about encouraging housing density in the suburbs. And some people in the room who had contributed to the draft were now effectively disowning it, or merely sitting silent without defending the content.
”It was as though the document had suddenly become the Ministerial Advisory Committee’s document and that the other people, including some in the room, had had no input,” recalls Hansen. ”They certainly didn’t put their hands up to declare that they were contributors.
”The commentary coming from some of the public servants around the table quite frankly was insulting.”
The end result was that in August, five of the six committee members, including Hansen, told the minister that their work was finished. It is a point of contention whether it was a resignation, as Hansen describes it, or the end of their job. Regardless, it ended badly.
Hansen has since become a vocal critic of some of the planning decisions being made by the state government, including its focus on building the East West Link. How did it come to this?
For the first time, Roz Hansen has detailed what happened, providing an account of the collapse of the process, which she agrees has all the hallmarks of a Yes Minister script but without the laughs.
The office of Planning Minister Matthew Guy did not provide answers to questions put by Fairfax Media.
In 2010, Victoria’s new Coalition government had decided that Melbourne needed a new plan. In 2001, the then Labor Bracks government had produced its Melbourne 2030 strategy, meant to guide the city’s development for the next 30 years. In response to a booming population, that was tweaked in 2008 to become Melbourne @ Five Million.
The general theme was urban consolidation, and a focus on development and resources around suburban centres – hardly rocket science in theory, but much harder to implement. The urban fringe kept expanding, but without the basic services and jobs to support the new communities.
The incoming Coalition government wanted a strategy of its own. The population and development pressures Labor had attempted to deal with were increasing by the day. Roz Hansen remembers being approached by Matthew Guy on International Women’s Day in March 2012 at a breakfast in Queen’s Hall, Parliament House. Hansen had helped establish the Women’s Planning Network in the mid-1990s.
His staff prepared terms of reference, and Hansen says Guy ”very generously” asked her whom she would like to be committee members. The group she nominated included Tony Nicholson, head of the Brotherhood of St Laurence; transport expert Professor John Stanley; and planning expert Bernard McNamara.
”It was a great group,” says Hansen, ”and we weren’t the usual suspects.”
The feedback from planners to the appointments was positive – this would not be a ”business as usual” approach.
So far, so good. In October 2012, the group produced its discussion paper, Melbourne: Let’s talk about the future. The paper contained nine principles, from economic imperatives such as jobs and transport capacity to making Melbourne a 20-minute city – Melburnians should be within 20 minutes of jobs and services. Another principle was social and economic participation. This included a discussion of the emergence of ”two Melbournes” – a ”choice rich” inner core, and a disadvantaged fringe. It included ”16 big ideas” to start the conversation. But it was becoming clear not everyone was sharing the committee’s view, or indeed recognising its status.
Hansen started getting the ”very real sense” that the committee was not being welcomed by the public service. Requests were made by the committee for information from the Department of Treasury and Finance and to meet the department to discuss funding and financing issues related to implementing the strategy. Hansen says those requests were denied.
”I regard that as arrogant. After all, this was a 40-year strategy for metropolitan Melbourne and the big elephant in the room was how to pay for the city-shaping and community-making infrastructure our city desperately needs.”
And so to the June morning at the meeting room at the department.
The public servants did not want to commit the government to any targets. But what was the point of a plan for Melbourne without them?
Often, Hansen says, the response given was that the current government could not commit to something it could not guarantee to deliver. She pointed out that given the electoral system, no government could give those guarantees. Hansen believes that in many instances Plan Melbourne is more about the next four years than a long-term vision for Melbourne.
They also didn’t want to talk about increasing density in the established middle suburbs and delivering more services in the urban growth areas, especially public transport. When the draft Plan Melbourne was released, a directive was included by the department about protecting the established suburbs from inappropriate development.
Hansen says that is what the planning system is for – it determines what is or is not appropriate on a development-by-development basis, and believes the directive points to another agenda. ”You’ve really got to say that typifies this almost anti-density attitude outside the expanded central city,” she says.
But the majority of Melburnians do not want to live in high-rise towers in the central city, or close to it, particularly if they have social and family connections in the suburbs. ”And they do not want to live in one or two-bedroom dog boxes. I believe people want housing choice at a price they can afford to buy or rent and that means an approach to housing which has to include the middle suburbs for medium-density housing.”
The 20-minute neighbourhood concept was also targeted. In essence, the concept means being within 20 minutes of a job and services – that is, travelling by public transport, walking or cycling and not just by car. Density delivers more services and even jobs closer to home. Hansen says the idea was dumbed down to one thing, neighbourhood activity centres.
After that June meeting, Hansen agreed to go away and work with two government people to rewrite the document. Initially, she didn’t want to do it, but she didn’t like what was happening to the committee’s work. ”I could see that the bureaucrats were going to start to dismember this draft quite substantially and I wanted to prevent this happening if possible,” she recalls.
Over two weeks, they ”worked their butts off”. The reworked document went to the committee, and then to the minister’s office. The message was that it was still too long and they wanted to change chapters and essentially destroy the narrative that was embedded in the committee’s draft, says Hansen.
”So they basically started to put the political spin on the document,” she says. ”We went through this process in good faith and then certain individuals within the department decided no, they were going to write this document. So they started to completely reshape it even though I was being told they were just ‘tweaking it’.”
They took out the targets for greenhouse emissions, and the committee was told to use the term ”changes in climatic conditions” rather than ”climate change” – a few references to the latter slipped through, says Hansen, she suspects because of poor editing.
A fundamental change was watering down the nine principles to the point where they have become almost lost despite the ”resounding support for them by submitters to the discussion paper …”
Hansen says she tried to speak to the minister a couple of times, but with no success. She had given up trying to speak to his staff or bureaucrats. ”It was like talking to deaf ears. It was clear that they were on a mission and they weren’t interested in what I or the other members had to say. It just reeked with arrogance and ‘I know best’ culture.”
So on August 30, Hansen met Guy and handed him a one-page letter from her and five of the six committee members. With that letter was a draft of what the committee believed should be the draft strategy for public comment and discussion.
In October, Plan Melbourne was released.
Hansen believes there are some good things in the document, such as its proposals on water and waste and focus on national employment clusters – even the word ”innovation” was removed from the title of these clusters. ”These clusters are all about health and education, research and innovation – the ingredients of a knowledge economy – and not simply about jobs,” she says. ”But the document is not the work of the committee because too much of their content was removed.”
What of the other committee members?
John Stanley declines to talk about what happened in the various meetings, taking the view that ”what happens on the football ground stays on the football ground”. ”My concern is that the community could get more out of this than they’re getting,” he says.
He is disappointed that so little of what was proposed has made it through, pointing to the fact that the committee’s draft plan reflected the community’s views. ”I think the community’s up for much more change than is in fact reflected in the draft.”
The biggest weakness, he says, is the lack of commitment to fund the plan. ”We were very keen to see that in there.”
But Bernard McNamara says the strategy was always going to be a government document. ”We were giving recommendations to the government, and it was on that basis.”
A lot of the committee’s recommendations were part of Plan Melbourne. ”Some of them weren’t, but that’s the government prerogative,” he says. He declined to comment on Hansen’s views about the opposition the committee faced.
Dr Carolyn Whitzman, associate professor in urban planning at the University of Melbourne who was consulted by the committee, dismisses Plan Melbourne as a ”beautiful coffee table book”. ”It’s got some very pretty pictures in it. But it neither reflects a developed consultation process, nor does it reflect the deliberations of the ministerial advisory committee.”
Whitzman says the only financial commitment in the plan is for the East West Link. She can’t think of another city where the central plank of a planning strategy is a downtown expressway. ”It’s a plan built around the justification of the East West Link, which nobody involved, with the possible exception of the premier’s office, was talking about in the initial stages,” she says.
Hansen, Whitzman and a group of other people concerned about key issues which are not being addressed in Melbourne have taken matters into their own hands, and are running a series of public forums, the first of which was held last week.
Roz Hansen believes that Matthew Guy began with the right intention. She says he publicly stated he wanted a robust plan, a plan for the people of Melbourne and not a political document. She believes the minister thinks the strategy plan delivers. ”But in my view and many others it’s business as usual,” she says.
She hasn’t spoken to Guy since she handed him the resignation letter. ”What do I say? ‘Matthew, you let me down?”’