VICTORIAN Auditor-General Andrew Greaves last week tabled a report in Parliament following an assessment of whether the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) and councils are managing and implementing the planning system to support the objectives of the Planning and Environment Act 1987 and the desired outcomes of state planning policies.
With the state welcoming about 100 000 people a year, pressure on jobs, housing, infrastructure and other services will intensify, and Mr Greaves said the land use and development planning system is one of the key tools used by state and local governments to meet these demands and deliver the state's priorities for a connected, liveable and sustainable state.
The audit focused on the activities of DELWP and three selected councils—the Cities of Whittlesea and Yarra, and Moorabool Shire Council – to determine how they manage their roles as planning and responsible authorities and achieve state planning policies.
The audit also examined:
- Progress since the Auditor-General's 2008 audit in improving oversight of the system and its performance;
- The impact of reforms since 2008 in improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the land use planning system;
- Barriers to the delivery and implementation of better-practice planning schemes; and
- The approach to measuring the planning system's performance.
While the audit states that governments, state planning departments and councils have directed significant effort over many years to reform and improve the system, it found that "they have not prioritised or implemented review and reform recommendations in a timely way, if at all."
"The assessments DELWP and councils provide to inform decisions are not as comprehensive as required by the Act and the VPP. DELWP and councils have also not measured the success of the system's contribution to achieving planning policy objectives," the Auditor-General found.
"As a result, planning schemes remain overly complex. They are difficult to use and apply consistently to meet the intent of state planning objectives, and there is limited assurance that planning decisions deliver the net community benefit and sustainable outcomes that they should.
"Our examination showed that planning schemes have mixed success in achieving the intent of state policy across the three areas we examined—developing activity centres, increasing housing density, diversity and affordability, and protecting valuable agricultural land.
"Clearly much more work is required if the system is to realise its intent. A key focus must be simplicity—which can be achieved by clarifying the purpose of the system and eliminating ineffective controls. This should facilitate a shift in mindset away from a controls-based approach toward a more mature, outcomes-based consideration of all relevant, potentially conflicting, risk factors and impacts.
"Encouragingly, government and DELWP have developed a $25.4 million reform program to overhaul and improve Victoria's planning system.
"The program has been designed to address many of the outstanding issues from previous reviews and audits, and should provide a springboard for delivering a simplified and effective planning system. It is critical that this is supported by updated guidance materials and training to ensure the sustainability of reforms across all administrators and users of the system," the report said.
The Auditor-General made a total of six recommendations to the Department:
1. Ensure its Smart Planning Program improves the planning system by:
- Updating, simplifying and clarifying the content of the Victoria Planning Provisions in line with the weaknesses identified in this audit
- Developing a business case for Stage Three of the Smart Planning Program, to successfully roll out all reforms and ensure they are adequately resourced (see Part 2)
2. Strengthen its approach to overseeing and continuously improving the planning system, by:
- Incorporating a requirement in the revised Victoria Planning Provisions for its regular review
- Facilitating the development of a technical committee to undertake regular reviews of the Victoria Planning Provisions and its content
- Reviewing the roles, responsibilities and guidance for undertaking and implementing local planning scheme reviews in a timely manner based on risk
- Strengthening the planning scheme amendment process by providing a robust check of the strategic justification of amendments and the legal basis for the chosen planning provisions at the authorisation stage
- Working with councils to ensure that existing planning controls for natural hazards, such as flooding, fire and erosion, are applied in all areas where they need to be to appropriately manage the risks.
3. Work with councils to improve the way it and councils apply the requirements of the Victoria Planning Provisions, through:
- Improving the capacity of departmental and council planners to apply the planning scheme and assess planning proposals comprehensively against the requirements of the Planning and Environment Act 1987 and the Victoria Planning Provisions
- Developing and implementing training materials to educate planners to apply a performance-based approach to the application of the planning system and assessments
- Requiring assessments to include an overall conclusion that integrates the decision-making considerations, weighing up the positive and negative attributes and the overall acceptability of the proposed land use or development in proportion to its scale, complexity and risk
4. Introduce a risk-based approach to development assessment processes and guidance materials, by:
- Developing clear, simple assessment pathways that ensure applications are progressed in a transparent way in proportion to the potential risk, impact and cost, and in accordance with community expectations
- Reviewing efficiency indicators to support the application of a risk-based approach
5. Strengthen accountability requirements for decisions by applying better-practice principles for discretionary decision-making and transparent public reporting, including publishing reasons for all planning decisions, and publishing advisory committee reports within three months of the committee handing its report to the Minister for Planning.
6. Work with councils to complete the performance measurement framework for the planning system so that it provides the relevant information and data at the state and local levels to assess the effectiveness of the planning system, measure the achievement of planning policies and support continuous improvement of the planning system through monitoring the effectiveness of reforms.