Presentation by The Hon. Kelvin Thomson, Convenor of Planning Democracy, to Combined Residents of Whitehorse Action Groups, (CROWAG) Wednesday 15 February, Blackburn Lake Visitor Centre.
Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you this evening. Thank you to the Combined Residents of Whitehorse Action Groups (CROWAG) for putting this event together. It is always encouraging to find in our community civic-minded people who are prepared to contribute their time and their ability to protecting the best of Melbourne, with no prospect of financial benefit, and frankly, not a lot of public recognition. Thank you for all that you do.
Some brief background concerning Planning Democracy. Around 20 years ago Mary Drost OAM set up Planning Backlash as an umbrella organisation and coalition of community and resident action groups. For the past two decades it has worked to protect Melbourne’s liveability, and to give residents a say in the character of their street and neighbourhood. Mary turned 90 in 2021, and asked me to take over as Convenor, so that she could focus on her key objectives of living to be 100, and going to London to demand her congratulatory letter from the Queen in person! While the second of those objectives will not be realised, Mary remains in good health, and we wish her well in achieving her primary objective. She did a great job, and all of Melbourne are in her debt.
I agreed to take over on the basis the organisation would be re-named Planning Democracy, which I feel better reflects our objectives. Planning Democracy stands on 4 pillars – Heritage Protection, protecting Tree Canopy Cover, protecting Public Open Space, and giving residents a say in planning issues. We are a network of resident action groups. We have much in common with other non-government organisations working in the areas of environment, planning, and heritage. I have developed and maintained contact with like-minded groups such as the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, the National Trust, the Australian Heritage Advocacy Alliance, Green Wedges, and the Protectors of Public Lands.
Tonight, I will focus on two of our 4 pillars – Tree Canopy Cover, and Giving Residents a Say.
It is ironic that ours is the generation that best UNDERSTANDS the importance of protecting tree canopy cover, and does the most TALKING about protecting it, and yet at the same time is the generation DESTROYING more of it than any of the previous generations. I note that we seem very quick to criticise our predecessors for their apparent ignorance and greed. I suspect that no generation will be judged as harshly as ours. We certainly don’t have the excuse of ignorance.
Tree canopy cover around the world is in freefall. Tonight it is appropriate to focus on Melbourne, with a little bit of global context. In Australia, and right around the world, the size of cities is increasing massively. Urbanisation really was the defining characteristic of the human enterprise in the 20th century, and it continues unabated. In the past decade, over ¾ of the growth in Australia occurred in Australia’s largest cities, and 39% of Australians live in either Melbourne or Sydney.
Globally, Earth’s population has risen 5 fold since the beginning of the 19th century. It is now 8 billion and rising at the rate of 80 million every year, an extra billion every dozen years, the fastest rate ever. Pandemics and earthquakes and so on have no impact on it. Spin merchants keep claiming that the growth is coming to an end, but they are having a lend of us. They are like tobacco and fossil fuel lobbyists. And the proportion of city dwellers is growing. More than half the global population now resides in cities. That is expected to increase by 2/3rds by 2050. Globally, between now and 2050, urban areas will double to triple in extent.
But is this a good thing? Within the planning industry there is a widespread belief that urban consolidation is good for the environment. It’s a very convenient belief, because its puts planners on the same page as property developers, which opens up career opportunities and so on. Whatever reason, it is certainly widespread.
For example, when I was an MP one constituent of mine raised with Moreland Council (now Merri-bek) the environmental consequences of the vegetation loss which would come from the approval of a development next door. She received a written reply from a Council Planning Officer which stated that “While green space and landscaping do provide environmental benefits, the zoning allows for medium density development which supports urban consolidation and the associated environmental benefits”.
But last year’s national State of the Environment Report makes clear that urban consolidation does not bring with it “associated environmental benefits”. It says “ The growth rates of some of Australia’s capital cities are some of the highest in the developed world and these have placed growing pressure on the urban environment to expand either upwards (in terms of urban density) or outwards (in terms of urban sprawl)”.
It goes on to say that “Because of the increasing ratio of building area to land area on lots, the space for trees, plants and outdoor recreation at both the front and rear of dwellings has declined. This change in urban form is not only changing the physical form and character of existing and green field neighbourhoods, but the ability to manage heat, improve walkability and thereby the liveability of our urban environments. It is also reducing the extent of urban biodiversity by decreasing tree canopy cover and garden space”.
So there you have it. Urban consolidation is not saving the planet, it is wrecking it. I think the Moreland Council officer who was seeking to justify the chopping down of vegetation, more buildings, and the loss of sunlight, on environmental grounds, was engaged in an Orwellian, “black is white”, perversion of the truth.
It reminds me of the comment made by a US Army Officer about the aerial bombardment of a village in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it”. The motto of some of today’s planners is that “We have to destroy the environment in order to save it”.
Unfortunately, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Appeals Tribunal (VCAT) seems to have swallowed the mythical benefits of urban consolidation as well. For example, it approved an 11 storey high rise tower to overlook parklands in Brunswick, claiming the development would bring environmental benefits because it “will help achieve a more sustainable land use and settlement pattern, and encourage reduced car dependency”. Just for the record, new car sales in Australia last year were at the rate of one every 30 seconds. Over the past 20 years new car sales have increased by 31%. The reason they have increased by 31%, despite the best efforts of planners to stop them, is hiding in plain sight. During the last 20 years Australia’s population has increased by – wait for it – 31%. We have 31% more people, and sell 31% more new cars, than we did 20 years ago.
Professors Bill Laurance and Jayden Engert produced a paper last year that said growing cities “tend to engulf and devour their surrounding lands, often at the expense of biodiversity”. They concluded that “One of the most important demographic events of the past half century is the dramatic growth of urban areas worldwide”.
The growth and development juggernaut has given us a culture in which landowners feel that they should be allowed to treat their land as they please. I must admit that when I first became a Councillor, way back in 1981, I was sympathetic to this point of view. However, I realised over the course of my time as a Councillor that had we agreed to all the applications that came before us, we would have turned Coburg into a third world slum. You get the city you plan for. As it is, the Moreland Council agreed to enough applications this century to cause tree canopy cover in a monitored area of Pascoe Vale to decline by 25%. Naturally this completely undoes all the good work being done by Councils and community groups planting trees in the public domain.
The culture gives rise to the view that you can’t be serious about actually blocking tree removals. This leads to the scam known as offsets. A couple of years ago, on a country road, I came across a long line of saplings, clearly planted, some still with their stakes, which had been destroyed by a planned burn. Someone got paid to plant the trees. Someone got paid to kill them. Probably someone else used them as offsets, or for carbon credits. It is all nonsense. We need to stop chopping down trees. Period.
Another unhappy element of our present culture is the use of litigation, and the fear of it. Picture yourself as an arborist. Someone pays you for your professional opinion as to whether a tree is safe. If you say it is safe, and it turns out to be un-safe, and hurts someone, you are in big trouble. But if you say it is unsafe, it will be chopped down. No-one gets hurt, except, that is, for the public good.
The culture of putting growth and development first leads to inadequate rules to protect trees. The fine for illegal tree removal is insufficient to stop it. At 20 penalty points , or less than $4000, it is sometimes treated as a cost of doing business. I saw a recent report from Tasmania outlining the large increase in numbers of people being fined for illegal tree removal – apparently many of those who were fined were indeed treating the penalties as a cost of doing business.
Councils, including Whitehorse, have Tree Protection Laws, but enforcing them is costly. Prosecutions are rare. The laws have deterrent value, but their deterrent value needs to be increased.
And the other thing the “growth and development first” culture does is to strip away the power of residents. I have always believed that residents have a right to a say in the character of their street, their neighbourhood, their suburb. They live there. But planning powers have been relentlessly centralised over the course of the past 30 years, particularly here in Victoria. Councils are weak, State Governments are strong. They have progressively taken from Councils the power to say no to developers and developments.
Councils get told by the State Government that they have to meet certain population growth outcomes for their municipality. Why? Shouldn’t residents decide how much growth their City should have? I believe in the principle of subsidiarity. That is, decisions should be made at the closest practicable level to the people. Many years ago, I thought that central governments might be better protectors of the environment – I saw the Hawke Government save the Franklin River from the Tasmanian Government of the time. But now I have more faith in local communities. They have to live with the consequences of their decisions. I think they are a better bet than remote bureaucrats and company executives.
Moreover, at the risk of sounding alarmist, democracy has to be meaningful. If you have no say in what is happening around you, what is happening in your life, noble words about democracy will ring hollow. I am glad I don’t live in undemocratic China, and glad I don’t live in Russia or India either, where in practice an ordinary person has no influence on what happens in their lives.
I worry that the United States is headed down the same path. People have no genuine say, so they become cynical and apathetic about democracy. We need to give people some power over what happens in their world, even if they sometimes make mistakes.
I believe Councils should be given – or more accurately – given back – real planning powers. They should be allowed to make their decisions stick, with VCAT only there to safeguard against capricious, inconsistent, or arbitrary decision-making.
And the Councillors themselves should have real decision-making powers. Along with Council amalgamations has come the idea of Councillors being merely there to appoint the CEO and set broad policy directions. This makes Council officers much more powerful, but who are they really accountable to? We have far-reaching “powers of delegation” from Councillors to officers. When I was a Councillor, we would decide issues like the size of an individual driveway crossover. I admit that is no longer practical, but the pendulum has swung too far.
The requirement for at least 12 objections to a development before an application goes to a meeting is a further sign of delegation going too far, of Councillors being ineffectual. Councillors need to actually decide more issues. It will be objected that this could lead to corruption. My response is that, first, many people see the existing system, in which they have no voice, as corrupt. Secondly, I agree there needs to be plenty of scope for the IBAC to police the conduct of Councillors, with financial disclosure laws etc as effective safeguards against abuses.
Another issue which works against the interests of both residents and trees is what is known as “apprehended bias”. Councillors get told by Local Government Victoria and their own officers that they shouldn’t support community campaigns, because of the risk that this will lead to Council decisions being overturned due to “apprehended bias”. Councillors are told that “As decision makers, Councillors should not make up their minds, or appear to have made up their minds, before they have reviewed all the available information and advice”. This judicial concept of Councillors as neutral judges doesn’t appeal to me much. If a Councillor doesn’t have some values and ideas, why did they stand for the office? “Apprehended bias” was apparently a problem in the UK, because the Cameron Government’s UK Localism Act of 2011 expressly clarified the ability of Councillors to be able to discuss matters which may relate to a planning application, prior to voting on it, as long as they can show that they are going to make their judgment on the application with an open mind, listening to all the evidence and not having pre-determined their position.
In 2015 the UK Government described its planning reforms as having “enabled planning decisions to be taken at the lowest possible level with the involvement of local people”. The principle of subsidiarity. It would be a good idea here.
In short, we have major problems with both our “growth and development first” culture, and with the rules that culture has given rise to.
Given these problems, what’s the answer? In relation to local democracy, while I think most the changes in local government over the past 30 years have been detrimental to it, I am hopeful that the introduction of single-member Council wards, which the State Government has foreshadowed, will help. I know they’re not a silver bullet. But they will lead to smaller Wards. I believe that will reduce the distance between residents and Councillors, which has grown way too big, and improve Councillor accountability.
As for tree canopy cover, one bright light has been the development of drone technology and its use to map tree canopy cover. Resident groups should say to their Councils – we want you to map the tree canopy cover in our City. We want you to set a target to increase that cover. How much it needs to be increased will vary from municipality to municipality. But the important thing is that everywhere we must aim for an INCREASE.
The target must relate to the WHOLE city, not just the public land. The private land is just as important. Indeed, given that there is more of it than there is public land, it is more important.
And then you should ask your Councils to monitor it regularly – I think every six months would reflect the urgency of the issue. If the tree canopy cover is increasing, we’re getting somewhere. But if the tree canopy cover continues to decline, we need to use this information to point out to decision makers that we need to change both our culture and our rules.
What we need are targets, regular monitoring, results made public, and action based on those results.