The C117 Planning Panel’s report  has been released by the Manningham Council. It turns out to be a major win for community involvement and for the values of the green wedge in the face of the usual commercial pressures. It is also evidence that the system can work as we would want it to. The Panel left no doubt that it understood the essential purposes of the Rural Conservation Zone and of the green wedge generally.

C117 is an amendment proposed by the Manningham Council essentially designed to allow more tourist development in the green wedge and Yarra corridor. The council claimed that agriculture is declining and that in the interests of the ‘economic viability’ of the green wedge more ‘tourist oriented’ development needs to be encouraged, notably including a ‘tourist cluster’ in South Warrandyte.  A development case in point was last year’s proposal for a 49 room hotel in Brumbys Road, South Warrandyte, rejected by VCAT in January last year. C117 clearly aimed to improve the chance that this kind of development would be approved – at the expense of the green wedge.

Although the amendment targets only Manningham, the issue is alive for all green wedges, and all green wedge Councils, including Nillumbik, would be taking a keen interest.

Because there were community objections the amendment was subject to a State Government ‘Planning Panel’. Panels are appointed by Planning Panels Victoria, and in this case the Panel’s Chair and only member was Mr Lester Townsend. Mr Townsend has been a member of Planning Panels Victoria since 1997, and a Senior Member since 2005. He is also a member of the Advisory Committee which is reviewing the entire State Planning Policy Framework.

The task of a Planning Panel is to conduct a hearing  in which Council and all objectors and other submitters are heard, and to prepare a report as a recommendation to the Minister and the Council. The C117 hearing was conducted last November, and heard from 27 submitters and the Council over three days. Our report of the hearing was entitled ‘C117: Magical Mystery Tour’, because at the end of it we had no idea what the Panel was going to say. Well, the Council has just made the Panel report public, so mystery no longer. The outcome is stunning, in a good way.

The contentious part of C117 is a modified clause 21.07 in the MSS, or Municipal Strategic Statement, relating to the ‘Green Wedge and Yarra River Corridor’. Its clear intent was to allow more tourist development proposals for the green wedge to be granted permits.   At the hearing James Livingstone, the WCA’s expert witness, suggested that the Brumbys Road residential hotel proposal, approved by Council but rejected by VCAT, would have had an increased chance of succeeding under C117. The Panel quoted from this VCAT decision, and concluded:

  • Stronger support for tourism uses in the green wedge would inevitably tip the balance more in favour of such uses and this would necessarily be at the expense of other policy outcomes. If this were not the case, then the policy would do nothing.

The report found that the economic development opportunities supported by the policy would inevitably be at odds with the purposes of the RCZ, the Rural Conservation Zone, which are clearly aimed at conservation.

The Panel’s report also revealed something not previously made public: in March 2017 the Council approached the Minister, requesting a review of the list of uses prohibited in the RCZ. This is noteworthy because in the associated reports exhibited to the public with C117 the Council says that it does not wish to change the zone from RCZ. But they apparently did want to change the RCZ itself!

The Panel recommended that the Council abandons its proposed changes to 21.07, supported by these summary points:

  • A decline in agricultural employment in the green wedge may have broader economic development issues for Manningham but it does not imply a need to replace those jobs within the green wedge.
  • The policy would encourage economic development at the expense of green wedge values.
  • The policy would exacerbate the tension between policy and zone controls.
  • Council’s vision for tourism goes beyond the scale of activity permitted under current controls.
  • There is no clear planning justification for supporting tourism clusters.

The report also mentioned potential conflict with bushfire planning provisions, and possible confusion in the relationship between the amendment and the Council’s own tourism policy.

In addition to the amended 21.07, C117 had two other parts, both in section 22, Manningham’s Local Policy Framework.
First, a revised 22.19 concerning outbuildings. This has the effect of applying the controls already in place in the Low Density Residential Zone to the RCZ as well. Most objectors had no problem with this, and the Panel only recommended a minor but material fix to a policy in
relation to the purpose of outbuildings.

The third part of C117 was a new clause 22.20, concerning non-residential uses. This clause the Panel accepted but with major editing, to:

  • remove text dealing with strategic
    issues rather than specific applications
  • remove text that duplicates the
    purpose of the RCZ
  • remove text that lack specificity
    by relying on things being ‘appropriate’ when It is not clear precisely which
    areas or outcomes are ‘appropriate’
  • not introduce additional
    objectives that are covered by other clauses in the scheme

For example, this ‘policy’ was removed:

  •  Uses that contribute to the economic or tourism development and employment opportunities within Manningham are encouraged in appropriate locations.

On the grounds that it was a strategy not a policy, that it duplicated a condition in the RCZ, and that ‘appropriate’ was undefined.

We are not necessarily surprised these days when a government report is equivocal, shirks the difficult issues and attempts to rationalize a conclusion already arrived at. This report is not one of those. This is an example of the system of checks and balances working. The outcome is also a result of serious community involvement in the issue, as manifest in the 27 submissions – without which there would have been no Panel.

We now await the response of the Manningham Council to the Panel’s report. They may follow its recommendations, they could choose to abandon the entire amendment, or they could approach the Minister to press for a different outcome.