Now that community comments on the draft Green Wedge Management Plan have been made and heard by Council we’re waiting to find out what the Council will decide to do with it. After such an extensive and public project to get us to this point, what has been achieved? This newsletter puts it all together, tells the story so far, and invites you to form your own view.

Model community consultation program?
As an exercise in citizen participation in governance Nillumbik’s community engagement program could have been a model. Its ostensible purpose was to inform the preparation of a new green wedge management plan (GWMP), a  document laying out how the Shire Council intended to look after its green wedge.  The program was run by consultants at arm’s length from Council. It was extensive, offering maximum opportunity to Shire residents for participation, and it was transparent, with contributions professionally captured and published.  

What if the community’s views were established but then ignored?

The program had three phases. The first consisted of two ‘Design workshops’, attended by Council staff, Councillors and ‘stakeholders’, being the leaders of community groups. It is unclear if these workshops produced any valuable tangible output, but they at least kicked off the process.

The second phase was a six week program of general community consultation. A key element was an online survey which asked what we liked about the green wedge, and what opportunities and challenges we thought were associated with living in it. Although the survey invited responses in the now familiar bureaucratic categories of ‘environmental’, ‘social’, ‘regulatory’ and ‘economic’, it was a genuine opportunity for the community to reveal its thoughts about the green wedge. Following the survey were 10 community workshops and 23 ‘coffee and chat’ sessions held at various locations across the Shire.  There were 688 responses to the online survey and 181 people attended the community workshops.

Enthusiasm for the green wedge.
Some  wondered what the responses might say about green/anti-green conflict which had such a high profile around the last Council election. A review of the answers to the ‘what regulatory challenges do you see’ question revealed that only 5% of all respondents saw too much environmental regulation as a problem. The dominant survey response was enthusiasm for the green wedge and its protection.

The entire program was documented on the Council’s website, including verbatim responses to the online survey.

The Community Panel
The final phase of the program was the ‘Community Panel’. Initially referred to as a ‘Citizens’ Jury’, the entire project was in the hands of consultants who had established something of a proprietary process in this area, MosaicLab. 10,000 invitations were mailed to Shire residents, said to be selected at random from resident rolls. On this basis some 40 members were selected from acceptances. For reasons not stated Council mandated that selection was to be managed so that half the members were rural residents, even though only 20% of Shire residents are rural.

Accepting an invitation implied a willingness to commit to attend Panel workshops on six full Saturdays, roughly every two weeks in the months August to October, 2018. Because service was based on acceptances Panel membership was not truly random in the manner of a legal jury. There would have been a bias towards motivated people who saw serving on the Panel as an opportunity  to influence affairs in a particular way , to make a social contribution or to become involved in a community project

The Panel was a working group charged with coming up with its answer to the question “what is the best way for us (sic) to manage Nillumbik’s green wedge, now and into the future?”  Given the nature of the problem, its complexity and the expertise required, a team of strangers meeting for six Saturdays is an interesting approach. However,  the  perspective such a panel provided would have a unique significance because of its representative composition. Would its orientation reflect that of the online survey?

Anti-green lobbying.
The 2016 Council election was characterized by aggressive campaigning by a lobby group based on a closed Facebook group called PALS, for ProActive Landowners, whose platform was based on the principle that green wedge property owners know best how to care for the land, so should be allowed to do what they think best without limitation by ‘excessive’ regulation. In particular they attacked two proposed planning scheme amendments which aimed to increase green wedge protection, portraying them as an attack on landowners rights to an electorate which had little understanding of what these proposed amendments, C81 and C101, actually contained. Their campaign bore fruit and resulted in a Council with a 4/3 majority who have tended to favour development over the environment. The current Mayor, Cr Egan, is cited on the PALS Facebook page as its founder.

A Council intent on Change.
The Council has demonstrated its orientation through its handling of particular applications, notoriously one for a house on a ridgeline in the RCZ in Pigeon Bank Road, North Warrandyte. Despite Council officers recommending that no permit be granted the Council approved it, leaving it up to the community to object not only at VCAT but at the Supreme Court. No permit eventuated. You can read the full story on Wedge Tales, starting here.  A similar situation occurred in Barreenong Road, Cottles Bridge, with a similar result. Both of these episodes saw the Council attempt to overstep the Planning Scheme, and fail. Both saw the community step up to support a planning scheme under threat from Council.

The new Council wanted Change. In 2017 it engaged a consultant as a ‘Senior Strategic Advisor’. His brief was in part to ‘re-engage the rural community on the best way to manage the non-urban areas and to ‘review the GWMP  with community engagement and participation’. In view of the way things have turned out, it seems likely that the Council, at least the PALS-aligned Councillors, expected that ‘community engagement and participation’ would reveal that Shire residents would look upon the planning scheme with disfavour.

The current GWMP was the first for the Shire, and was designed to serve, with periodic updating, until 2025 This Council saw that a totally new, community-approved  GWMP could be the basis upon which they would present to the Planning Minister  planning scheme amendments which would reduce the emphasis upon environmental protection.

Community Panel recommendations
A key rule of the Community Panel was that only recommendations with at least 80% support could be put forward. After 6 days work the recommendations agreed to were consistent with the attitudes revealed in the online survey – the dominant value was protection of the environment. No recommendations were in favour of relaxing green wedge protections. The Panel endorsed the existing GWMP.

Council’s initial response
After the Panel had completed its work and delivered its recommendations Council officers prepared an initial response, which was presented at a special Council meeting.  Given that the point of the entire community consultation program was to inform the preparation of a new GWMP, it is not clear what might have been the purpose of this initial response. Might it have been to acknowledge the effort of the Panel? Or was it to add some technical and practical perspectives to the lay recommendations?

 Whatever the purpose might have been, the response that was produced to a significant extent rejected the clear orientation of the Panel, which was in favour of conservation. For example, the ‘Right to farm’ recommendation of the Panel included this:

  • Discourage bush block conversion to agricultural or pastoral use, or any other use that would otherwise degrade/impact vegetation and biodiversity values.

Council’s response was

  • Council does not fully support part 2 of the recommendation because of its absoluteness. Such matters are subject to planning controls and decision-making

In fact the recommendation was in no way absolute, and to observe that ‘such matters are subject to planning controls and decision making’ borders on gobbledygook. To dismiss any of the Panel’s recommendations in such haste and so cursorily seems gratuitous. In all officers wholly or partially rejected half of the Panel’s recommendations.

PALS Panel stunt
There was a side drama during the Panel process. In the lead up to the fourth Saturday PALS, unhappy with proceedings, generated an ‘Urgent Open letter re Community Panel’ to  the ‘Nillumbik Shire CEO and Councillors’, and ‘All Nillumbik Shire Inhabitants’, which they posted on their Facebook page and sent to all Councillors.  Reportedly there were also phone calls from ostensibly aggrieved panellists to the MosaicLab facilitators. Then, three members were missing from the following Panel session – they had quit, citing bullying and manipulation. Their concerns were shared with the rest of the Panel via a Power Point slide prepared by the facilitators. This was met with some bemusement by the remainder of the Panel because no-one could remember any bullying, nor even any agitated dispute. All three returned to the Panel for the following session. Perhaps the PALS leadership were attempting to derail the Panel process, but it turned out to be a minor interruption to proceedings.

There was a further, related diversion. Panel rules allowed that recommendations which came close but failed to reach the 80% support level could be submitted by any three panellists as a ‘Minority Report’. There was one genuine minority report, the recommendation for a ‘Green Wedge Authority’, which had 77% support on the final Panel day. This was a recommendation that Council lobby for the creation of a ‘Green Wedge Authority’ within the State Government infrastructure. This was not an actual ‘authority’ but a supporting administrative unit which would address high level issues affecting all green wedges, such as economic support for agriculture. It missed out on 80% support on the final session because of absences. But there was another, extra-ordinary minority report: three members of the Panel brought a PALS type manifesto on a USB key to the final Panel session and submitted it as a ‘minority report’. Although it did not conform to the minority report rules, the Panel having never seen it, it was accepted as a sort of extra, and at the Council meeting the Mayor made a point of saying that ‘all members of the community can have a say’, seeming to give this rogue document equal weight to the recommendations of the actual Panel.

GWMP draft preparation comments
Next it was up to Council officers to prepare a draft GWMP for public comment. It seems that this process was complicated by staff turnover. In addition to hiring a consultant ‘Senior Strategic Advisor’ the 2016 Council replaced the CEO and presided over an organization-change program which saw the loss of a rumoured 77 staff, including experienced planners and the officer originally responsible for generating the draft GWMP. It seems that the preparatory work done by established planning staff was discarded and a fresh start was made under the direction of Geoff Lawler, the ‘Senior Strategic Advisor’.

Draft GWMP released for comment
The draft GWMP was released for comment on June 21. Community responses were invited via an online questionnaire and through the submission of documents, to be received by August 11. There were a total of 746 submissions, many of which were substantial. An analysis of the responses was distributed with the agenda for the Future Nillumbik committee meeting in September.  Most were critical of the draft.

  • 523 submitters want the draft GWMP to prioritise the protection and enhancement of the environmental aspects of the Green Wedge.
  • In particular a strong emphasis was put on more detail aimed at safeguarding and protecting biodiversity. Also mentioned was the need for education about conserving the environment and the importance of stewardship, protecting water resources and vegetation.
  • 184 submitters criticized the structure of the project to generate the draft, citing the lack of a steering committee, insufficient involvement with relevant external bodies and a lack of consistency with the relevant State Government ‘Practice Note’, PPN31.

Melbourne’s green wedges are legislated in the Planning and Environment Act, administered by the Department of Environment, Water and Planning (DELWP). Significant criticism of the draft came in a letter from DELWP:

  • It is a key principle of a GWMP to ensure alignment with Victorian State Government policies and strategies. It is current state government policy to ensure new residential development is concentrated within existing settlements and townships and this is reinforced in council’s local planning policy framework at Clause 21.05. It is noted that the revised draft GWMP suggests council may have to “re-examine” this strategic policy direction.

In restrained, bureaucratic language, this comment implies that a key thrust of this draft is contrary to Government policy and will therefore fail.

Councillors in combat
Many submitters presented in person at Future Nillumbik Committee meetings in September, 10/9 and 11/9. The majority of these 3 minute presentations were critical of the draft, not just in detail but in respect of its quality and its evident change of focus.

The striking thing about the presentation sessions was the combative questioning of submitters by certain Councillors, notably Crs Ashton and Clarke. Given the prominence given to community consultation in this entire process we might have expected the response by Councillors to members of the community interested enough to comment on the draft to be appreciative and respectful, or at least courteous – but such was not always the case. A common question of presenters was ‘and where are you from?’ a question apparently based on the idea that if you don’t live in the green wedge your view counts for less. Peter Yates, who happens to reside in the wedge, said that he had difficulty with this question, pointing out that the green wedge belongs to everyone, and management of it is not the prerogative of those who happen to own properties within it from time to time. Peter, who presented on behalf of the Nillumbik Environment Action Group (NEAG), was asked by Cr Clarke, how many people did NEAG represent? He may not have been totally happy with Peter’s response to the effect that meetings about various environmental issues have seen about fifty turn up.

A favourite question from Cr Ashton, to a questioner criticising the lack of environmental protection in the draft, was along the lines ‘how would you collect enough revenue to pay Council’s bills’, implying we suppose that there is no alternative but to relax the rules protecting the green wedge.

Substantial submissions
Many of the written submissions were substantial. The whole collection amounts to a useful library of ideas which we hope to dip into in the coming months.

The submission by the Green Wedge Protection Group (GWPG) contained a comprehensive table listing the objectives and actions from the draft, identified problems of logic and intent, and in some cases made constructive suggestions on the way forward.

The submission by Jeremy Loftus-Hills was critical of the draft’s implication as to the purpose of the green wedge:

  • The idea that the green wedge exists for the pleasure of the people who live in it is a concoction of this Council and should be stripped out of the plan. Likewise, the idea that it exists for the profit and sustenance of those who work and live within it is also patently false and should also be removed.

One submission is of particular interest, because it was created by a ‘majority of the Community Panel’, the Panel the Council created to inform the new plan. Out of this group of strangers, twenty two of them were engaged enough and concerned enough to spend time on a collegiate effort to critique the draft. You can read their submission here. To quote from the submission’s conclusion:

  • The 22 Panel members who prepared this submission conclude that the draft GWMP approach needs a fundamental rethink. Proposed actions that attack core foundations of the Green Wedge should be removed. Specific detail is needed on actions that support the community’s overwhelming desire to protect the Green Wedge.

Geoff Lawler, the consultant who oversaw the entire community consultation project, and who ended up taking responsibility for preparing the draft GWMP after the departure of the established planning officers, claimed that the objective of the consultation approach was ‘community cohesion’.

Whether or not that was a realistic goal for such a process, it seems that the result, at least at this stage, is a lack of cohesion between the Council and the community. It will be fascinating to see what changes have been made to the draft when the new GWMP is considered by Council in November.

At this stage of the process what has been demonstrated is that the Council’s aims in respect of the green wedge are not those of the Shire community. Consultation is important in developing plans and policy, but pointless if the results are ignored. It is likely that in the vicinity of $500,000 has been spent on this entire project by Council, and if this draft is indicative of the final result then it has been wasted.