A rather big change to planning controls across Victoria dropped on Thursday.

Cr Rohan Leppert writes:

The Minister for Planning has amended the Victoria Planning Provisions to create new permit exemptions for any State Government led or funded (or part funded) project, or project carried out on Crown land.

If the Minister declares a project to be a “state project,” having decided that it will “support Victoria’s economic recovery from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic,” the usual requirements of the planning scheme – including any prohibitions on land uses and development – don’t apply.

Without the need for planning permits, or amendments to the planning schemes to facilitate a particular project, any third party rights are also extinguished. Consultation must merely be carried out “to the satisfaction of the Minister,” but this vague requirement can itself be waived.

The limits to these new provisions are few. These exemptions cannot be applied to subdividing green wedge land, or to development for which an environmental effects statement is a statutory requirement, for example. And the State’s Big Housing Build retains their own special separate provisions.

Perhaps as a sop, the State has also exempted Councils from planning requirements found in zones for public projects valued under $10m (again, with a few exceptions). Councils did not request these exemptions. There is no expiry on these provisions for Council projects, despite the explanatory report saying that these provisions, too, are for economic recovery from coronavirus.

The provisions for State projects, however, have an expiry of 30 June 2025. The Minister has until then to declare that a project qualifies for an exemption from planning permission. We don’t know what this means yet; examples of the sorts of projects that would follow this approvals pathway have not been identified.

But the powers are extraordinary, and it is being taken on trust that the removal of all planning permission requirements for State Government public works will be managed responsibly.

Removing the need to amend planning schemes to allow otherwise prohibited land uses or works also removes the ability of Parliaments to disallow Ministerial actions. Removing this check on Executive power is not insignificant!

Obviously the new provisions don’t have as their primary purpose to build the most outrageous developments and bypass Parliament. It is clear however that coronavirus or not, economic recovery or not, the power concentrated in this new particular provision has enormous potential.

For the most part the powers are likely to be used reasonably. I understand the frustration within Government of applying to Government for permission to build Government projects (!), and that economic recovery is the catalyst for ‘removing red tape’.

At the same time, Government must lead by example. The rigour of applying for planning permission is essential to generate public confidence in the planning system, for improving the quality of proposals generally, and for providing accountability and transparency to public decision making.

If the Planning Minister is worried that third party rights are unreasonably risking the rollout of job-creating infrastructure construction, he could have extinguished appeal rights only; instead he has thrown the baby out with the bath water, removed third party access entirely along with the need for any planning permission full stop.

No one is disputing the importance of economic recovery. Decisions like this may indeed remove perceived barriers to economic recovery but they *also* put at risk the integrity, structure and purpose of the planning system. I hope we don’t look back on the addition of this new statewide provision in a few years with regret.

The new Victoria Planning Provisions are here.