Yes, the Italian economy is about as firm as a stale tiramisu; yes, the country was ruled by a leader more interested in pushing his own personal agenda than running the country; and yes, many Italians are frustrated and disillusioned by the political system. The difference is the country is now run not by an elected prime minister who also happens to own most of the private media, but by a technocrat and economist who is actually an expert in the field Italy most desperately needs. Fixing an economic mess.
Skill 1, Populism, 0.
It did take the tanking of the world financial system and the temporary shelving of democracy, but on the plus side, there is a newly blooming optimism on the streets of Rome.
Three years ago I was lucky enough to be part of a council planning meeting in inner Sydney for a small job I was doing at the time. My job was straightforward; we were asking for some external seating for a small (unlicenced) food premises in a busy shopping strip. This was supported by the planners in council, but objected to by local councillors, who stood up one by one showboating about how what we were doing would lead to the ruination of the neighbourhood. The reason? Young people would congregate and litter.
This wasn’t the worst of it. A large waterfront development had three levels chopped off the top, despite the fact that it was the same height as buildings either side. It had a swimming pool added because one councillor decided it would be good for encouraging an active lifestyle, even though it was across the road from the beach and a public swimming pool. I have no issue with changes being made during the planning process if they mean that the development complies with carefully considered rules or responds to local context. I have a major problem with councillors using planning to perpetuate personal views.
The third item on the agenda was about a person who had illegally added a level to their house blocking several people’s view of the harbour. This was one area where you would have thought would have been relatively black and white. Surprisingly, the councillors decided to approve the development.
I since learned that planning can work like this in parts of New South Wales. It’s about lobbying the councillors. In Victoria we have Rescode, which is supposed to provide a series of guidelines by which a project can be measured or designed. On the whole this works quite well.
Local government elections can show the best and worst aspects of democracy. From a planning point of view, the level of government that offers the greatest access to the general public is also the part of our political system that is most at risk of political interference. In Stonnington, where I work and live, almost every candidate in the recent election ran on a platform that included stronger local controls on planning and campaigning to remove the power of VCAT to overturn local planning decisions.
On the surface, this sounds like a good thing. It puts the power back to those directly elected. But planning is complicated. It’s about managing a multitude of often conflicting issues. On site amenity, overlooking, sun exposure to adjacent yards, urban scale, heritage, sustainability, traffic, existing fabric, flood plains, it goes on. These things should be managed by someone who is trained to do so. Particularly when you look at the level of investment required to build something.
This investment is one of the biggest issues. Millions of dollars are often tied up in projects, and thousands of dollars in design and consultant fees, before something even comes close to getting out of the ground. Nothing kills a project like uncertainty.
On top of this, the urban fabric in inner city areas means that it’s almost impossible to comply with all clauses of Rescode, even when doing modest projects. It’s fine when building a house in Ringwood, but not so good for adding a level to the back of a terrace in Fitzroy.
This is why a strong and independent VCAT is so important. It removes the political aspects of the approval process, and measures each project independently by a member with years of experience in the planning system.
This should be the starting point for planning reform in Victoria. Tailor the objectives of Rescode to each area so developments in Cremorne are treated differently to those in Cranbourne. Provide a balanced and objective framework for planning objections. Most of all, remove planning powers from elected local councillors.
Robust debate is very important in the development of our city. Input from those who are directly affected (i.e., the local residents) is vitally important. The final say however, should be a balanced and considered approach that offers clarity and certainty for all parties – not a populist nod to the NIMBY set.