When a development application comes in, there are several processes that are legally required to be followed. The application can be rejected or approved under delegated authority or booted up to a full council decision which may also reject, amend, or grant the permit. The developer and/or objectors then have the option of going to VCAT.

At VCAT, there are another series of processes. There can be what is known as a Practice Day Hearing, which is basically to iron out some detail. There is a full hearing where VCAT publishes the decision and objectors are given notice. And there is what is called a compulsory hearing. This is where the problems lie since:

  • Such hearings are ‘confidential’ and no public record is available
  • Objectors are ‘ordered’ to appear if they have been part of the initial objection and wish to remain so
  • Written objections are ignored
  • The VCAT member is at liberty to issue ‘orders’ after hearing from both sides (and objectors)

In recent times it would appear that Council has managed to use this ‘loophole’ of ‘secrecy’ to avoid a full public hearing and therefore an open and easily accessible record of the outcome. More disconcerting, is that if no objector is party to these compulsory conferences, then any deals made between council and the developer is entirely up to them. History would suggest that council’s performance at these ‘compulsory conferences’ is nothing short of total cave-ins to developers – regardless as to whether or not there have been amended plans submitted.

We find it extraordinary that in the past 3 weeks (from 7/6/2017 to the schedule for the 29/6/2017) Council appears in 16 VCAT sessions. The breakdown of these 16 appearances is:

  • 7 Compulsory Conferences
  • 7 Practice Day Hearings, and only
  • 2 public hearings

A recent example should suffice in illustrating why heading off to a compulsory conference is far from satisfactory to residents. The case we use to illustrate is 24-26 Vickery St, Bentleigh. An application for a 4 storey, 36 apartment development came up for council decision on the 28th June 2016 after being submitted in May 2016. The officer recommendation was for a 4 storey and 33 apartments. There were 10 objections. Councillors, as is their want, decided that instead of a permit for 4 storeys they would reduce this to 3 storeys and 27 units. Remember, we have stated time and again that every single time such a decision has been made, the developer simply goes to VCAT and gets what he wants.

This application of course also ended up at VCAT – BUT first as a listed ‘compulsory conference’. No hearing followed. Unfortunately the objector was not able to attend. This meant that it was council and the developer who appeared. The outcome was that the VCAT member issued an order for a 4 storey development and the original number of dwellings applied for. Adding further insult to injury, was that some of the conditions stipulated by councillors in their decision were now also gone.

Thus a full open hearing was avoided. Since these compulsory conferences are ‘secret’, then no one really knows why the council representative decided to go against a full council resolution and cave-in to the developer.

What is concerning about this tactic is the following:

  • Countless applications are now being decided in compulsory conferences in favour of the developer
  • Many of these applications that end up at compulsory conferences have been first decided under Manager delegation. That means no advertising and no-one really gets to know that an application has even come into council. (The Caulfield Village Precinct 2 was a perfect example – rejected outright under ‘Manager’ delegation , a compulsory conference called, and made public only after it was highlighted via a public question that this had occurred. This did ultimately go to a full hearing where the MRC won hands down).
  • No reasons are published as to why the developer got his permit – hence transparency and accountability are non-existent
  • More concerning is that cases listed for hearings do not even proceed to this stage but are determined between council and the developer. Most end up with their permits which would indicate that council has agreed in the vast majority of cases.

A few other points are worth making –

  • When a resident wanted to check on the final permit granted for Vickery Street – to really see whether it was back to 4 storeys, since the member’s order was unclear – they were told by officers that they would have to pay a hefty $70 fee to retrieve the documents from the archives.
  • Once the resident cited the legislation to council, they did eventually agree to ‘waive’ the ‘fee’ ‘in this instance’. The Planning & Environment Act, 1987, Section 70 grants anybody the right to inspect any permit granted by council for free!!!!!
  • Council’s regular VCAT Watch, features the cases set down for VCAT. Many involve compulsory conferences that do not proceed to full hearings, yet permits are granted. Even those listed for ordinary hearings don’t always end up at the hearings. And again we find that permits have been granted. Residents should be privy to the reasons for every single decision. That is what transparency and accountability demands. When council does cave in (and we do not deny that in some instances a developer may have caved in to council’s wishes) then they must be accountable for such actions – especially when this goes against the wishes of the councillor group and a formal council resolution as in the case of Vickery Street.
  • So, we leave it to residents to decide whether council has conveniently discovered another loophole in the legislation and is using it to full advantage without ensuring full transparency and accountability to those who pay the bills – us!

The above table proves beyond doubt what an unmitigated disaster planning has been in Glen Eira and continues to be. If our suspicions of council’s intent of facilitating more and more development bears fruit then the very fabric of Glen Eira will be destroyed even further.

Here’s why:

  • Nearly a 1% increase in vacant properties
  • Instead of a projected 148,000 population in 2016, there’s only 140,000
  • Cars per household increase – and no proper parking precinct guidelines
  • Increase in family households but significant decrease in number of 3 bedroom places and even a decline in number of 2 bedroom places
  • A population increase of 10,000 but over 8000 building permits handed out in the 5 years.
  • Well above Victorian average for apartments in the municipality. Glen Eira’s buildings are composed of 24.2% for ‘semi-detached, row or terrace house, townhouse’ whilst the state average is 14.2%. In terms of ‘Flat or apartment’ Glen Eira has 24.5% and the State average is 11.6%.

Conclusions

  • There is a vast oversupply of dwellings in Glen Eira
  • Glen Eira is well and truly meeting its population growth
  • Diversity of dwellings is declining fast

Source: http://www.censusdata.abs.gov.au/census_services/getproduct/census/2016/quickstat/LGA22310?opendocument

The most important page that has thus far been published by council is the following because it provides a clue as to what council is really planning and why residents across Glen Eira should be very, very concerned. Our take is that council intends to facilitate and expand development across Glen Eira – especially in those areas which happen to be close to railway stations and along major roads.

The Draft Activity Centre, Housing and Local Economy Strategy makes this absolutely clear. Here is the relevant screen dump  (page 10).  Please note the following:

  • At least 3 current Local Centres will be upgraded to Neighbourhood Centres – Patterson, Ripponlea, and Garden Vale. That means more apartments!
  • Moorabbin which is a current Neighbourhood Centre will now be a Major Activity Centre as will Glen Huntly (we acknowledge that the latter has always been seen by the Government as a Major Centre. Council has insisted on calling it a Neighbourhood Centre).
  • Caulfield and Virginia Estate are givens – just the amount of residential development is unclear. We estimate another 5000 dwellings at least on these two sites.

Council has refused to deny the possibility that properties currently zoned Neighbourhood Residential will suddenly find themselves zoned as General Residential or Residential Growth. Or those zoned as General Residential will be ‘upgraded’ to Residential Growth. Without a straight out denial, that convinces us even more that the probability of this occurring is already set in concrete. The question is how many homes will be affected? How many residents will wake up one morning to find that they can now have 11 and 13.5 metre dwellings (at best) right next door to them?

As an example of what currently exists we use Patterson as a model. Here is a map of this currently designated Local Centre. Please note that it consists of a handful of shops zoned Commercial 1, but surrounded entirely by sites zoned Neighbourhood Residential. Activity centres by definition include Neighbourhood Centres and every single activity centre contains sites zoned as either Commercial, Mixed Use, General Residential or Residential Growth Zone. They do NOT contain properties zoned Neighbourhood Residential – especially not in Glen Eira.

It is definitely time that council for once provided residents with a clear and truthful version of what is in store. A simple, unequivocal ‘no’ to our suggestion that countless properties will be rezoned to GRZ or RGZ would alleviate much angst.

One of the stated strategic objectives of the latest Community Plan promises residents that Council will Provide you with regular and transparent reports on key outcomes and on our performance.

If this is truly the objective, then why is the latest State Government Community Satisfaction Survey results buried deep on council’s website and no officer reports extolling the virtues of this council have made it onto the agenda for the past two years – in stark contrast to what was previous practice?

The answer of course is that Glen Eira is on a continuous downward spiral when it comes to residents’ perceptions of performance. The dissatisfaction with those old perennials of planning, traffic, consultation have never reached such a low ebb. Many of the results listed are below both the Metropolitan average as well as the State average for all councils.

The most important indicator in our view is the differential score between ‘importance’ and ‘performance’. In other words, how important residents regard a particular aspect of council’s work compared to the actual performance of that work. Glen Eira has never had a differential of over 30 points as this year’s survey reveals. Year after year these areas have been highlighted by responses as basically failing resident expectations. That this is still the case, and worsening, says much about how council is addressing residents’ concerns.

Below are some screen dumps of the ‘lowlights’ –

Here is a table from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recording the number of building permits granted in each municipality for the 2015/16 financial year and up to the end of April, 2017.

These figures prove conclusively that Glen Eira is the most overdeveloped municipality in the South East. As we’ve mentioned several times, Port Phillip is a very special case – ie parts zoned as Capital City status, plus a huge Commercial area (9.5%) in comparison to Glen Eira (3.1%). These figures come from the State of Play reports for the committee which reviewed the residential zones – MRDAC (Ministerial Residential Development Advisory Committee).

The figures raise countless questions that we’ve previously reported on. For instance:

  • Why, when Glen Eira is basically doubling and tripling its projected required dwelling figures to meet population growth, is there a strong possibility that council will expand the borders of its activity centres and include more sites into its GRZ or even RGZ zoning?
  • Why isn’t council screaming loud and clear about Wynne’s VC110 amendment when countless other councils are? Remember that the mandatory 2 dwellings per lot in the Neighbourhood Residential Zone is now gone and we are already seeing applications coming in for multiple dwellings in this zone? Plus the fact that the General Residential Zone will now not be seen as the area for ‘incremental’ growth, but is the target for major development? That especially hurts neighbourhood centres like Ormond, McKinnon, Bentleigh East, etc where large swathes are zoned as General Residential.
  • Why isn’t council addressing the most basic of questions – what is ‘capacity’?
  • Why isn’t council uttering a single word about ‘density’? Our calculations indicate that at the estimated population for 2016 of 148,000 people, that the municipality’s density (ie number of people per square km for land zoned as ‘residential’) will climb from approximately 3,800 per sqk to over 4,400 per sqk. How sustainable is this? How much will it cost to upgrade basic amenities such as drainage, open space, etc. And who will pay for it – developers or residents?

VCAT has granted a permit for a 7 storey building (43 units and shops) at 67-77 Hawthorn Road, Caulfield North. The original application was for 8 storeys but an amended permit was put in. Here are the ‘lowlights’ of the decision.

We give little weight to the recently approved planning scheme amendments that limit the heights of development in parts of Bentleigh and Carnegie urban villages. They are not applicable to this site or activity centre. We understand these amendments impose height controls for a limited time until an urban design framework is completed that provides a coherent and reasoned basis for height and other development controls.

We are not persuaded that the building would be unduly tall in this centre because:

  • There is no specific guidance in the scheme in a schedule to the zone, a DDO or a policy regarding the preferred height.
  • There are buildings of six, five and four storeys in the centre, hence this building with its recessed top storey will not appear to be out of scale with the emerging built form.
  • There is good prospect that the adjoining sites to the north and south will also be developed for buildings of similar height, hence in time it would be one of a cluster of tall buildings rather than an anomaly.
  • Lot sizes in the centre, behind the shops that front Hawthorn Road are generally large and capable of accommodating taller buildings

Another VCAT decision will not please residents in East Bentleigh. Without adequate controls developers are now going for broke. This time it is an amended permit for 669-673 Centre Road raising the height from 4 storeys to 6 and the number of apartments from 32 to 39. And once again the developer appealed to VCAT because of council’s inability to determine its decision within the prescribed 60 day limit.

We now have the utterly ridiculous situation where so called ‘neighbourhood centres’ are being granted permits that in some cases outstrip what council regards as ‘appropriate’ for its ‘urban villages’ or Major Activity Centres. The best example of this is council’s ‘approval’ of 8 storeys for the Ormond Tower (a neighbourhood centre) which is higher than its interim height limits for both Carnegie and Bentleigh.

The reasons for the permit in Bentleigh East ultimately boils down to the following – and we quote:

  • I acknowledge that a building of six storeys may have an appearance from certain views as a dominant element. This arises from the adjoining single storey development and form surrounding the site on Centre Road. However, I must also be mindful of a number of factors including:
  • There are no height controls or development overlays to guide development in the centre or to restrict the height of built form,
  • There is a five storey development under construction located to the west of the review site and other permitted developments of a range of heights within the surrounding area.
  • I am mindful that in the context of the ‘targeted approach’ to housing densities within the municipality, higher forms are contemplated and the area is changing. In the short to medium term the view of the building from the east would be larger than the adjoining buildings but this may change given the centres zoning and policy direction.
  • There is nothing in the Planning Scheme to indicate that a uniform or low building height is anticipated in this location. In a commercial centre, heights often vary. In this immediate future, this building will be one storey taller than its neighbour to its west.
  • A fair reading of the Housing Diversity Policy identifies that change is anticipated in Neighbourhood Commercial Areas such as this. It is recognised by the Planning Scheme that neighbourhood centres will provide significant opportunities for housing diversity. It further recognises that different outcomes are sought in the commercial and residential areas of neighbourhood centres. The proposed additional two levels is in keeping with the vision to provide for further housing diversity.

We remind readers that we have yet to get confirmation that council is intending to introduce structure plans for each individual neighbourhood centre, nor have any specific timelines been provided. All that has been stated is that an ‘activity centre strategy’ will eventually see the light of day. We doubt whether this ‘strategy’ will be binding on developers. In the meantime residents are paying the cost of council’s refusal to enact any meaningful legislation for the past decade.