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Text of Michael Buxton's speech: Melbourne Metropolitan Strategy – Con Job or for Real?

"Both the process and the discussion paper are undirected, unsatisfactory and of little help to anyone or anything. Nothing so inadequate has ever been seen in the history of Melbourne strategic planning."... "The paper generally avoids any discussion of how to intensify established areas while not destroying amenity, or even whether it is possible to achieve both objectives. It does not discuss in detail the major options for intensification, mentioning only briefly the capacity to redevelop large brownfield sites, and arguing that medium and higher density residential development should not be regarded as a problem. It states that “there are different ways of increasing housing density without undermining the valued characteristics of local areas” – what are these and why would they not destroy valued amenity?"(Michael Buxton, Professor Environment and Planning, at PPLVic AGM on Saturday 23 February 2013.

Michael Buxton
Professor Environment and Planning, RMIT University


Link to videoed speech here.

The process of developing a new Melbourne metropolitan strategy, and the discussion paper prepared by a ministerial advisory committee, are deeply flawed. The discussion paper seeks ‘to help generate debate and discussion about the future of our city”. But the process is neither properly participatory nor informative. The discussion paper does not canvass well supported and evaluated options. No detail is provided on how public comment will contribute to the development of policy. In short, both the process and the discussion paper are undirected, unsatisfactory and of little help to anyone or anything. Nothing so inadequate has ever been seen in the history of Melbourne strategic planning.

Some earlier plans for Melbourne have involved years of research and investigation, and the modeling of options. The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) strategic planning was exemplary for investigation and consideration of options, particularly the 1954 and 1971 plans. Later planning, such as by the Cain government for the 1987 plan and the Kirner government in the early 1990s, considered a range of options for the future of Melbourne and associated strategic issues. Seven major reports into such subjects as activity centres, sustainability and environmental issues were commissioned during the preparation of Melbourne 2030 and informed the final plan. No additional research or investigations lie behind the new strategy process other than normal government activity, such as Victoria In Future and the Urban Development Program.

Metropolitan strategic planning should be long term and bipartisan, and accepted by key interest groups and citizens. This will be the sixth strategic plan for Melbourne in 25 years, together with a number of other minor plans. A plan on average about every four years does not provide for either certainty or continuity. There is little sense of what the government has in mind for the future of Melbourne, how this relates to previous planning and what this means for the future of the city.

The consultation process has been inadequate. Another weakness in the process is the government preempting major strategic initiatives by prior policy and statutory decisions. This continues the approach of the former Kennett government to metropolitan strategic planning. Kennett and his planning minister, Robert Maclellan, had no use for strategic land use planning and did none. Their metropolitan plan, Living Suburbs, was little more than a promotional document. The real planning lay in the statutory changes to planning schemes which implemented their ideology of development facilitation as part of deregulated governance.

The Baillieu government through its planning minister, Matthew Guy, is following a similar approach. Guy has introduced new planning zones which further deregulate planning rendering strategic metropolitan planning obsolete. For example, the new Melbourne strategic plan cannot include a retail policy which restricts out-of-centre development because the new zones will allow it, much as-of-right. A new plan cannot limit Melbourne’s outer urban growth because governments have provided 30 years land supply on the urban fringe. Baillieu and Guy supported the former Labor government’s abandonment of the urban growth boundary as a major strategic tool and then in government expanded the area of Melbourne by a further 6,000 hectares. Clearly, the metropolitan strategy can say nothing meaningful about restricting outer urban growth.

All this means that the new metropolitan strategy must avoid most of the key strategic issues affecting the future of Melbourne. So far there has been little left to discuss in the discussion paper except for a series of general principles (‘globally connected and competitive city’), truisms most people would accept (‘fostering strong communities’), and platitudes (‘a 20 minute city’). It remains to be seen whether the strategy itself can actually develop a strategic direction with meaningful implementation tools. The signs so far are not promising. The strategy would have to improve markedly on the discussion paper. The choice is for it to either make clear the de-facto planning policy of government or convince the government to abandon its direction. The first option is unlikely – the government does not want its direction blandly spelt out or the people will know what it is really up to. The second would seem impossible.

Strategic approach

The discussion paper outlines its objectives through five principles, what needs to change in two principles, and implementation in two more. Overall, there is no clearly stated vision. Long term intention is fundamental to strategic planning. An acceptance of growth is implied through the statement that planning needs to be for a city of up to 6.4 million people by 2050. The paper advocates alternatives to business-as-usual activity, but such growth is business-as-usual. It rejects the use of land use planning as a tool to achieve change, arguing against intervention through the planning system to achieve alternative future scenarios: “The Metropolitan Planning Strategy must move away from regulation as the primary means of achieving planning outcomes”, it argues. This diminution of government leaves decisions to developers and other private interest groups such as large retailers who will act primarily in their own interests. This concept of the role of government fatally handicaps a future strategic plan. Only government can plan strategically in the public interest.

Networks to regional cities are canvassed but no detail is provided about how this concept might be achieved and how regional development could lower the projected size of Melbourne. How much growth should be transferred to regions; should it be concentrated in large regional centres or some located in smaller regional towns along fast rail routes? There is no discussion of the necessary links between regional growth, access, amenity, types of regional employment, education, improved infrastructure and other services. Regional manufacturing, for example, is declining while Geelong and Ballarat are embarking on their own versions of urban sprawl in standard single use suburbs far from town centres.

The paper argues for a ‘polycentric city’. Shifts in urban strategy have become more common in recent years from the centre-periphery model focused primarily on reinforcing a CBD, to networked metropolitan connections to regional settlements. However, it is crucial to define the polycentric approach proposed, and the functional connections between networked urban areas. The discussion paper’s notion of a multi-centred city seems to include the CBD, a limited number of activity centres, a few innovation clusters and the whole of inner Melbourne. This notion is unhelpful and confused. The opportunity was available to the discussion paper to remove confusion about multi-centred activity centre policy. MMBW district centre policy concentrated on a limited number of activity centres. Melbourne 2030 made every large or small centre an activity centre. However, the discussion paper does not adequately analyse the notion of polycentrism, wants a limited number of centres but defines a large differentiated part of Melbourne (the inner suburbs) as one centre and allows a multitude of local activity centres to be developed. The inner suburbs include most advanced business service and professional jobs and employee residences and contain a large number of activity centres. To talk of the inner suburbs as one element in a polycentric city makes polycentrism meaningless. The paper suggests that many local mixed use activity centres should be developed but some of these already contain important concentrations of employment, retailing and housing. No suggestion is provided on the size of proposed clusters, what would happen in each, or when local activity centres might transform to major ones. The three examples given of polycentric innovation clusters, Monash-Clayton, Melbourne Airport and Parkville biosciences precinct vary significantly from each other. Only Parkville has reasonable public transport facilities. Melbourne Airport is a large out-of-centre retailing precinct and is an undesirable location for such retailing. Similarly, large freight and logistics clusters are located along fringe metropolitan freeways, a similarly undesirable trend.

The paper is silent on the destructive impacts of out-of-centre retail development on existing strip centres and other impacts such as on traffic. Any comments by the discussion paper on this issue are irrelevant in any case because the real policy and power is in the new commercial zones which will lead to extensive out-of-centre retailing and commercial uses and accelerate the destruction of strip retail centres. The paper does not properly analyze the differences between elements of what it advocates leaving a confused mess.

Global connectivity sounds attractive but what in practice does the advisory committee believe it means? The discussion paper is little help here, repeating usual mantras of links to a global knowledge economy without analyzing possible future trends and alternatives. It is likely that this century the cities which relate satisfactorily to their hinterlands will survive best. This notion is largely ignored. Lip service is paid to the importance of peri-urban diversity and agricultural production but nothing is said about how these assets can help position Melbourne to survive. By 2050 most peri-urban agriculture will have disappeared on current trends. A metropolitan strategy should state clearly an alternative pathway to business-as-usual trends to achieve desirable alternative scenarios. But there is no consistent vision of the future for the Melbourne green belt. The paper mentions its importance as a food bowl, but then adopts the Tourism agency dogma that existing zones prevent tourism development. The Baillieu government appears set to emasculate native vegetation protection controls. The paper contains no endorsement of the need to prevent such major changes to policy.

Its discussion about urban form is another unsatisfactory element of the paper. Melbourne 2030 attempted to shift a large proportion of planned outer urban growth to the established metropolitan area through the use of an urban growth boundary. It proposed government intervention to achieve a desired future end. The discussion paper canvasses no such options. It is marked by an absence of discussion on the major pressure points of the inner city, activity centres and outer growth areas. It is reticent on the problems arising from Melbourne’s continuing sprawl in single use, poorly serviced suburbs and on the need for improved urban design there. It says nothing about the need for much higher average densities in outer urban areas, higher densities around new town centres, and a mix of lot and house types. The paper farcically states that the “green edge” of Melbourne should be strengthened but ignores the spoiling effects of a 30 year supply of outer urban residential land on proper planning through prior expansions of the growth boundary. There is no discussion of the reduction of this land bank in the context of an overall strategy for the city.

In discussing a distinctive Melbourne the paper says little about amenity and nothing about the importance of heritage as a crucial factor in the identity of citizens and as an economic asset. Heritage means money – destroy it and Melbourne’s greatest asset is lost. The paper generally avoids any discussion of how to intensify established areas while not destroying amenity, or even whether it is possible to achieve both objectives. It does not discuss in detail the major options for intensification, mentioning only briefly the capacity to redevelop large brownfield sites, and arguing that medium and higher density residential development should not be regarded as a problem. It states that “there are different ways of increasing housing density without undermining the valued characteristics of local areas” – what are these and why would they not destroy valued amenity?

The paper also is another lost opportunity to raise and discuss seriously social issues associated with inequity, particularly unequal access to services, and a crucial range of housing issues including affordable housing. Simply put, the discussion on these topics is more of the same avoidance that has characterised decades of policy discussion by government.

What is left?

Avoiding the major metropolitan strategic issues leaves only a series of five general principles and some trite proposals. The principles are; a distinctive Melbourne; a globally connected and competitive city, social and economic participation; strong communities; and environmental resilience. None are applied to detailed discussion or practical concerns drawing out issues, options and conclusions for elements in a functionally connected urban system. The principles are not related satisfactorily to each other. There is no sense of integration of ideas around a unifying vision for the future of Melbourne, just a grab-bag of ideas gleaned from somewhere and placed in little more than a list. Argument, substantiation and examination of evidence are all lacking. A metropolitan strategic discussion paper should place evidence, information and argued positions before people, canvass well considered options and propose an integrated strategic approach for the future. It should link spatial concerns to other sectoral ones. A brief mention is made of the need to integrate land use and transport planning – this too is a mantra which has hardly affected practice in recent years. There is almost no discussion of cross-sectoral policy and integrated institutional and governance arrangements.

Then there are the unexamined proposals. Perhaps the most trite is the proposal for a 20 minute city. Has a less useful proposal ever been put forward as a serious contribution to policy? This is a substitute for policy, what is left when all the effective decisions about the future of Melbourne are made outside the ambit of strategy, leaving only a shell with a brittle crust.

Speech given at Protectors of Public Land Vic (Inc). AGM on Saturday 23 February 2013. Thanks to Secretary and chief dynamo, Julianne Bell, for providing this text and organising the meeting.


I wonder if the Metropolitan Strategy for Melbourne would get any marks at all from Michael Buxton if it were an assignment from one of his university students. Would it even get "E" for effort? What a pity it's for real and not just a student's exercise. With its built in population growth it is taking the people of Melbourne steadily down a path of diminishing livability. I'm curious to know what Roz Hansen and even Michael Buxton think is going to happen to Melbourne's population after 2050. Mid century is an arbitrary point in the future which is only 37 years away. If the projected population of Melbourne in 2050 is 6.4 million even at an average rate of population growth of 1% per annum (and it is greater than that now ) the population would double to 12.8 million by 2120. What was once a pleasant place to live will be an overcrowded, overactive nightmare. The Victorian government needs to get a grip on what the future really might hold with anticipated fossil fuel depletion, the loss of arable land at Melbourne's fringes to development and a huge population of city dwellers. The state government is reprehensible in embracing population growth as it does and should by now be doing a Bob Carr and telling the federal government that Melbourne is full. (Bob Carr is famous for saying that Sydney was full when he was NSW state premier.)