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Tea Party planning: do the ends justify the means?

Objectors increasingly cite town planning concerns as reasons to oppose new developments. But as opposition to a mosque in Bendigo shows, it’s often about the ‘who’ rather than the ‘what’

Proposed Bendigo mosque

There’s a disturbing parallel between the City of Bendigo’s approval of a Mosque last month and the Shire of Yarra Ranges rejection of an application for a McDonald’s restaurant in Tecoma in 2011 (since built).

In both cases the developments were consistent with town planning requirements and were approved (ultimately on appeal in the Tecoma case). However they both generated a shitstorm of protest from (some) residents who fundamentally don’t like them for reasons unrelated to legitimate planning considerations.

I’ve discussed the McDonald’s proposal before (Would a McDonalds in Tecoma be all downside?). Council did what local government often does with hot issues like this and baldly refused the application notwithstanding that a convenience restaurant is a permissible use of the land under the Planning Scheme.

McDonalds appealed to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) which inevitably found the proposal conformed to the Planning Scheme and set aside Council’s decision. VCAT found (McDonalds P/L vs Yarra Ranges SC) that many of the potential adverse outcomes identified by community members weren’t relevant planning considerations.

As I said at the time, the real problem the Tecoma objectors had with the proposal was their distaste for the idea of a fast food chain.

Residents didn’t think they were signing up to the corporate and consumerist values associated with McDonalds when they chose to settle in this bucolic ex-urb in the charming Dandenong Ranges.

Most of the objections to the proposed mosque in Bendigo aren’t relevant planning considerations either. Although local objectors say the mosque would breach regulations concerning parking, noise and traffic, according to this report in The Age (Anti-Islamic and right wing groups driving Bendigo anti-mosque push) there were 254 objections submitted to council (1),

and of those 171 cited the influence of Islam and its association with violence and terrorism as their grounds for objection, according to council minutes.

This report by New Ltd (Vic pollies stand by Bendigo mosque plans) confirms that many of the objections have nothing to do with town planning problems:

Council documents show the majority of complaints related to concerns over the influence of Islam, citing the threat of terrorism, the introduction of Sharia law and the dilution of “Christian values”.

And this report in the Herald-Sun reinforces the view that legitimate planning issues aren’t the primary worry of many (Bendigo mosque approved despite objections from residents):

Anti-muslim protesters, some holding placards, packed a City of Greater Bendigo meeting last night, heckling councillors and playing middle-eastern music while some members of the gallery shouted concerns the building would be the site of underage marriages. A group of residents demanded to know what “safety measures” had been taken to prevent a terrorist attack in the region.

Aided by an apposite combination of portfolios, The Minister for Planning and Multicultural Affairs, Matthew Guy, had no doubts about the real motivations of many objectors:

People in Bendigo who have this fear that 300 or so Islamic Australians who want to pray in peace are going to disrupt their lives is just plain wrong

Now I don’t think those who opposed the McDonalds restaurant in Tecoma necessarily share the same values as those now opposing the mosque in Bendigo, but in both cases they’re seeking to use town planning law to achieve ends that have nothing to do with planning (2).

That’s hardly new. Commercial rivals like shopping centre developers have been using planning law for eons to try to keep rivals out of the game. It’s been used to try and defeat aboriginal land rights claims and, in the US, zoning laws were a key way to exclude blacks from middle class white areas.

I think the Tecoma McDonalds and Bendigo mosque cases provides some cautionary lessons.

Planning gives communities the right to determine what class of activities are permissible, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t give them the right to determine who can live, work or operate a business in their town.

Those who think the rightness of their view justifies the means should realise that those who have diametrically opposed values will of course adopt the same illegitimate approach. “Tea Party” tactics should be eschewed by all sides of politics.

_____________________________

  1. This might be an underestimate; I’ve seen other reports that the number of objections was as high as 470.
  2. There’s opposition to a proposed mosque in Kalgoorlie, too (Facebook protest against Kalgoorlie mosque gathers momentum).
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  • 1
    Rohan
    Posted July 3, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    It’s a bit rich to say social impacts, however difficult they may be to assess and quantify, aren’t relevant planning considerations, or that simply complying with planning controls doesn’t mean a proposal can’t be refused on merit grounds.

    And let’s face it, most people who don’t work in the (town) planning industry have very little grasp of the complex and subjective cost-benefit process underpinning planning decisions.

    I don’t blame them for trying to game a system they barely understand because the profession has catastrophically failed to explain the rules of engagement.

  • 2
    Alan Davies
    Posted July 3, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Rohan #1:

    There’s nothing in the article to suggest social impacts aren’t a relevant planning consideration. The issue is that objecting to a church on the basis of the particular religion and imputed characteristics of the associated congregation is not, and shouldn’t be, a relevant planning consideration. That’s not a “social impact”, that’s prejudice.

  • 3
    Rohan
    Posted July 3, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Oh, I have little doubt it’s ignorance and prejudice.

    But rightly or wrongly if the objectors could articulate a case that community cohesion or local character could be significantly affected, it would be a relevant consideration. Particularly in the eyes of a decision-maker who shares the seam prejudices.

  • 4
    Dudley Horscroft
    Posted July 3, 2014 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    The basic trouble with planning laws is that too many people can make decisions regarding a planning application, and that this means there is the possibility of corruption. This is well exemplified by the absurd decision to sack the Tweed Shire Council some years ago on the grounds that developers had contributed to electoral expenses of some Councillors. No actual corruption was found, just the remote possibility was alleged that corruption might possibly occur in the future because of this payment. Mind you, the balance of the Council was ‘Liberal/Conservative’ and the State Government at the time was ALP. I wonder where the corruption was? (I believe that the Government had just previously sacked councils at Liverpool and Wollongong or thereabouts for actual corruption.)

    The result we had government by three State Government appointees, two of whom were blow-ins from Sydney.

    Planniing laws should be simple and easy to understand. There should be a heirarchy of permitted uses, generally ranging from residential to industrial, with Council’s only option to designate land as a particular category. Having designated land as residential, there should be no further possibillty for Council to interfere, no question as to whether houses should be single, two or three story, or whether high rise should be permitted, nor whether houses should be three metres from a footpath or 3.5 metres, nor whether roofs should be brown tiles or red tiles (eg Kep Enderby decreeing brown roofs for Tuggeranong) nor the colour of front doors (various Councils in the UK).

    And the same rules would apply for all applicants – if a Christian church were a permitted use in a particular area then so would be a place of worship for any other religion, whether Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, Atheist or Callithumpian.

    No room to interfere in planning decisions, no corruption, and as few rules as possible – if a development met the rules then no possibility of anyone decreeing it should not go ahead.

  • 5
    The Old Bill
    Posted July 4, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Alan Davies, what is not “social impact” about a place of worship? Having lived next to one for 30 years and now visiting my son, who also lives next to one, your argument seems rather hollow. The noise, the parking problems, the incessant singing and chanting, the general social hubbub after they have spoken to their imaginary friend or friends are all social impact, not prejudice. Places of worship should have strict conditions placed on where they are, just like any other form of noisy human activity. A mosque with a large minaret and amplified call to prayer for instance, should be built out of the town limits just like a race car circuit. A Lutheran church that suddenly decides to offer community outreach services in their hall, or meet every day instead of just Sunday should have to apply for rezoning so neighbours can object.
    By the way, our general community has just had a massive fight over McDonalds opening in town too. McDonalds lost, but Hungry Jacks opens in two days thanks to refurbishing a former Chicken Shop that was zoned correctly :)

  • 6
    John Taylor
    Posted July 4, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    There may be disturbing parallels Alan but what appears to be more disturbing is the attempt to conflate the anti-McDonalds protesters with the racist bogans objecting to the Mosque. Chalk and cheese.

  • 7
    Alan Davies
    Posted July 4, 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    The Old Bill #5:

    The examples you cite like noise and parking aren’t the problem; they’re relevant planning considerations and should be taken account of by Council. What shouldn’t be, though, are so-called social impacts like the alleged risk of terrorism, influence of Sharia Law, dilution of Christian values, underage marriages.

    John Taylor #6:

    No, that’s not right. See fifth last para:

    Now I don’t think those who opposed the McDonalds restaurant in Tecoma necessarily share the same values as those now opposing the mosque in Bendigo, but in both cases they’re seeking to use town planning law to achieve ends that have nothing to do with planning

  • 8
    Rob Stephenson
    Posted July 5, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    In my opinion, it’s incredibly important to distinguish between how the two “parallel” cases were dealt with by the relevant planning authorities.
    CoGB Councillors (for the most part) were unmoved by the manufactured hysteria of those of those opposing the application, dealt with legitimate planning considerations appropriately, and have approved the application with the imposition of some restrictions that address legitimate matters.
    It makes all the difference to know that processes and procedures will be correctly adhered to – it gives certainty to those lodging applications, and, over time, it should reduce the number (although perhaps not the vehemence ) of spurious and illegitimate objections.

  • 9
    Black Berry
    Posted July 8, 2014 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    When the followers that intend to enter the mosque denounce the public ‘honour’ murder and suppression of women’s rights and stand up against so called ‘extremist’ amongst themselves then maybe they will be welcomed.

  • 10
    Abdullah WIlliams
    Posted July 9, 2014 at 2:42 am | Permalink

    People killed in Australia this year by:

    Poor diet – 30,000
    Islam – 0

    Which fear is more rational?

  • 11
    Posted July 9, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Touché, Abdullah. Though I’d like to think find better ways to improve diets than banning fast food stores.

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