Timetable for development of Melbourne's Metropolitan Strategy showing progress to date. The Baillieu Governments been in office since November 2010 but hasn't made much headway.

Victoria’s Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, seems to have forgotten about the Metropolitan Planning Strategy he promised during the election campaign.

Mr Guy’s been in office since November 2010 and the team preparing the Metro Strategy for Melbourne was set up a year ago. Yet the only output we’ve seen so far is a web site, some desultory Fact Sheets of variable quality, and a list of nine Strategic Principles.

I noted back on 8 May 2012 that the first of four phases in the timetable leading up to final release of the strategy was finished and the second phase, Discussion Paper, was about to commence (see exhibit). Yet more than three months later, there’s still no sight of the Discussion Paper or any sign of when it’ll be released.

The Discussion Paper is an enormously important step in a major strategic planning exercise like this. It’s the first document of substance to be released and effectively starts the ball rolling.

So far the ball has barely budged. For example, the public forums on the web site have registered only 382 comments in three months. In a city of Melbourne’s size that’s a tiny response (and of course the number of people making those comments would likely be considerably smaller).

In order to engage meaningfully with the task of designing the city’s long run future, the public needs to see the Discussion Paper. It should analyse the current and forecast challenges, define the key issues, and canvass policy options.

Meanwhile the Government has proceeded to announce policies with significant strategic implications. These include a new system of land use zones, expansion of CBD planning controls to Fishermans Bend, and support for the East-West road link and Melbourne Metro.

Of course the business of public administration can’t be put on hold pending development of a metropolitan plan intended to guide development to 2050. But equally, it’s incumbent on the Minister to get it prepared reasonably quickly so far-reaching decisions can be made within a strategic context.

It’s not good enough that after more than a year and a half in office, the Metropolitan Strategy process has for all intents and purposes barely begun. It’s true the former Government did no better with Melbourne 2030, however it was Labor’s failings that Mr Guy and his colleagues capitalised on to win government.

The nine recently-released Strategic Principles are no substitute for a Discussion Paper. They’re relatively high-level, broad and general (with some exceptions I discuss later). They could as easily have been written by any side of politics. They’re designed so you can read into them whatever you think should be a high priority for the strategy.

Social and economic participation

A globally connected and competitive city

Strong communities

Environmental resilience

Melbourne’s distinctiveness

Leadership and partnership

Regional cities and a polycentric city model

Living and working locally – a ’20 minute city’

Infrastructure investment supporting the growth of the city

It’s not as if these Principles are so complex they required twelve months to put together (there’s more detail here). Both the Grattan Institute and the Committee for Melbourne have already produced high-level principles for the planning of cities. I understand there was some consultation with identified stakeholders but these Principles are not the stuff of high drama and drawn-out controversy.

Looked at on their own terms, though, they should be better. Some are very general, like “social and economic participation” and “environmental resilience”, but others are surprisingly particular, like “a polycentric city model” and “a 20 minute city”.

In fact “a polycentric city model” isn’t a principle in my book, it’s a solution. That’s unfortunate because solutions should flow logically out of the process of analysis and consultation, not be set up apriori. Now that it’s got the status of a Principle there’s a risk it won’t be properly evaluated to see if it’s good policy (and it’s not a foregone conclusion it is).

I understand the aspiration of “living and working locally”, but I don’t think quantifying it up-front as “a 20 minute city” before the Discussion Paper has even been released is good process. It might sound like a good idea at first glance but it’s not that straightforward.

So far as access to local services is concerned, “a 20 minute city” strikes me as way too undemanding since it doesn’t differentiate by mode. There aren’t many places in Melbourne where shops and services can’t currently be accessed within 20 minutes by car.

So far as the journey-to-work is concerned, it harks back to the risible idea of Urban Villages. It seems no one connected with the strategy has the faintest idea just what a fantasy a maximum commuting time of 20 minutes is. Half of all work trips in Melbourne currently take longer than 30 minutes and half of public transport trips take more than 55 minutes!

But those sorts of discussions are best had when more information is released so we understand better what’s intended. What’s really needed right now is for the man ultimately responsible for the development of the Metropolitan Strategy, the Minister for Planning, to put a bomb under it and get some lift-off.