Nothing's happening in Middle Earth: population growth in metropolitanMelbourne 2001–11 (Source: Spiller)

The Age reported yesterday that well known planner Marcus Spiller is calling for “reinstatement of a body similar to the long-defunct Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, as a way of de-politicising planning” (1).

Based on an article he wrote in the latest issue of the journal Urban Policy and Research (gated), the paper says Dr Spiller suggests that after the Cain Government removed the planning functions of the Board in 1983:

…no new force emerged to plan for the entire city. Instead, individual inner-city councils often frustrated attempts to encourage urban density…Planning ministers had also come to be seen as “planner-in-chief”, and instead of rising above the political fray had become “at the centre of the action”, making planning a key battleground.

Dr Spiller’s call for a planning body at arm’s length from state and local government reflects widespread impatience with the politicisation of planning and the associated loss of strategic direction and continuity.

Given the angle of the story, it’s astonishing that The Age’s reporter didn’t mention the blindingly obvious – the State Government’s proposal to establish a Metropolitan Planning Authority.

It’s especially dumbfounding because the story lists other “key aspects” of the Government’s new metropolitan strategy, Plan Melbourne, but fails to mention what is arguably its most important initiative. The Minister for Planning, moreover, had indicated his intention to establish the Authority as early as last March.

The proposed Metropolitan Planning Authority will supersede the existing Growth Areas Authority and extend its purview across the whole metropolitan area. Its key role will be to implement Plan Melbourne.

It will be “an independent, statutory body” charged with championing the Plan and providing cross-government co-ordinaton. More practically, it will prepare structure plans for designated major developments, collect infrastructure contributions, and act as the responsible authority under delegation from the Minister for Planning.

It’s an important initiative because the previous metropolitan strategy, Melbourne 2030, was widely regarded as having foundered for lack of focus, will and resources for implementation (2).

It’s clear though that the new authority won’t be much like the old Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW). That body was set up in 1891 and over time was successively tasked with responsibility for water and sewerage, major parks, highways, and regional land use planning.

As described by Dr Spiller, it was a quasi metropolitan ‘government’ which drew elected representation from local government and “enjoyed a substantial degree of fiscal autonomy through a recurrent land tax”. The MMBW was abolished in 1983 by the Cain Labor Government.

As part of his research, Dr Spiller interviewed four former Premiers (Messrs Cain, Kennett, Bracks and Brumby). He says none of them see value in “rolling back the clock to reinstate a body such as the MMBW”.  The Board was variously remarked upon as:

a ‘dinosaur’ that lacked the entrepreneurial capacity and energy to deliver projects such as Southbank and the sports precinct which transformed the central city in the 1980s; a redundant layer of bureaucracy when the modern community was calling for “less rather than more government”; and a further source of debate and challenge which would ensure that major city shaping projects would be indefinitely mired in politics.

The MMBW is often nostalgically depicted as a no-nonsense organisation that cut through the political rot. It’s important though to appreciate that distance from Government can have drawbacks too. The Board was criticised prior to its abolition for making questionable zoning decisions but also for having “too much power” and showing too much enthusiasm for freeways.

I think circumstances today are very different from those of the 1960s and 1970s. For example, the legitimacy of the MMBW’s responsibility for tasks of metropolitan significance like new land releases was uncontested in a period when almost all growth took place on the periphery.

However the increasing proportion of development that now takes place in established areas means that simplicity, or consensus, has disappeared. There’s now a highly visible clash between strategic objectives (like metropolitan dwelling supply and affordability) and the interests of existing residents (like protecting local amenity).

On one interpretation, that sort of tension highlights the pressing need for planning to be at arm’s length from all levels of government. An alternative reaction is that it indicates any model that ignores the nature of contemporary politics would simply be unsustainable; in effect, it’s unrealistic to expect to “take the politics away from politicians”.

Although he advocates a model along the lines of the MMBW, Dr Spiller concludes that implementation would need to be staged, starting with something that looks a lot like the Government’s proposed Authority:

It could, perhaps, commence with the formation of a statutorily independent regional planning commission within the state bureaucracy. Other key ingredients for effective metropolitan governance can be added gradually as the authority proves its worth, including: partial democratic accountability to the metropolitan community of interest (through an MMBW-style college system); independent tax raising (e.g. by introducing a broad-based land tax to partially replace inefficient transaction and payroll taxes); and management of major infrastructure planning and investment decisions.

It’s early days for the proposed Metropolitan Planning Authority (although it’s hard not to notice the Growth Area Authority’s enthusiasm to get it rolling). We’ll need more clarification from the Government on the envisaged scope and limits of its power, as well as more public debate.

At this stage it looks like its focus will be on land use planning activities associated with Growth Areas and major urban renewal projects. That’s a limited role compared to the compass of the MMBW but it’s nevertheless a valuable one. As the exhibit shows, there’s a pressing need to find ways of increasing dwelling supply in established areas.

Update: Plan Melbourne’s governance under fire.


  1. Nothing to do with the main theme of this article, but I note The Age also perpetuates the myth that “Melbourne is one of the Western world’s lowest density cities”. No it isn’t. I agree it’s not in the same league as super-dense Western (OECD) cities like Seoul, Tel Aviv, Palermo and Madrid, but it’s as dense as Lyon and Antwerp, and denser than Nice and Toulouse. More relevant to Australian history is that only five of the 40 largest cities in the US are denser than Melbourne. Some of the US cities that are less dense include Washington DC, Portland (Or), Philadelphia, Seattle and Boston.
  2. I wonder if in some respects Melbourne 2030 was actually un-implementable. It was bound to fail by design because key ideas were politically untenable; it was as if the symbolism of the plan itself was enough. Plan Melbourne looks likely to fare better because it’s more conservative (or, if you prefer, more realistic).