None of these projects will be affected by the new rules. Under construction (green), approved (blue), and currently being assessed (yellow). But where did the plan to underground the Yarra near the Tennis Centre come from?

Residents of the inner city Melbourne suburb of Clifton Hill concerned about the height of a redevelopment proposed in their neighbourhood by the Brotherhood of St Laurence might take some comfort from the Planning Minister’s secret Friday night gazettal of new built form rules for Melbourne’s CBD.

Mr Wynne announced interim planning controls, including height limits and plot ratio controls, are now in place for a 12 month period while he undertakes a review of central city planning rules.

The Brotherhood proposes to expand an aged care facility it owns on a 4,000 sq m site opposite Darling Gardens.  Although zoned General Residential with a heritage overlay, there is no height limit on the site.

The City of Yarra decided last week to ask the Minister to introduce a mandatory 9 metre maximum height. Despite misgivings about his close links to the Brotherhood, the residents might take heart from Mr Wynne’s clearly demonstrated determination to elevate urban amenity.

It’s an interesting parallel because, while the improvement in amenity provided by the new CBD controls look positive, they could come at some cost in terms of their social and economic implications.

Mr Wynne says he needs to take action in the CBD because of the unprecedented level of building activity, mostly residential towers. Otherwise, he says, the CBD will produce poor amenity outcomes, including:

  • “Poor building amenity due to closeness to neighbours (affecting light and privacy)
  • Impaired development opportunities on neighbouring sites (inequity)
  • Visual domination of historic and pedestrian scale streetscapes
  • Increased overshadowing of public space
  • Uncomfortable wind effects in public space, and
  • Pressure on the capacity of footpaths, plazas and public facilities”.

All of that, he says, “may damage investment attraction to the area”.

The main changes he put in place on Friday night are a maximum 24:1 plot ratio, minimum boundary setbacks, mandatory height limits in particular precincts to replace discretionary limits; and tighter controls on overshadowing of the river and public squares. The City of Melbourne’s defacto role as a referral authority – advice only – has also been made official.

Importantly, the new rules don’t apply to any projects submitted for approval prior to Friday’s decision (see exhibit). They also don’t apply to Docklands and Fishermans Bend.

Naturally, Mr Wynne hasn’t bothered to provide any data or analysis to support his contention that (a) the problem is serious enough to warrant such a dramatic action and (b) that the suite of changes he’s decided on is the best solution to his problem.

Nor of course does he bother to provide evidence of how the changes will affect the development pipeline, dwelling supply, and ultimately housing affordability. Yet The Age cited three recently completed buildings it says wouldn’t have been approved under the new rules.

The Australian Financial Review published a dramatic illustration on Saturday showing that a building currently under construction would only be around half its current size were it subject to the new 24:1 plot ratio.

It’s also disappointing the Minister put the interim rules in place without consultation.  The only reason he gives – that there’s a need for “prompt” action – is tautological and entirely unconvincing. Land owners, developers and buyers know the game has changed dramatically and permanently.

He seems unaware that this might not be a good time to be putting up further barriers to projects either. According to economist Professor Warwick McKibbin, there’s “a 50 per cent chance Australia will slide into recession in the coming year”.

All of that makes the Minister’s claim in the official documentation that the changes “will not have any significant…economic effect as the changes made are temporary” disingenuous at the very least.

It’s difficult to assess the implications of the changes on the information provided. The new overshadowing rules on specific public places like the Yarra could be especially problematic. They extend the existing test – that there be no shadow between 11 am and 2 pm on 22 June – to the entire six month period from 22 March to 22 September.

Yet subject to a more in-depth look, I suspect Mr Wynne has come up with a reasonable set of rules.

While he continues to provide no objective evidence that the scale of problems like “uncomfortable wind effects” warrants such dramatic action, something serious certainly has to be done about problems like “closeness to neighbours” and “impaired development opportunities”.

Plot ratio is a proven tool and 24:1 is a reasonable limit, especially given there’s still scope for bonuses if developers provide offsets (e.g. like community facilities). It’s a lot lower than the 35:1 average plot ratio of applications submitted over the last four years, but it’s still high compared to most other places.

In any event, as the exhibit shows, the main story here is that there’s no shortage of projects that will still be considered under the old rules. Given the increasingly gloomy economic outlook, there’ll probably be few new projects coming forward anyway.

In fact these look like Clayton’s changes; they’re not necessary in the current market because the fountain has already run dry. They’re essentially symbolic. Their effect – both positive and negative – might not be felt until the next major upswing of the property cycle.

Meanwhile, both the residents and the Brotherhood of St Laurence will no doubt keenly await the Minister’s determination on their respective arguments about the planned redevelopment in Clifton Hill.

Update: Don’t think the Premier will be very happy with the Planning Minister; looks like a stuff-up: New Vic planning rules plunge cbus Property’s Collins St scheme into uncertainty.