-Are there really limits to what planning can do?

States' and Territories responses to 23 land use planning 'challenges'

There are, but in Victoria those limits appear to be very elastic.

Because it controls the use of land, the whole complex edifice of planning regulation touches to a greater or lesser extent a lot of the things we do.

In a newly released report commissioned by COAG, the Productivity Commission gives us an insight into how the nation’s planning agencies think the land use control system influences our lives.

The report, Performance Benchmarking of Australian Business Regulation: Planning, Zoning and Development Assessments, examines the regulatory frameworks of each jurisdiction, the processes for supply of land, the bases for assessing developer contributions, compliance costs for business, and competition issues arising from planning decision-making.

As part of its investigations, the Commission asked each State and Territory to answer this question: “To what extent can government use the planning, zoning and DA system to positively influence the following challenges”?

The answers each jurisdiction provided to 23 “challenges”, graded from “no effect” through to “major effect”, are shown in the accompanying chart (copied from the report). The survey was completed between October and November 2010, prior to the Victorian State election.

Bear in mind that the survey relates specifically to the powers of land use planning agencies i.e. not transport or other agencies. Also, the planners were specifically asked about the scope to positively influence each of the challenges. There are some interesting claims here and some equally interesting comparisons between States and Territories.

There’s a consensus that, given (presumably) the right policies, land use planning can have a major positive influence on managing greenfield development, accommodating population growth, managing the transition to higher population densities, providing diverse/appropriate housing, and protecting biodiversity.

By and large I’d agree with that. My only caveat would be the understanding that some of the benefits will come from reducing rather than increasing the degree of planning intervention. A prime example is the many restrictions on constructing higher density housing within established urban areas.

Where the survey gets really interesting is outside these five key areas. Victoria in particular stands out from its peers.

For example, whereas WA’s planners are conservative – they say they can only have a major effect on four of the 23 challenges – the Victorians, who evidently have greater faith in the universal influence of land use regulation, reckon planning can have a major positive effect on eleven. That’s a big call because no other jurisdiction nominates more than seven.

Or consider that SA’s planners say planning would only have a minor effect on eleven of the challenges and nil effect on one. The Victorians, however, don’t concede there’s even a single challenge where they’d have nil effect. Moreover, they identify only one – attracting skilled labour – where planning would merely have a minor effect (has the Richard Florida romance finally starting to fade?).

In contrast, NSW reckons the planning system would have a minor effect on five of the challenges. WA nominates four and Qld six.

Victoria is also the only jurisdiction that believes planning could have a major effect on promoting healthy lifestyles, reducing socioeconomic disparities and improving mobility within the city. What next – can planning lower interest rates in Victoria?

It’s not that planning doesn’t have some effect on these issues, it’s just that the impact of the tools plausibly available to planners is too limited to have a major effect, as I’ve discussed in various contexts before (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). These are not fundamentally issues of land use regulation.

The most outlandish claim however comes from the ACT, which is the only jurisdiction that reckons planning can have a major effect on reducing traffic congestion. Since neither public transport nor freeways reduce congestion, I’d like to know what land use magic the ACT planners have in mind.

This whole issue is not a minor matter of excessive zeal. Over-inflating the influence of any portfolio can lead to poor policy making. It can encourage bureaucratic wars and lead to neglect of better actions. Worse, it might lead to wrong-headed actions that have negative consequences.

Planners’ propensity to over-reach is no doubt due, at least in part, to the fact that planning touches a lot of areas of government and of everyday life. But if the other States’ planners have a better understanding of the limits of their influence – and by implication probably a better appreciation of the scope of other agencies’ influence – then Victoria’s can do better.

7 Comments on “-Are there really limits to what planning can do?”

  1. brisurban says:

    Isn’t it odd that QLD thinks that planning “has no impact on securing urban water supplies”. Its the only one with the pure white “no effects” box in there for that criterion.

    What’s your opinion on that Alan?

    • Alan Davies says:

      I don’t interpret simply doing your basic job – in this example that would be preventing inappropriate development within catchment areas – as being the sort of “positive influence” the PC had in mind with that question.

      But planning is a way of requiring water tanks, second pipes, etc, so “no effect” doesn’t make sense. Maybe in Qld there’s such an embarrassment of water, what with the new desalination plant, that the last thing the government wants is for householders to collect their own water?!

      Another thing – I have to wonder how much corporate attention was really given to the PC’s survey by the various departments.

      • BrisUrbane says:

        The funny thing is, if you collect your own water but still have a connection to the water supply, you get hit with high connection cost charges.

        So even if you don’t use much water at all, you still get billed for the connection.

      • Alan Davies says:

        I think the ‘theory’ is that you would still need to rely on the mains supply in the event of a fire. Otherwise you could be a threat to your neighbours.

  2. If I’m reading this correctly this is just recording the view of the planning agency (or rather, whoever at the agency happened to be tasked with responding to the Productivity Commission), which I don’t think really tells us much. It would be interesting to see data about what a broad sample of practitioners, or even the wider community, felt the planning system in their state was capable of. PIA’s Planning Report card is the closest to that kind of exercise that I’m aware of.

    Thanks for drawing attention to this report; it looks like there’s some interesting stuff in there.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Your interpretation is right.

      However I think how the government sees the planning system and how the professionals see it are different things. I think the view of the gatekeepers is extremely important because they, after all, are the ones who decide what the levers can and can’t do.

      Yes, there is much more of interest in the report.

      • Yes, I suppose the point I’m making is essentially the same as what you were getting at in comments above when you said you “wonder how much corporate attention was really given to the PC’s survey by the various departments.” In other words this doesn’t really tell us what the government thinks in any meaningful way: it will likely be the view of one low to mid-range employee and perhaps a manager who checked the letter.

        My own observation is that the underlying thinking behind the Victorian planning system is very aspirational: there’s a school of thought amongst a generation of planners that the VPP way of doing things is a brilliant model and capable of amazing things. Perhaps someone of that mindset filled in the survey.

        I actually do believe that a well designed planning system could at least play a part in many of the issues noted; I’m just cynical about the effectiveness of the system as it currently is.

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