Montefiore: Planning goes bush

Sir Monty’s new troubleshooting job has taken him into the far-flung Outback, as that government planning revolution sales buccaneer Major Looming-Bungle is being let loose on remote zone planners and architects. But back in the big smoke, the city council has already examined the flawed new machinery he’s selling. Will the country cousins be kept in the dark even while the city hangs ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ posters on Town Hall’s walls?

Although Sir Monty’s principal pastime continues to be the detection and acquisition of Old Adelaide Money stashed under the beds of Adelaide’s historic villas, he also has a new day job. Ever since the blue-corner MPs took command of the government parliamentary suites, Sir Monty has been employed as a cleaner in that august place. He’s listed on the payroll database as ‘janitor’. It’s been a good ruse, because the job is not about brooms, dusters and toilet brushes. His role is to clean up state bureaucratic messes in the making, as quickly as possible, such that a looming disaster can be headed off before it engulfs everyone with embarrassment. This allows the Premier to maintain that eternal winning grin, as if everything is going swimmingly in his administration. Except it’s not. Certainly not in the Planning Minister’s suite, where, after four years of previous government planner hyperventilation and very expensive inquiry, the Great South Australian Planning Reform Revolution is now creaking into motion. But very selectively. The Phase 1 machinery being rolled out only applies to the remote Outback and coastal zones (coastal waters, conservation, tourism development, settlement, township, local infrastructure airfields etc). This is where the new Marshall/Knoll Planning Revolution rules are to be tested, in the same way as isolated Maralinga was chosen as a site to test the atom bomb because, if anything awful occurred, city folk wouldn’t know about it.

The Revolution features the introduction of a ‘Planning and Design Code’, a replacement of former development plans, to be coordinated by the blustering Major Looming-Bungle. The code features rules for proposed development, including a concept of ‘desired outcomes’, word pictures of the desired planning objective. Unfortunately it turns out that they are not comprehensive, explicit or clear; in fact they are as clear as Outback mud. There also are new “Deemed to Satisfy” provisions, which were promised to be quantitative and unambiguous, but actually aren’t. When city planners searched the good Major’s jeep (before it left for the Outback), they found “performance outcome policy provisions” that they believed were “limited, simple, and could lead to misinterpretation” with “inadequate clarity of meaning, actual requirements, and outcome”. The use of language such as ‘consider’, ‘similar’, ‘preferable’, ‘where possible’, ‘promote’ and ‘encourage’ is too subjective,” they concluded. “A range of key design terms are used interchangeably, leading to different scenarios and confusion,” they sadly added.

The broad theme among city planners who are monitoring from afar is that, if the new code machinery is so flawed at Stage 1 (Outback), then it’s unlikely to be any better at Stages 2 and 3, to be applied closer to Adelaide where residential and commercial outcomes will be of greater social and economic consequence. When imposed at Stage 3 (Adelaide and inner city ‘burbs), lawyers advising big-money developers will simply resort to court action if things get confusing, which is highly likely. City planners looking ahead are anticipating hazardous assessment pathways in relation to things like state heritage, advertisement rules, design and siting, and interface between land uses (among others). A 27 March, 2019 assessment* by city council planners was scathing in terms of content and procedure matters judged to be faulty, including some that can’t be fully tested until the Major’s jeep pulls up at the GPO and he unpacks his Stage 3 city roadshow. The extent of the anticipated mess has forced city planners to go back to the original 2016 planning legislation (created by Jay Weatherill’s planning minister John Rau) to try to interpret what parliament intended. The Department of Planning and Infrastructure’s people insist on one interpretation, but city planners, who have to make things work, read it differently. They say that three separate sections of the Act, which must be read together to make any sense (a sure sign of bad legislation), lead to complicated in-practice quicksand.

The core of the problem is that government planners have attempted to interpret a glorious political vision by incompetent use of the English language and muddled thinking about how proper planning assessment works. Small but very telling examples of the extent of the bungle appear at the conclusion of Town Hall’s submission*. There are no definitions of the following 14 terms. One undefined term would be bad enough, but 14 reveals a cornucopia of ambiguity, a migraine for planning assessors and a future gold mine for lawyers. Here they are. “In proximity to. Adaptive reuse. Non-conforming. Development versus new buildings. Actions and unforseen events beyond the control of the owner. Architectural treatments. Heritage values. Minor works that don’t need referral. Substantive physical impact. Conservation repair works that are ‘like-for-like’ maintenance. Ancillary development. Visible from a public street. Visually dominant. [And finally:] “Irredeemably beyond repair.” This last term might sum up an early Stage 1 assessment of Minister Knoll’s Great Planning Revolution, and one reason why Sir Monty was briefed to go bush. But it remains touch and go as to whether Major Looming-Bungle’s machinery can be fixed. After all, he’s only the salesman.

*It’s all in here… item 5.1 ‘Planning and design code mechanics’

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