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Monday Melbourne: CXXIV, May 2006
Russell Degnan

I seem to have run out of leaves. Taken July 2004

Melbourne 29th May, 2006 21:48:22   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXXIII, May 2006
Russell Degnan

Continuing the theme -- the Fitzroy Gardens. Taken May 2006

Melbourne 23rd May, 2006 01:15:06   [#] [7 comments] 

Not what they claim. Not even what they think.
Russell Degnan

Normally I like to be largely analytic when i talk about transport issues, but following the release of the State Government Transport Policy and its associated spin, many, many, people have made analytical comments. And so I will merely rant, and we'll see where we end up.

"For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose." - "On Bullshit" - Harry Frankfurt

"For the past 6 years, the Victorian Government has taken
strong action and made major new investments to build
a modern, safe and reliable transport network across
Victoria" - Steve Bracks

"the most comprehensive, far-sighted transport plan Victoria has seen since Robert Hoddle laid out the grid for Melbourne's CBD in 1837." - Steve Bracks

Bracks must have something against Melbourne's transport planners, since he hasn't been able to find one august enough to share his lofty perch, without travelling all the way back to the beginning. And yet, to choose Hoddle makes some sense, because Hoddle was a man after Bracks' heart.

Except for a few streets in and around the CBD, Hoddle did almost nothing for Melbourne. And even that was hardly a glowing achievement. Melbourne's laneways aren't there because of some hankering after dark alleys; they are there because Hoddle's grid was inflexible; not to mention, drab, boring, and unsuitable for a 'place'. But why let incompetence stop at the drawing board; like Bracks' plans -- the last of which was so poor as to be only fit for swatting government ministers -- Hoddle's grid was hardly a symbol of competent road management. Almost twenty years after it was built, it was common for local drunks to drown on one of its flooded corners, tree stumps and their roots still dotted the road surface, and holes mixed with mud and manure, or if you were lucky, dust and manure. The manure was a constant.

But why stop at a little bit of bullshit when you can have a lot?

Do a half line upgrades and a few new stations over 20 years, and a few new bus lines really constitute a comprehensive and far-sighted transport plan? And if so, how should we really rate other far-sighted and comprehensive Victorian travel plans? Like the decision in 1890 to extend the country and metropolitan rail system an extra 4,600 miles. Insane, sure, but you have to say it is pretty far-sighted. Or the 1970 Transport Plan, that proposed, and then actually did a fair job of building, 300 miles of freeways; but also, three new rail lines, an extension, a city loop, dozens of electrifications and duplications; a half dozen new tram lines; and a 64% increase in bus route length. Only in the current government does not doing anything for 20 years count as far-sighted.

But you know what else is good about the 1970 plan? Well, for one, they actually told us about their methodology. They measured where people would live, how many would own cars, where they travelled, where they might. Sure, a lot of those predictions were self-fulfilling prophecies for increased car use. But it was damn good planning.

Nor does the 1970 plan bombard you with costs. It has them, on the second and third last pages. But this government is obsessed with telling you how much they are spending, as if its a bloody achievement to piss tax-payer money against a wall. I bought a train ticket to Spencer St. from Sydney last year, where in the process of telling me that there would be interruptions, it also managed to tell me they would cost "$700 million". And this plan is full of this crap. Practically the first thing it says is that it all cost $10.5 billion, as if in twenty years that will be accurate, and as if that is somehow relevant.

And finally, the 1970 plan doesn't waste page after page with implementation details. Because it knew that was a political decision, that priorities, like governments change, that costs go up and down, that things need to be approved, land acquisitioned, and that government agencies could do that for themselves, in their own time, and under their own budget. Could that is, until John Cain Jr. pillaged them. They were as centralised then as they are now, except at least then, they had some sense of their role (like say, running trains). What does the DOI see its role as? Is it, perchance, a publishing company? Because that's what they seem to spend their time doing.

"The MTP identified and examined 4 key transport challenges: safety, managing congestion, metropolitan growth, and support for economic development."

"This substantial program of investment in transport infrastructure and services should not be seen as an exhaustive list of projects, but as a strong framework upon which this and future governments can build as new needs and challenges arise."

Call me an old engineer. But planning has declined markedly since engineering principles got taken out of the central frame. You see, the beauty of an engineering approach, is that everything is seen as a problem, for which one is supposed to propose a solution. It is very simple. Engineers are very simple. This is why engineers do useful things like build bridges, and why planners do complex, but useless things, like determine the optimum height for someone's front fence.

But try and find a specific problem, or even an aim, in the transport document. The closest they come is in the first paragraph above, and they are neither. You can tell they are neither by applying the negation test of our so called challenges: "danger, letting congestion run free, metropolitan shrinkage, and support for economic decline". You see, these are silly. The third would possibly make sense if the city was getting smaller, but otherwise these are neither goals, nor problems, they are abstract, poorly defined, areas to take into consideration while you actually design some real, measurable aims.

And we know that this plan is not comprehensive, nor focused on achieving broad aims, because they tell us, immediately after saying how good they are, in that second paragraph above. Except this is a bald faced lie, because there are no frames in this framework. The whole document is made up of vague motherhood statements about liveable the whole place will be when they are done not implementing anything significant, and a few specific projects. And I mean a few. $10.5 billion over 10 years is peanuts. $1.05 billion per year. Around $500 per household. Or just three and a half times what the average Victorian household spends on transport per week (i.e.. 1/15 of total private transport expenditure).

Which is not to say that some of those projects are not worthwhile. The bike network is an excellent idea; the reserve fund might be, but could also be an accounting trick; late night trams and trains are good; traffic priority measures for trams likewise (although they talked about them in 1970 too); grade separations are long overdue, but still under-funded; some freeway improvements will help, and the country arterials will too (as soon as they learn to spell the Calder Freeway).

But the question is, help what? The implementation is all mixed up with the methodology, and the planning, and the resourcing, and the goal setting. I am sure there are engineers down at the DOI. And I am sure they have those project management diagrams somewhere, with the big feedback loop. Have these been ignored completely, or are there 400 pages of justifications to go with the shopping list?

"Jobs are shifting from the city to the suburbs and regional centres. As a result, more people are travelling from suburb to suburb and regional centre to regional centre, rather than from the suburbs to the city." - Steve Bracks

This statement highlights why a shopping list approach is bad. Job shifts and shopping shifts has been going on for years and years. What matters, is not that it goes on, but how it goes on, because it does so in very specific ways. The automobile has greatly increased our ability to travel across and away from the public transport network, but this pattern is not accidental. Businesses, particularly heavy freight businesses, have placed themselves along major transport routes, because noone in their right mind wouldn't. Chadstone is not in the middle of nowhere, it is smack against one of the busiest roads in the state; Springvale Road is lined with office parks; trams still run down vibrant strip shopping centres; residential growth is strongest along rail-lines and freeways. More importantly, over the time-frame that these transport plans are implemented, the bulk of businesses and new residential development will move much faster, because they can, and they do.

The problem with this plan is not the plan so much. Like all plans it is both good and bad: better than the last, but still lacking in any direction. The problem is it doesn't even try and set some sort of goal; and more specifically, some sort of measurable goal. The only (now unstated) goal for transport in Melbourne is to get 20% public transport use by 2020, which is not a useful goal anyway. Things need to be a whole lot simpler than that.

What Melbourne needs, first, is a sense of what we expect. In terms that people care about, which is not the mode of travel, but the time to travel, the level of comfort, the convenience, and the safety level. All of which are specific to geography, and must be integrated with other, also somewhat relevant but equally ignored plans. Not that hard, and a fairly useful first step towards breaking out of the current piece-meal, practically unplanned, reactive approach of which this document is a classic example.

Planning 21st May, 2006 02:11:54   [#] [5 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXXII, May 2006
Russell Degnan

Not terribly Monday, but I'm busy with homework, or something. This time the colours of Flagstaff Gardens. Taken May 2006

Melbourne 17th May, 2006 19:37:21   [#] [1 comment] 

Shaping reactions through systems
Russell Degnan

Previously, I've argued that the way we do planning in Victoria is producing a lot of negative side-effects. In a way, this is a harsh assessment. Not because it isn't, but because the system itself is built on the two foundation stones of liberal democracy: the right to a fair trial; and having decisions made by elected representatives.

The issue, is that both of these are very conservative ways of approaching democracy, created by (for the most part) lawyers, for lawyers, based on adversarial positions, and (in general) winner-takes-all decision making. And while this can be appropriate, it is not necessarily always appropriate, and planning, being a highly subjective area, is one of them.

The planning system in Victoria (shorn of the few additions that have tried to ameliorate this problem) is relatively straight-forward:

You submit an application

From this point onwards, the planner and the process is in control of the application. This is the first problem. As any contractor will tell you, people have no sense of time; once something is submitted they will bug you day and night for completion; if it is in their hands they will sit on it indefinitely. In the interests of keeping people in the process, it makes sense for them to be in control of it, and not a planner/bureaucrat.

The plans are checked for consistency and sufficiency

There is nothing wrong with consistent and complete plans per se. The problem here is the approach. By setting up a dialog between the planner and the developer the plans are finalised without input from affected parties. The planner can add to this process, and the plans can be modified a little later, but it locks things in to early.

The plans are advertised to potentially affected parties

On the surface, this is important. In reality, like any piece of advertising, it serves to encourage behaviour -- an objection -- which isn't actually what you want. For preference, nobody would object. It also, again, creates the adversarial roles when both sides, generally have an interest in a good outcome.

In light of comments made, the plans are negotiated, assessed, and then decided upon

Once again, the public, and the proponent are removed from the process. Except, by this stage, large numbers of people have a vested interest in the outcome. Any system that makes a decision -- as any planning system must -- cannot avoid this; but the system, as constituted encourages the escalating political dog-fight that controversial applications tend to become. Politics and good planning outcomes are not anathema, but nor are they necessarily optimal.

The decision can (potentially) be appealed to VCAT

The final fun stage, when everyone lawyers up and goes at it. This process favours people with access to funding for lawyers, be they well-mobilised, wealthy, local resident groups, or large coroporations. The process, from go to the court-room woe, is long and unwieldy, and much of the problems lie not in the details people fight over, but in the structure.

There are many ways to do this better, that do engage the community, give planners more guiding power, and less legislative grunt, that avoids adversarial positions, that are more democratic, and less entwined with the legal profession. Nor are they necessarily substantially different to what we have, as is the case in many jurisdictions.

Take, as an unusual example, the creation process for Usenet newsgroups. A process that has worked on a similar scale, of a few hundred people, is similarly voluntary, but which, lying within the largely anarchic culture of the internet, has been designed with weak bureaucracy (though many proponents still argue too much), and strong inclusive principles. It too was relatively simple:

A request for discussion of the new group is posted to relevant places

Note the difference between this and planning. The first point of contact is engaging with the affected parties. These discussions can become heated, but their purpose is to shape the details of the group, based on a series of draft proposals, combining the knowledge of the proponent and their supporters, the 'old-hands' of newsgroup creation (planners if you will) and interested parties (the general public). Discussions period lasts 30 days; in the planning field, discussions could be longer or shorter, depending on the complexity of the project, and the time it takes to shape a consistent and sufficient plan together.

A call for votes is initiated

The call for votes is, or rather was, designed to ensure the newsgroup has sufficient membership to support itself. It required 100 more yes than no votes, and a 2/3 majority to pass. Since I last read news.groups this process has fallen apart, and is in the middle of a rather arcane, and ultimately pointless discussion on how best to do the process by committee, rather than votes. The problem was that 100 people is a lot, especially when you factor in the nay-sayers, and the decline in usenet users, not to mention that 100 people generate more verbosity than you'd probably want anyway.

The point here though, is the way the mechanism produced good outcomes. The votes that failed for other reasons, generally did so because they were fundamentally flawed, or made changes that, even if slightly irrational, drew people's ire. The advantage of a voting hurdle is that it forces the proponent to draw the community in from the start, rather than down-playing those faults.

Another complication, is that an two-way adverarial system disguises that there are really a dozen or more viewpoints: several council viewpoints, state government, local planning priorities, state planning priorities, traffic planning, local residents, external (sometime/visiting) residents, business groups, community groups, and the unfortunate proponent.

There is strength in that diversity, provided ideas are fleshed out, which at the moment, with planners subject to councils, and developers and residents facing off from each other, they are not.

So what am I proposing?

1. Objections and their responses should be discussed openly, between the proponent and objectors, not through the planner.
2. Vast swathes of the planning system should be automated, and made acessible online, including any discussions.
3. Planners should be divorced from decision making, and confined to decision guiding. The reasons for their advice should be examined publically.
4. In order to engage people who aren't out and out nutters, developers should be encouraged to get people to register interest in their proposal.
5. Interested parties should be allowed a direct -- though not conclusive -- say in the final proposal.
6. Either all decisions should be made by an independent legal body, or all decisions should be made by a sub-collective of relevant parties. Not both, and not one before the other.

Like in usenet, decisions are never as important as they might seem at the time. But under the present system, the way we interact encourages misunderstanding and negativity. And there are relatively subtle changes that could be made -- many of these would not involve changing the planning act -- that would make a substantial difference to this interaction, and the end result.

Planning 17th May, 2006 04:53:35   [#] [3 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXXI, May 2006
Russell Degnan

Melbourne is normally too warm in early Autumn for colour. This year: not brilliant, but not bad. Taken May 2006

Melbourne 9th May, 2006 00:13:11   [#] [2 comments] 

The Liberal planning policy: Metropolitan Planning - A Plan for All
Russell Degnan

This might perhaps, be one of the more pointless posts in this blog's less than illustrious history. Certainly, for those readers whose eyes glaze over at the sight of a planning post, it will be one of the more boring. But we will see. While Robert Doyle was slowly realizing he had less chance of winning the November election than he did of a Reader's Digest sweep-stake, their next lamb for the slaughter leader Ted Bailleu was putting out the planning policies for a future Liberal government (if any).

Oddly enough, this may be the first election fought in the main over urban planning issues -- transport and land-use -- because it is by far Bracks biggest weakness. While parties lose, policies are like rats. The faster the ship they're on sinks, the faster they find themselves with the winners. While it may never be implemented by a Liberal government, it is worth looking at see which diseases we can expect to contract in Labor's next term. It is a lovely well-ordered document. That is nice in planning I think -- some might even argue its kind-of the point -- so I will address it one section at a time. Conclusions left as an exercise to the reader ...

A full-time planning minister

Probably not a bad idea. Planning is either a catch-all (environment, infrastructure, transport) or purely land-use. It is the former that causes issues with strategic plans outside the minister's remit, and this doesn't look like it will be fixed. But, while I'd love to combine them all, trim departments, and overhaul the land-use side completely, it is not a winning strategy.

Withdraw Melbourne 2030

Specifically, the MSS and zoning provisions will become the decision guidelines for developments, instead of a mixture of competing and highly interpretative ideals. The good thing with this approach is some sort of certainty, and a move back towards a semblance of rational decision making instead of by largely opinionated political fiat. The bad thing is it means the state government can't implement a metropolitan strategic policy... or can it.

Create a New Strategic Policy

There is a great deal of talk about community consultation in this process, but frankly, who are we kidding? Either you are trying to plan (and therefore force people to do something they otherwise wouldn't necessarily do), or planning is done by individuals according to their preference, in the context of services, infrastructure and economics.

The principles expressed so far are either inconsistent, or vague, so there is less policy here, than there is deceptively nice sounding principles. To whit, some of them imply more buildings in activity centres:

- Capacity based growth, rather than arbitrary targets;
- Maximum use of existing infrastructure;
- Protecting adjacent semi rural Shires from adverse impacts;
- Housing affordability and diversity;
- Retention of green wedges as sustainable breaks between urban developments;

Some of them imply strong local protections:

- Protection of existing neighbourhood amenity;
- Retention of Melbourne’s high living standards;
- Local community support for local outcomes;

Some of them could be read either way. Whose rights? The local land-holder and developer, or the neighbours, neither of which have any specific rights right now:

- Respect for property rights;

Or may be promising one or more of freeways, railways, or consolidation:

- Easy access to work and reduced travel times;

And some imply that planning isn't really our thing:

- Adaptability to acknowledge changing markets;

Something for everyone then.

Strengthen local government planning powers

As discussed above. This is strongly pro-local government, which is good, because of the principle of subsidiarity. But leaves open the question of how the state government plans to balance competing local government ideals (or if they even want to).

Move the UGB

Notice the Liberals don't want to remove it. Merely, to move it, and to implement it within the scheme. Again, this is a state versus local council matter. where each has different priorities. The Liberals are trying to have it both ways, and it isn't viable.

Turn some Green Wedge land into public parkland

This is an out and out good idea. But leaves open the question the question of the rest. This policy:

- Undertake a comprehensive land capability study for all Green Wedge Land to establish the agricultural potential of that land;

Is an irrelevance. The land is economically more viable as housing, or as a bed and breakfast or a golf course (the last two are perfectly acceptable green wedge uses right now). So while the public land parts are excellent, reading between the lines indicates that the Green Wedges will be opened to development. This may not be a bad thing, mind.

Allow extensions to the 60 day rule

Statutory planners will note this with some relief, or perhaps not. The fact is, 60 days is a long time, and it is the complexity of the system that forces applications near the deadline, rather than any other cause. To hark back to elections past, this is a bit like promising an extra 1000 waiting room trolleys.

Stop appeals to VCAT for some applications

This one is just weird, note:

- Legislate to limit access to VCAT for the review of determinations for projects which are deemed in advance to substantially comply with the relevant Municipal Strategic Statement (MSS);
- Provide for VCAT to determine whether an application for review qualifies on the grounds of substantial compliance;

Oddly enough, having complained about proponents going to VCAT and locals losing their local decision making rights, the policy seems to suggest local rights to object will be curtailed. But how do we make this determination? VCAT is an appeals body, designed to test compliance with the planning scheme in its entirety. Either this policy does something substantial to the relative power balances, or it does nothing at all, but I can't actually work out which. More information required.

Ministerial interventions must be fully announced to Parliament

Nice. Pointless except for political junkies and the opposition. But nice.

Make the planning process friendlier

The complaint here is that only people with insider knowledge can work through the labyrinthian planning schemes and ResCode. This is false. People with inside knowledge don't know how to navigate ResCode either. However, the Liberals have a point. Some of these proposals are good, at least on the surface:

- Bring greater certainty and clarity to residential planning for the benefit of residents and home buyers alike;
- Conduct an industry review of ResCode to assess the impact on design quality of all ResCode provisions such as bedroom windows, ceiling heights, garaging;
- Ensure that advertising of planning proposals and amendments is sufficient to ensure residents and ratepayers have sufficient knowledge of the proposed plans;

Some ignore the fact that people don't care!

- Develop and implement a planning training package run by all councils for their constituents. These forums will simply and effectively outline ResCode, the documentation required, costs to be incurred, neighbourhood character requirements and dispute resolution;

The planning scheme needs, more than anything, a friendlier interface, by which I mean an automated one. It isn't that hard, and it is a much better way than expecting people to educated themselves at some length about a process that they have no need nor wish to know about.

Heritage, Contemporary Heritage, and the Government Architect?

As you were. But with more money for public properties and agencies. Ignoring the Productivity Commission report both in its recommendations, and in its underlying argument that "prescriptive regulation can lead to ineffective, inefficient and inequitable outcomes, particularly for less significant (marginal) places." Do heritage listed, but otherwise neglected, buildings need to fall down before this gets reviewed?

Improve strata title properties

This is significant, and it is an issue that will only get bigger. If a single dwelling is neglected it can be bought up, improved or demolished. Strata title cannot, at least as easily, because the whole building needs to be bought out before it can be demolished, and low-income tenants do not good body-corporates make. This may not be an effective strategy, but it is an issue worth the discussion.

Planning 7th May, 2006 14:03:52   [#] [3 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXX, May 2006
Russell Degnan

Government House, from the back gate. Taken April 2004

Melbourne 1st May, 2006 18:39:25   [#] [4 comments] 


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