Minister gives mixed signals on apartment sizes

In a recent VCAT case, Port Melbourne Land Custodians Pty Ltd v Minister for Planning [2016] VCAT 1643, developers lodged an appeal against a decision by the Minister for Planning to refuse a number of amendments to a planning permit for a proposed multi-tower apartment development in Plummer St Port Melbourne.

Interestingly, one of his grounds of refusal was the small apartment sizes – an issue the minister decided was not important enough to include in the draft apartment design guidelines released for public comment in August.

The original permit was for three towers containing a mix of 447 dwellings and 13 townhouses. Part of the amendments included reconfiguring apartment layouts; increasing the number of apartments to 536; reducing the number of townhouses to 11; removing all borrowed-light bedrooms; reducing the floor-to-floor levels to 2.95m (was 3.2m); redesigning the podium landscaping and roof top facilities; increasing the communal areas from 2396 sqm to 4056 sqm; and revising the lifts, stairs and services core.

The minister considered that the proposed additional apartments were being achieved at the expense of a reduction in internal amenity. Specifically, the concerns related to:

The tribunal found there was, in fact, no reduced separation between the towers and that the curved facades resulted in a slight increase.

The applicant called a planning expert witness and he also considered there needed to be a number of improvements to the internal amenity of the apartments, including:

The tribunal agreed that the above modifications should be applied to achieve an acceptable outcome. However, it did not agree with increasing the minimum apartments sizes and balcony sizes and said: “Provided the internal area of an apartment is useable, I do not consider it is necessary to require a one or two bedroom dwelling to have a minimum area or to require all balconies to be eight square metres with a minimum dimension of two metres.”

The tribunal made reference to draft Better Apartments Draft Design Standards that was exhibited by the minister at the time of the hearing, but gave little weight to this document as it “has yet to be fully considered and implemented”.

There is an overdue need for minimum standards on the internal amenity for apartments. The lack of standards has caused difficulty for the tribunal in deciding what is acceptable and there are many examples of poor quality apartments.  It will be interesting to see whether the minister includes standards on minimum apartment sizes, given his stance in this matter.

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