The debate about density

With CBD planning under review for the next 12 months, we can expect to see public arguments develop both for and against mandatory density controls.

Speaking at separate forums in late September, influential planner Leanne Hodyl outlined a strong case for CBD density controls while Lord Mayor Robert Doyle spoke in favour of a more discretionary regime.

On September 24 Ms Hodyl told a Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) seminar that density controls were needed for a range of reasons.

The City of Melbourne planner said developers needed to have realistic expectations before buying land.  She predicted poor apartment construction would continue without density controls.

“What we are seeing time and time again is developers coming in or, more to the point, it’s often their architects coming in and often talking to us off-line saying ‘we have been told we have to have this yield and it’s actually not possible to deliver a good design outcome and that yield’,” Ms Hodyl said.

“So they’re basically stuck.  And that’s where density does become critical in setting realistic expectations about what you can put on a site.”

“We are getting some of those really bad design outcomes in those apartments because we are just jamming so many apartments onto a site. Yield comes first and then quality comes second,” she said.

Speaking at a property forum hosted by CBRE Real Estate the following day, Cr Doyle said he preferred discretion in planning.

Cr Doyle said: “Mandated rules that are strict like that are probably not the way to go.  But we do need some rules.”

“I made the argument very strongly to the Minister that whatever you have, you must have discretion.  Because if you simply bring in those rules, then some of the best developments wouldn’t have happened.”

“I believe there does need to be a discretionary power for the Minister to say ‘you know what? This is a really good example of design, it makes a contribution to the city, it’s respectful of the street.  It might be higher than we might like but it is a better overall outcome.’

And I would much rather see him doing that,” Cr Doyle said.

Cr Doyle and Ms Hodyl are aligned on height not being, in itself, a problem.

At the PIA conference, Ms Hodyl said: “Height is not the problem.  We’ve got to stop talking about height all of the time.  I think we tend to have an emotional response to height, which is a bit irrational at times.  I think you can have fantastic high-rise buildings.  It’s how they are delivered which is really key.”

But, in arguing for mandatory density controls, she said: “There’s no link at the moment about how many people are coming and the provision of community infrastructure. There’s no certainty about how many people are coming.  There’s no ceiling on development and the Property Council keeps telling us they want carrots and not sticks. But you can’t give a carrot until there’s a ceiling and at the moment they can go as high as they like,” she said.

Cr Doyle said: “I think we’ve got to be ambitious for our city in the development we encourage, but we don’t want to discourage development – a point I made to the Treasurer and was not lost on him.”

“If you look at sales in retail, commercial and residential, it’s $3 billion each year over the last two years in the central city on a 10-year average of $1 billion a year.  Treasurers do their sums very quickly and work out what that means in stamp duty and land tax. And so a slow-down there is not what a state economy will want.”

“So the plot ratios, the set-backs, the height controls – in reality, and this shows us how far we’ve moved – all he did was enshrine the Melbourne Planning Scheme. Because all of those things are in the planning scheme.”

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