A number of Victorian councils have sought to fill a perceived gap in federal and state policy regarding sustainable development. In particular, in 2014, six Victorian councils – Banyule, Moreland, Port Phillip, Stonnington, Whitehorse and Yarra City (Joint Councils)[1] proceeded to Panels Victoria to make submissions in support of proposed local planning policies for sustainable development.

The Environmentally Efficient Design Panel and Advisory Committee (PAC) was appointed by the Minister for Planning on 15 June 2013 under the Planning and Environment Act 1987. The PAC performed two roles – namely, to advise on the applicability and suitability of local planning policy to progress environmental sustainability and how environmental sustainability would be considered at the planning stage rather than the building stage.

Summary of key PAC findings

During the Panel hearing, it was noted that there were no Local Planning Policies in Victoria that comprehensively incorporated sustainability into design, even though planning has an important role to play in advancing sustainability. Nevertheless, the PAC considered provisions in the Victorian Planning Scheme relevant to the environment and sustainability. The PAC also considered key  Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) cases where issues of sustainability were referred for review and found that VCAT demonstrated consistent support for sustainability and the need to incorporate energy efficiency into development. Therefore, the Joint Councils’ move to introduce sustainable outcomes into their local policies was well received.

At the hearing, the parties unanimously agreed that all types of development can be sustainable. However, at issue was the question of how this was to be achieved and the costs involved to ensure compliance. Proponents suggested that the ‘improved life cycle costs over the life of the dwelling would more than negate higher capital costs if indeed there are higher capital costs’. The PAC found that ‘achieving sustainability in planning and development should be undertaken using the most efficient mechanisms to minimise cost to consumers and industry’.

Concerns were also expressed about the overlap between sustainability in the context of planning and building. The PAC considered that both regulatory frameworks could operate on a complementary basis because each had an important role to play. The PAC found that ‘planning is best suited to deal with the “big picture” upfront issues, whereas building is best suited to managing the detailed aspects’. In addition, a focus on sustainability during the planning process ‘enables the orientation, internal layouts and site development to be dealt with in a manner that may assist at the building approval stage in achieving the best design outcome and minimum or even higher thermal energy rating of the building’.

The PAC recognised that the ability of planning to give effect to sustainability objectives was limited because it could only be applied to development that required a planning permit. Therefore, the PAC noted that a State-wide approach would be more effective at achieving sustainable development. This led to the recommendation that the local policies should include a sunset clause to support the eventual development of a State-wide approach.

Cost-benefit analysis

The Joint Councils led evidence from a sustainability consultant to address the impact of the proposed planning policies in terms of housing cost and red tape. One well-known industry association expressed concern regarding the effect of the policies on the cost of housing. The PAC found that the analysis of costs and benefits could not focus solely on one-off capital cost impacts, but also had to look at the longer-term savings to those who would live in and use the housing, through more efficient use of water and energy. Ultimately, the evidence led by the Joint Councils, which established that the proposed local planning policies would have positive costs and benefits for the community, was accepted by the PAC. To date the Victorian government has not responded to the PAC report regarding whether the proposed local planning policies will deliver net costs savings to Victorian consumers.

Best practice

According to the version of the local planning policies endorsed by the PAC, the overarching objective of local policies is that ‘development should achieve best practice in environmentally sustainable development, including from the design stage through construction and operation’.

The Joint Councils submitted that best practice should be defined as:

A combination of commercially proven techniques, methodologies and systems appropriate to the scale of development and site specific opportunities and constraints, which are demonstrated and locally available and have already led to optimum ESD [ecologically sustainable development] outcomes. Best practice in the built environment encompasses the full life of the build. 

The PAC found that it was important for there to be a consistent term to define best practice. The parties submitted their own definitions of ‘best practice’ however the PAC thought the Joint Council’s definition was most reasonable. It was important for applicants going through the planning system to be able to achieve sustainable development outcomes without having to adhere to unreasonably stringent standards.

Application requirements to demonstrate ‘best practice’

The table set out in the attached PDF document has been extracted from draft clause 22 of the Port Phillip Planning Scheme. It establishes the minimum standard of information required to be submitted by an applicant for different types of development to demonstrate how best practice can be achieved. The table also identifies the various tools that can be used to assess how each development (whether it be for residential, mixed use or non-residential use) addresses the objectives of clause 22, although this is an non-exhaustive list and there are other tools available to guide the applicants.

Current status of proposals

Ultimately, the PAC recommended that the Joint Councils adopt the six amendments into their local planning policies. These amendments help to ensure that these councils are able to consider sustainability through their respective policies. The proposed policies require residential, mixed use and non-residential development to implement sustainable policy directives and provide guidance to achieve best practice in sustainable development. The amendments have been submitted to the Minister for Planning and are still awaiting Ministerial approval.

A copy of the Advisory Committee and Panel Report can be accessed here.