Dealing with opposition to density

Dealing with opposition to density
Alexander ShekoJune 17, 2015

Opposition to change in built form or land use often stems from particular anticipated impacts, such as pollution or noise from noxious industry, or overshadowing caused by tall buildings; it also often has a psychological aspect related to emotional attachments to place. In Victoria, there are remarkably broad avenues for objection and appeal, including in comparison to other jurisdictions within Australia.

In most cases where a planning permit is required, any person may lodge a formal objection with the responsible authority (generally the relevant local government, but may also be a state government authority or Minister for Planning), and may appeal the grant of a permit through the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).

However, certain permit applications are excempt from this notification, objection and appeal process.

One common target for such opposition is higher density housing, particularly where this results in a taller built form. About 70% of total planning permit applications across Melbourne in 2009-2010 were open to objection and appeal. While 26% of total applications received objections, this rose to 35% of applications to build ten or more dwellings.

Densification is often opposed because it is quite different to what people are used to seeing in low density Australian cities. However, opposition has been found to increase where building design and street interfaces are poor, where there is no precedent for such housing in the local area, or where there is existing anger at political bodies and processes.

To some extent, the quality of design may mitigate impacts on potential objectors; however, it is clear that significant changes to built form, particularly with regards to building height, represent major change that is unacceptable to many on neighbourhood character grounds.

Whether these impacts should be considered broadly acceptable in light of the need to accommodate population growth, particularly in well-serviced areas, is a significant area for debate.

Opposition and objection can increase development costs through delays and costs associated with appeals, such as fees for lawyers or specialists. This can threaten development viability or pass the costs onto consumers. In some instances, formal avenues for objection are removed, such as for development within the CBD and outer suburban greenfield development, as well as social housing that built as part of the Nation Building program from 2008.

However, removing these appeal rights can increase resentment against planning and political processes, which can fuel opposition to other development or stymy public engagement in planning processes. Managing opposition poorly can cause anger and loss of trust, making it difficult for government to work with the community.

In addition, caution should be taken not to lay excessive blame for delays or failures in densification policies on objectors. A study that looked at higher density housing development in Brunswick across 2002-2007 found that while 80% of proposed dwellings had been approved, under half of the approved dwellings had at least begun construction by 2009, with higher density projects most likely to stall.

The authors of the study argued developers were making ambit claims in order to increase the value of the land and make capital gains without even having to develop.

So what is the best way to address local opposition to unwanted higher density housing? One answer may be to limit third party appeal rights, given Victoria’s extensive avenues for formal objection and appeal. However, this could lead to negative perceptions of the planning processes and missed opportunities to balance the need for housing supply with participatory planning processes.

Other options include providing more information about development, as there is evidence that this can help reduce anxiety among local residents.

More broadly, project-specific measures to address opposition, such as good siting and design, must be complemented with broader measures such as education on the importance of densification and housing supply, effective public relations campaigns and ensuring that planning legislation is consistent, particularly across the local and state levels.

Effective public debate about why higher density housing is important and what it could look like, as well as what sorts of planning controls could define and encourage high quality outcomes would be helpful to this end.

The question of how to address opposition to higher density housing is a thorny one for decision makers. While there are potential tools for excluding public participation and third party rights, it is clear that the heavy-handed application of these can generate anger and impacts from informal objection, as well as ignoring the potential for improved outcomes from engagement and negotiation.

In the conflict between policies promoting higher density housing, and local opposition to the implementation of these policies, it is apparent that a balanced approach is needed to ensure a consistent, engaging planning system that is able to achieve its aims with buy-in from the communities it transforms.

Alexander Sheko is a researcher at the University of Melbourne, working on the Transforming Housing project.

Lead image: supplied.

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