A curious aspect of the Suburban Rail Loop project, and relatively unexplained, is the state government plan to take planning control away from local councils over large areas that circle the new SRL stations.
The Suburban Rail Loop Act 2021 gives the Minister for the Suburban Rail Loop, Hon Jacinta Allan, the power ‘to declare an area of land to be a Suburban Rail Loop planning area.’
The precincts will extend for a distance of approximately 1.6km from the stations and will usher in a new planning regime in these suburbs, potentially putting parkland, heritage areas and urban character under significant threat. Councils will be sidelined from decision making and public participation in planning will be curtailed.
The government has suggested that such large precincts reflect the 20-minute neighbourhood strategy embedded in Plan Melbourne.
In fact, the SRL precincts are double the size of the metropolitan strategy, which advocates for 20-minute neighbourhoods based on an 800 metre walk from home to a destination and back again (essentially a 10 minute walk to your destination and 10 minutes back home).
So the question, as yet unanswered by the government, is why is it necessary to define SRL precincts twice as large as that recommended in Plan Melbourne.
A core strategy of Plan Melbourne, set down in Victoria’s planning schemes, is to ‘develop the Suburban Rail Loop through Melbourne’s middle suburbs to facilitate substantial growth and change...’
This will include direct government intervention in assembling land, encouraging development and population growth and facilitating high density development in the affected suburbs on a ‘value capture’ model to help fund the rail loop.
The recent report of the Inquiry Advisory Committee (IAC) on the environmental effects of the Suburban Rail Loop (SRL East) did not cover the 1.6km wide precincts. The IAC conceded the government had narrowed the ‘terms of reference’ to exclude consideration of impacts on those areas.
The Environment and Climate Action Minister, Hon Lily D’Ambrosio, in endorsing the IAC report, was equivocal in her assessment stating ‘Where land use plans are not consistent with the project… they will need to be revised…’ (Minister’s assessment, page 59).
All that needs to happen now is for the Suburban Rail Loop Minister, Hon Jacinta Allan, to declare these new precinct/planning areas, which can be larger than the often quoted 1.6km radius. This will then trigger changes to the planning scheme under the Minister’s authority, consigning the planning minister, Hon Lizzie Blandthorn (and her understudy, Hon Lily D’Ambrosio) and councils to secondary roles.
Whitehorse City Council expressed concern to the IAC that ‘…the situation remains that there is no certainty whatsoever in relation to the extent and nature of future participation by the Councils and the public in the future precinct planning, either for planning within the Project land or within the wider precinct.’
While the government excluded this major element from the recent public inquiry, the Association encourages public discussion especially given the government’s intentions for re-shaping suburbs such as Surrey Hills, Mont Albert, Box Hill North, Mont Albert North, Box Hill South and Burwood through significant population growth, land development and multi-level housing.