GE Planning

Melbourne’s green spaces are being lost in rush to build more housing

By Adam Carey

July 28, 2019 — 11.55pm

Melbourne has lost almost 2000 hectares of tree cover in the past five years as suburban backyards are cleared for new housing.

The amount of urban forest that was removed between 2014 and 2018 is roughly equal in size to Reservoir, Melbourne’s largest suburb by area.

The eastern suburbs, long celebrated for their leafiness, experienced the greatest loss of greenery in that time, accounting for more than two-thirds of Melbourne’s total tree canopy loss, researchers at RMIT University found.

By contrast, the western suburbs have enjoyed a small recent recovery in green growth, although this has been from a much lower base and has mostly occurred on public land.

Residential land provides the largest area of vegetation cover in Melbourne, followed by parkland and public spaces such as streets.

The researchers found Melbourne’s total tree and shrub cover shrunk from 50,964 hectares in 2014 to 46,393 hectares in 2018, an overall decrease in greenery of about two percentage points.

Their report concluded that urban redevelopment and homeowners’ decisions to clear or reduce the amount of greenery in their yards were playing a significant part in reducing Melbourne’s urban tree cover.

Lead author Associate Professor Joe Hurley, of RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, said the findings were troubling for a number of reasons.

“Trees and vegetation in cities provide a lot of benefits to human health and wellbeing, as well as ecological and biodiversity benefits,” Professor Hurley said.

Trees were also critical to cooling the climate in built-up spaces, he said.

“The big one is heat amelioration, particularly for drier cities like Melbourne and Perth, where we get very hot conditions and it’s only increasing under climate change.”

The report found the amount of tree and shrub cover on residential land in greater Melbourne had declined 1.6 percentage points since 2014, had fallen by 4.6 percentage points in parkland and had increased 0.3 percentage points along street networks.

It said the significant loss of tree cover in Melbourne’s parks required further investigation, but could be caused by some species’ failure to adapt to a hotter and drier climate.

Tree loss was greatest in parts of Melbourne that are renowned for their greenery.

For example, Yarra Ranges Shire on Melbourne’s eastern fringe has experienced tree-cover loss of almost 5 per centage points since 2014, eastern suburban Maroondah has shed more than 3 percentage points of its canopy cover and Mornington Peninsula has lost 3 percentage points.

Outer suburban municipalities of Melton, Whittlesea and Wyndham had bucked the trend and boosted their canopy cover by between 1 and 2 percentage points in that time, mostly in public spaces.

Inner-city councils have similarly experienced modest growth in tree cover.

Professor Hurley said this could reflect a focus by councils in those areas on tree planting.

Some residents have also engaged in volunteer tree and shrub planting on public land to green their neighbourhoods.

Tamar Hopkins is part of the Upfield Urban Forest, a loose collection of volunteers engaged in a “guerrilla” tree planting project along the Upfield railway corridor in Melbourne’s north-west.

Ms Hopkins said she was motivated to start the project after years of “being blown away by the heat island effect” while cycling along the Upfield shared path.

In the past three years the group has planted natives including spotted gums, manna gums, blackwoods, casuarinas, flowering plants and native grasses along the rail corridor.

The effort has required delicate negotiations with VicTrack, the government agency that owns the land.

“It’s about recognising that this is a large piece of land that really could support quite a large tree canopy,” Ms Hopkins said.


Readers should click on the above link to see graphs of what’s happening.

PS: We’ve uploaded the full urban-vegetation-cover-change RMIT report.


The above screen dump is from Thursday’s Age newspaper and as stated is in response to a previous article written by the CEO of the Victorian Planning Authority. Please remember that the VPA is all about ‘development’. They are the government’s (of both persuasions) agency designed to achieve more and more development.

Putting this aside, it is a great pity that Tim Smith is more concerned with the simplistic solution of ‘decentralisation’ and pushing the Liberal agenda, than in really attacking the Mosely (VPA) argument. There is so much more he might have written. For starters, how about:

  • Reforming the planning system from a ‘performance based’ formula to one that contains prescriptive controls and parameters?
  • Reining in the powers of VCAT and councils?
  • Ensuring that residents do not subsidise developers, as in Glen Eira when we have no Development Contributions Levy and no Infrastructure Levy and this council is happy to exact pittance from its major developments for open space (ie Caulfield and East Villages)?
  • Ensuring that delegations at compulsory conferences are accountable to residents and councillors and do not simply cave in to developers.
  • Ensuring that the planning system is far more transparent and accountable to residents
  • That the ministerial intervention powers also be tightened and that full disclosure of department recommendations become public.

There is much that needs to happen before we have a planning system that works for residents and not developers. It’s just a pity that both sides of politics are so entrenched in their views that Mosely may just be right ie things will get worse and developers will continue to rule.

Here’s another example of what happens when a council refuses to address the immediate planning issues of our local centres. Another 8 storey application in a Commercial zone. No mention of how many student dog boxes and car parking waivers of course. By the time this council gets around to doing anything, Glen Eira will definitely be the high rise capitol of the middle ring municipalities. Well done Council!

PS: readers may also be interested in a VCAT decision published today re 285/7 Koornang Road, Carnegie. This site was granted a permit for 4 storeys and 40 apartments a while back when we had the first version of council’s structure plan. In the second version, the 4 storey height limit suddenly became 5 storeys. So now we have the permit holder applying for an extra level plus an additional 6 dwellings. Councillors voted unanimously to grant the application for amendment and this was supported at VCAT. Another ‘well done’ to our councillors who without explanation, without consultation decided that four storeys was too low, so let’s make it 5 here and 12 elsewhere. Not for the first time are we finding that developers are going higher and higher after they’ve got their initial permit. And what does council say? bugger all it would seem!

Today’s major news is all about inflammable cladding and the cowboys who have made a killing in the construction industry. It also points to the utter failure of regulation from the Victorian Building Authority, to State Governments and councils.

In March this year, council’s CEO released the following statement:

Our questions are pretty basic:

  • Why wasn’t council’s ‘building surveyor’ on the job when the redevelopment was happening? Did he/she sign off as everything being okay back then?
  • What oversight did council insist on with its redevelopment?
  • How much will it cost ratepayers to remedy the situation?
  • How long will it take?

Adding further fuel to the fire we now learn that there are at least 60 developments in Glen Eira that have suspect cladding. Here’s a map produced by the Victorian Building Authority. See:

Our sympathies go out to all those residents who find themselves living in one of these high rise potential death traps! Now wonder residents can have no faith in governments of all shades and certainly not councils.

For the past few years now social and affordable housing has been in the spot light at Glen Eira. So now we’ve finally got a ‘strategy’, but only after it was pointed out to council at VCAT that they didn’t even have a policy when they tried to enforce the social housing component for the Caulfield Village development. Further, this strategy comes only after the State Government provided Council with a grant to formulate the strategy! Other councils have had a strategy for well over a decade in some cases and without such state government benevolence! (A case of he who pays the piper…..?)

So how good is this strategy? What will it achieve? In our opinion, it follows the general pattern of all Glen Eira policies. That is:

  • Plenty of waffle
  • Plenty of empty promises
  • Plenty of shifting the onus onto state and federal government, meaning ‘let’s not do anything except wait because it is their responsibility’.

What is especially galling is the continued cave ins to developers. East Village is the perfect example. It appears that Council is ready to accept a 5% outcome on the current 3000 net new apartments. That equals a mere 150 homes out of 3000. Plus, we have no doubt that this ‘preliminary’ figure of 3000 will grow in precisely the same way that the original mooted 1100 for Caulfield Village has ballooned out to probably 2500 net new apartments! Thus 5% will eventually dwindle down to 3% unless these escape clauses are closed off in any Section 173 agreement.

Thankfully, not all councils operate as Glen Eira does. Their policies and strategies do not accept a 5% number for social and affordable housing. They go much higher. Moonee Valley for example on its VPA partnership over the Commonwealth defence site has demanded a 20% coverage for social/affordable homes. There are others too, as shown in the following screen dumps from Yarra, Kingston, and Maribyrnong. Thus if social and affordable housing is such an issue for Glen Eira as proclaimed, then why are we settling for a paltry 5%. Why can other councils go for double this percentage and voice their opposition to government plans, as in Bayside? Why is Glen Eira so compliant? So amenable to developers? And so indifferent to the plight of its residents when it comes to anything to do with planning?

Admittedly all of the above are ‘policies’ and hence do not have great statutory weight. They do however outshine anything that Glen Eira produces. If this council is serious about addressing the issue of the lack of social and affordable housing then going for a 5% imposition is only scratching the surface. Gillon and his mates (the VPA) are continuing to laugh all the way to the bank!

Please listen very carefully to the following audio from last night’s council meeting. It features one resident’s questions that exemplify everything that is wrong with this council. Needless to say, the responses to her queries were anything but satisfactory!

This is not the first time that applications have gone to VCAT and been ‘settled’ at what is known as Compulsory Conferences. Countless times we have the situation where councillors have refused a permit outright, only to find that the planning delegate at VCAT has caved in and the developer got everything he wanted. Since these compulsory conferences are ‘confidential’ residents have no idea as to the reasons behind the cave in. Caving in at a compulsory conference also means that there is no full hearing and no decision published. Perfect for avoiding full transparency and accountability!

Here are some decisions that were agreed to by council’s delegate at VCAT compulsory conferences. More disturbing than anything is the fact that some of these decisions fly in the face of councillor resolutions to refuse the permit outright. We doubt that councilors are even aware of what officers argue in these compulsory conferences and certainly not the grounds upon which permits are granted. Since no decision is published since a full hearing was averted, the community has no idea why some of these applications  got their permits. This in itself says heaps about the lack of transparency and accountability.

Here are some examples of cave ins at compulsory conferences:

2/4 Blair Street, Bentleigh. Councillors refused permit for 4 storeys and 24 apartments. A consent order granted 4 storeys and 22 apartments!

12/14 Howe Street, Murrumbeena. Councillor refusal. Permit granted for 10 x2 storey dwellings.

670 Centre Road & 51 Brown’s Road. Councillor refused amendment for addition level (up to 6 storeys). Permit granted for 6 storeys.

233/47 Glen Huntly Road. Councillors refused permit for 13 storeys . At compulsory conference permit granted for 12 storeys and 105 dwellings.

777 Glen Huntly Road, Caulfield. Councillors refused permit for 4 storeys. Permit granted at compulsory conference.

8 Egan Street, Carnegie. Councillors refused permit for 8 storeys. Permit for 8 storeys at compulsory conference.

Besides these major cave ins, there are plenty of others which were refused at officer level (ie never even making it to council) and then suddenly they get their permits at compulsory conferences. Admittedly, some developers might compromise and adjust their plans. This does not however excuse the granting of permits for high rise that were refused overwhelmingly by councilors.

So the questions remain:

  • Do councilors even know what happens at compulsory conferences in regards to the planning officer’s position on the application?
  • Have councilors voted or even agreed to the planning delegate’s position?
  • Why do Glen Eira councilors continue to allow unfettered delegations that excludes councilors completely from their rightful roles as decision makers?

Finally, we provide the following screen dump (from Boroondara council meeting) which shows clearly that not all councils operate in the same manner as our lot. Until our councilors have the balls to stand up to this planning department and insist on full transparency and accountability, then nothing will change. Residents will continue to be the casualties of a planning department allowed to run riot!

None of the above listed applications came back to council for deliberation.

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