Change the Government's mind, Save the Green Wedges

Planning is a vital government function which affects us all every day via the quality of our environment, whether it be town or country.

The very existence of Melbourne’s green wedges was the result of planning. In 1954 the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was made responsible to develop plans for the whole of metropolitan Melbourne, which in effect integrated planning with the very practical business of providing water, sewerage and drainage facilities to the growing city. It was this engineering–centred organization which developed a plan characterized by growth corridors separated by the rural areas now known as green wedges.

In 1967 the MMBW produced a report called ‘The Future Growth of Melbourne’ which referred to these rural areas as follows:

[They] will form the breathing space for the city. By defining the outer limits of urban development, the non-urban countryside gives relief from continuous urban development. The presence and preservation of countryside near to established population, although not a very tangible thing to many people, is a most important consideration. It is believed that this can most readily be achieved if urban growth is encouraged to occur either in Corridors or in a form of Satellite growth.

That report was produced at the request of the late Sir Rupert Hamer, Minister for Local Government in the Liberal Government led by Henry Bolte. Hamer took the lead in causing this green wedges concept to be legislated, in 1971, after a lot of community consultation.

Once legislated, an ongoing struggle to protect the green wedges commenced. Not a partisan, political struggle, but a battle against the ever lurking forces which drive the urban sprawl: parties wishing to make money by developing land. One field of battle will always be local, involving local councils and VCAT, but there is another, focussed on the Minister for Planning. Developers will ‘lobby’ the Minister to rezone land or to relax other aspects of the regulations to allow inappropriate developments to take place.

In 2002 the Bracks Government legislated an Urban Growth Boundary to definitively mark the end of the urban sprawl. The consequence was that eating into the green wedges could not be approved by just the Minister, it had to be passed by the Parliament.

But this did not stop the sprawl. In 2010 Planning Minister Justin Madden, under Labor Premier John Brumby, stole 43,600 hectares of green wedge land for residential development. The justification was population pressures, but developers already had plenty of land zoned for housing which they chose to land bank. The pressure felt by the Planning Minister was surely from developers lobbying in their own financial interests.

The next attack was in 2012. Planning Minister Matthew Guy, under Liberal Premier Ted Baillieu, stole another 7,000 hectares. Guy then proceeded to further white ant the wedges by relaxing the planning provisions so that land uses previously prohibited in the green wedges were now allowed as discretionary uses.

The creation of the green wedges was effective planning in action, contributing to what has had Melbourne ranked one of the world's most liveable cities for many years. But the failure to properly protect them in the years since has been a planning failure.

The MMBW was abolished in 1992 as part of the Kennett Liberal Government’s privatization push. Planning is now a free floating bureaucratic regulatory layer, and the vision which gave us the green wedges has been replaced by lip service.

The Matthew Guy white anting has not been reversed, and worse, a DELWP draft consultation paper ‘Planning for Melbourne’s Green Wedges and Agricultural Land’ appeared to rationalize them. Recommendations from VCAT about how to fix the planning provisions relating to fill dumping in green wedges have been ignored. In the area of animal grazing, changes were made that were not actually bad, but were poorly designed. The enforcement provisions of the planning system continue to be cumbersome and difficult for Councils to employ.

Prior to the last election the Andrews Government promised to protect our green wedges, but this promise has not been kept. The Premier himself may have been busy with Covid and with his government’s infrastructure program, but what about the relevant ministers? Neither the Planning Minister nor the Environment Minister have been interested. Asleep at the wheel does not explain their performance: have they been lax, negligent, or working to an agenda inconsistent with the Government’s pre-election promise?

Sadly, neither of the parties which are likely to form government have developed useful policy to enhance and protect the green wedges, nor have they demonstrated any genuine commitment to protect the wedges from further depredation.

What is desperately needed is an independent body within the machinery of government to look after the green wedge, to recommend on strategy, on regulations and legislation, and certainly to have standing at VCAT: a properly resourced and empowered Green Wedge Commissioner.

Green Wedge champion: step forward!

Article by Don Macrae