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Community activists seek review of VCAT

Samantha Ratnam
Samantha Ratnam

A decision by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal that allowed a developer in High Street, Preston in the Melbourne’s north to override a local council decision and push forward with higher and denser development has infuriated some people.

An article by local resident Justin Passaportis in our Spinifex (OpEd) column in October last year ignited huge readership and was later followed by a story in Fairfax’s Domain site in December.

Now there is a call by Passaportis and a number of supporters for a serious look at the role of VCAT and possibly even a parliamentary inquiry into the tribunal.

Together with Victorian Greens leader and former mayor of Moreland City Council Samantha Ratnam, the group has organised a public a meeting on 1 March at the Edinburgh Gardens community hall (at 7pm) to hear from people who have issues with the planning system and VCAT itself.

Passaportis hopes the meeting will generate enough steam to launch a parliamentary inquiry into VCAT.

Ratnam told The Fifth Estate on Thursday calls for an inquiry were premature but said there was plenty of momentum for review of the planning system.

“There’s been no call for a parliamentary inquiry as yet,” she said. “We’re having a forum first about how the planning system is failing us on so many levels and in so many ways.

“Essentially it’s to talk about the problematic areas and to think about solutions.”

She expected the meeting would be attended by planning experts, academics and community members who’ve had difficult battles with VCAT and the Darebin Council site that sparked all the interest.

“They’re seeing VCAT is empowered to review a planning application on its full merits. Essentially it’s two bites of the cherry.”

Ratnam said a growing number of people were asking if VCAT should have the power that it does, “especially on matters that impact so much on people’s lives”.

VCAT might be well regarded by those who deal with it closely, Ratnam agreed, but the question was “whether anybody should have the power that VCAT has”.

“The only way it can be challenged is in the Supreme Court on a point of law. Maybe it should be open to challenge in other ways.”

One issue that soured community views was VCAT’s decision to force the first Nightingale Housing project to include parking spaces after Moreland City Council had dispensed with the need to have any parking.

Another was around pokies, again involving Moreland, with the council taking VCAT to the Supreme Court over its approval to have more pokies at the Glenroy RSL.

In yet another example, a letter to The Age in 2014 pointed to a decision by a local council that was overturned by the tribunal.

In 2009 when Justice Bell was the president of VCAT, he stated: “Local government is the primary decision maker and we are truly a review tribunal, that’s our statutory purpose”, and “I would be disturbed if it were true that we had become a default state planning tribunal.” Yet this is what is occurring. Whitehorse Council rejected an application for 32 high-density units in a quiet street because it failed 14 sections of the local planning scheme.

However, VCAT did become a de facto planner, making at least 18 alterations, including changing the footprint, removing balconies and so on. It then granted a permit with these alterations plus a further 26 conditions.

Passaportis told The Fifth Estate that while his and his neighbours’ issues at High Street, Preston were now “done and dusted and construction has started”, a similar issue was emerging at Preston Market where again VCAT overruled the local council.

Ratnam said the idea for now is to keep the conversation going and to see what the solutions might be.

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