Liveable, sustainable communities are achievable. We just need visionary, transparent political leadership.

The proposed community food garden at Glen Junor

Across Australia, our local Councils are struggling to put aspirational policies on health, wellbeing and the environment into meaningful action. Macedon Ranges Shire Council has a rare opportunity to champion a proposal to build one of the world’s most liveable, efficient and sustainable communities at Glen Junor, close to the heart of Gisborne. It would place Macedon Ranges at the forefront of sustainability efforts globally and would deliver significant outcomes against a wide range of state and local government legislation and policy.

Glen Junor has received widespread community acclaim for its promise to provide a meaningful response to climate change, sustainability, and the Australian housing crisis. Yet rather than seize this opportunity — and respond to its own governance principles, policies and strategies — Macedon Ranges Shire Council has taken actions to actively exclude Glen Junor from its ‘Gisborne Futures’ 30-year town planning process. This example of dysfunctional local governance is exacerbated at the State level by a disconnected legislative environment and planning system, and a headlong rush to ‘recover’ economically from COVID through the mantra of ‘jobs and growth’. Consequently, a raft of developments for the Shire have been lodged which place the Macedon Ranges — and indeed much of regional Victoria — at risk of anonymous, placeless, car-dependent sprawl.

Glen Junor offers a stark contrast to two current business-as-usual proposals. One would convert 30 acres of agricultural land, located 4 km south of Kyneton, into 78 low-density housing lots. The other proposal would establish a McDonald’s/ KFC / petrol station complex at the northern freeway entrance to Kyneton, combined with a Bunnings and other big-box retail in the industrial zone.

These issues all add up to show a failing planning system driven by short-sighted local government decision-making that lacks any pretence of demonstrating clear, transparent governance grounded in evidence and accountability.

COVID — and the climate crisis — provide us with a generational opportunity to do better than continue turning agricultural land at the edges of our regional towns into sprawling housing estates and drive-thru fast food. The community appetite and expectation is there – we just need the right state and local government leadership.

Introduction

In December 2020, my blog article on the need to protect regional liveability and identity went somewhat viral, and resulted in a story in the Age. Consequently, it was my good fortune to be introduced to Trent and Chrissy McCamley, who own Glen Junor — a 210-hectare farm located just outside the current edge of Gisborne township.

Glen Junor stands on Wurundjeri Aboriginal land in Gisborne. Prior to European arrival, the area was rich in native forests and woodland. It was home to many species that are now locally extinct, like the Long-Nosed Bandicoot and Spotted Tailed Quolls. In the 1800s, many pastoralists moved into the region and much of the land was cleared for farming.

For decades, Glen Junor was the long-term home of Harry White, legendary Australian Jockey and winner of four Melbourne Cups. The farm offers stunning vistas, expansive sky, natural waterways and potential for regenerated wildlife corridors. The current gateway to the property is easily accessible, being 3.4km from both the centre of Gisborne and the train station. It is no further from town than existing residential development.

Since the McCamleys bought Glen Junor from Harry White five years ago, planning changes occurred and the land is now zoned for development (Rural Living). This means that under its current zoning, there is nothing to stop a developer from carving up the land into a range of one-to-four-hectare blocks with no improved community or environmental assets and a disconnected lifestyle imprisoned by a reliance on car-based transportation.

Rather than precipitate this ‘business as usual’ approach, the McCamleys have a different vision for Glen Junor: they want to create one of the world’s most liveable and sustainable communities.

The vision for Glen Junor is that 50% of the land will be used to create a walkable neighbourhood designed according to community need, that will become one of the most environmentally regenerative communities on the planet. The remaining 50% of the land will be used for open space and a suite of community assets that will be co-designed and created with the residents of Gisborne, for the current and future benefit of the town. Community assets include an expansion of the local GisBus public transport service, threatened species program; cycling/walking pathway network; community food garden that is already supplying the local Foodbanks; a $3.5m community endowment fund; GisEbike: Electric Bike Share; Jackson Creek and Gisborne Gorge restoration; the Harry White community park; a youth innovation hub; a learning centre; and a co-working space.

To support their Vision, the McCamleys commissioned a detailed concept plan for the site, and rigorous supporting research, including studies documenting: Aboriginal heritage; biodiversity sensitive urban design; bushfire risk analysis;  concept plan;  context plan;  demographic analysis;  ecological values and opportunities; Glen Junor community farm strategy; landscape assessment;  lifestyle trend analysis; movement network plan;  servicing report;  threatened species analysis; and traffic engineering advice.

The McCamleys have presented Council with a complete masterplan that is built on world best practice and responsive to local context. Macroplan, a leading property advisory consultancy, described Glen Junor as “a new model for economy, society and environment.”

The McCamleys engaged me to examine how their Vision for Glen Junor and supporting documentation performed against state and local government legislation and policy. I also drew on my long history of linking my practice to international frameworks, such as the UN Sustainable Development Agenda, the UN Global Compact – Cities Programme and the WHO healthy Cities and Communities approach.

In my 30 years of professional practice, research and teaching across Victoria, Australia and internationally, I am of the view that Glen Junor has the potential to be a world class exemplar and lead a well overdue shift in how Regional Victoria can sustainably develop into the future.

What I find so remarkable about this project is that despite overwhelming evidence of globally-leading practice, demonstrable alignment to Council priorities, enormous community endorsement and more scrupulous planning than any development I’ve ever seen, the local Council has sought to excise it from the Town’s future. Why is Macedon Ranges Shire Council so eager to stymie this?

Glen Junor delivers world best practice liveability and sustainability outcomes.

Glen Junor can provide an exemplar not only on how to deliver Plan Melbourne’s 20-minute neighbourhoods, but also the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The documentation shows that Glen Junor aligns perfectly with the definition of “liveability” used in the Victorian Public Health & Wellbeing Plan: “A liveable place has been defined as a place that is safe, attractive, socially cohesive/inclusive and environmentally sustainable, with affordable and diverse housing linked to employment, education, public open space, local shops, health and community services, and leisure and cultural opportunities via convenient public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure”(Lowe et al. 2013).

Glen Junor promises to provide a range of compact, diverse, affordable, accessible, medium-density housing — thereby minimising the need for further low-density encroachment into agricultural land. Glen Junor also commits concurrently to providing social infrastructure, urban agriculture, parkland, access to nature, and community transport. Research shows that not only would Glen Junor contribute to zero net carbon emissions, but that it could supply surplus renewable energy to surrounding Gisborne homes and businesses. Additionally, its location is the logical extension of the existing Gisborne township, relieving pressure on already-stressed roads strengthening community resilience by providing future housing in area with minimal bushfire risk.

Glen Junor delivers against state and local government legislation and policy.

It is generally uncharacteristic for developments to have much consideration for legislation, policy and strategy beyond the planning scheme that affects them. A detailed analysis of the policy alignment of Glen Junor has been conducted and demonstrated significant outcomes across a raft of State and local government legislation and policies, listed below.

State-level legislation and policy Macedon Ranges Shire Council strategy
  • Climate Change Act 2017
  • Environment Protection Act 2017
  • Loddon Mallee South Regional Growth Plan
  • Plan Melbourne’s 20-minute neighbourhood.
  • Planning and Environment Act 1987
  • Protecting Victoria’s Environment – Biodiversity 2037
  • Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008
  • State Planning Policy Framework
  • Transport Integration Act 2010
  • Victorian Memorandum for Health and Nature 2017
  • Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Plan 2019-2023

 

  • Biodiversity Strategy 2028
  • Climate Change Action Plan 2017
  • Council Plan 2017-2021
  • Disability Action Plan
  • Economic development strategy
  • Environment Strategy 2016
  • Open Space Strategy
  • Positive Ageing Plan 2020-2025
  • Visitor Economy Strategy 2019-2029
  • Municipal Public Health and Wellbeing Plan
  • Macedon Ranges Planning Scheme
  • Road Management Plan
  • Settlement Strategy
  • Shire-wide Footpath Plan
  • Sport and Active Recreation Strategy
  • Strategic Resource Plan
  • Walking and Cycling Strategy
  • Waste Management Strategy
  • Youth Strategy 2018–2028

State and local government should be encouraging an environment where all of this legislation is embraced by developers.

Gisborne residents endorse Glen Junor

Community feedback sought by council demonstrates that local citizens embrace what Glen Junor offers: not only because it can serve to ‘protect and enhance life across the Macedon Ranges’ (the official community Vision), but also deliver Council’s own vision for a local visitor economy in which the Macedon Ranges is ‘highly regarded for its quality nature-based attractions … and authentic experiences’.

In 2019, the Macedon Ranges Shire Council began a process called Gisborne Futures, which was established to ‘guide sustainable growth and development of Gisborne area over the next 30 years’.

According to the Council’s engagement page, the Gisborne Futures project was created to present “a sustainable vision for Gisborne and direction for the town that is consistent with state and local policy directions” among a raft of other stated outcomes.

Macedon Ranges Shire Council engaged Ethos Urban to prepare the Gisborne Structure Plan and the Gisborne Town Centre Urban Design Framework. As Ethos Urban reported,

Residents of Gisborne are concerned about the quantum of housing growth and implications for traffic congestion, services, infrastructure provision and the look and feel of the township. Previous studies have identified the importance of the retention of the spacious, semi-rural character of the town, and trees in particular. Balancing these concerns with the need to accommodate housing growth is a major challenge/opportunity for Council, community and this project.

During the ‘Emerging Ideas’ phase for Gisborne Futures, Ethos Urban led a detailed community engagement process with more than 800 participants. Survey responses and written submissions revealed notable community support for Glen Junor. As Ethos Urban noted, “this commentary stands in contrast to suggestions that other housing estates reflect poor design practice and are not contributing to affordability and choice within the region” (p. 47).

Other comments that did not mention Glen Junor still raised concerns that Glen Junor explicitly sets out to address. These included concern for future growth, sprawl and overdevelopment; promotion of walkability and active transport, access to public open space, better access to public transport; the need for a polycentric town to reduce traffic congestion; and housing affordability.

Ethos urban noted the tension evident in community responses ranging from an awareness of the risk posed to town character by overdevelopment, to the desire to maintain larger blocks, but also the need for housing to offer choice, affordability and diversity. Underpinning all this is a widespread community concern about the unfolding risks posed by climate change, an awareness of the inevitability of population growth, and the need to act sustainably:  We support new sustainable buildings and neighbourhoods that adapt to the needs of the future. We believe the demand for sustainable built homes will only increase in the broader Macedon Ranges region if we start doing it and demonstrate the value it can bring to people and the environment (p. 45).

Local Government Blockages to Glen Junor

It remains unclear why some Councillors have sought to remove Glen Junor from the Draft Structure Plan. Despite the significant community support that Ethos Urban identified (Emerging ideas phase) and the considerable strategic planning advantages the site offered, the Council officers omitted Glen Junor from the draft Gisborne Structure Plan that it asked councillors to endorse for further community consultation at the June 2020 council meeting.

Multiple Councillors acknowledged that given Glen Junor’s high level of community awareness and support, it would be an abrogation of responsibility not to include Glen Junor in the following round of community consultation and for the community to have an opportunity to comment and contrast the available opportunities for future structure and settlement of Gisborne. In June 2020, a majority of Councillors voted to incorporate Glen Junor into an amended draft town structure plan for community consultation purposes.

Extensive community consultation occurred from July 2020 – October 2020. The full results of this process remain unknown to the public. Despite this, the Council Meeting agenda for January 2021 included a Motion by Cr Neil to excise Glen Junor from the Gisborne Futures Structure Plan. The move to locate Glen Junor outside of the settlement boundary was inexplicable. It appeared to be a premeditated action to subvert a community consultation process before it has even been summarised, reported, concluded, and released publicly.

Following concerns raised ahead of the Council meeting by a range of concerned residents (including myself), the Motion was deferred. This was done on the pretext that a site visit had been arranged for Councillors on 2nd February. (In fact, this had been arranged well before the initial motion was raised.) At the Council meeting, the Mayor, Jennifer Anderson advised that the Motion will be raised again at the Council meeting on 24th February. Meanwhile, Councillor Neil has yet to provide any supporting evidence or rationale behind his Motion.

The inclusion of Glen Junor within the future Gisborne settlement boundary will provide a viable alternative form of urban development in regional Victoria. Even more importantly, by providing a mix of medium-density housing in a ‘complete community’, Glen Junor would potentially reduce the need for future development zones in Gisborne.

Conducted in September 2020, Ethos Urban’s community survey asked respondents to rank the five urban development zones (including Glen Junor) in order of preference. The full findings have not yet been published.

Failures of local governance

The Macedon Ranges Shire Council’s failure to comprehend the attributes of Glen Junor, in contrast to community feedback and aspirations suggests, at best, poor governance. Transparent governance is core to the Local Government Act 2020; local Councils’ municipal public health and wellbeing requirements under the Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008; and MRSC’s own commitments for successful delivery of the Macedon Ranges Shire Council Plan. The fifth theme of the Council Plan is to deliver strong and reliable government, in which Council pledges to make responsible and evidence-based decisions.

One must wonder: why there is such an urgent desire for Council to act before the full public display of the community’s submissions by Council officers, and the publication of the findings of the Gisborne Futures Survey results?  This motion is tantamount to a total disregard of proper process and a suppression of the community voice. It is unlikely how the local community — or the Victorian Minister for Local Government — would see Councillor Neil’s Motion as an example of sound local governance; or of a Council performing adequately against its legislative requirements to engage the community in an open, transparent way.

The Business-as-Usual alternatives to Glen Junor

For the record, Kyneton is where I have lived for the past 11 years. In line with the Council’s own Vision for a sustainable visitor economy, I, my partner and an untold number of local, interstate and international guests have enjoyed escape, rejuvenation and a raft of authentic experiences. However, this promise, and that of Glen Junor, is threatened by numerous “business-as-usual” developments across in the region.

One proposal is for a 24-hour petrol station at Kyneton’s northern freeway entrance, along with a McDonald’s fast-food outlet, another fast food ‘restaurant’ and a Bunnings hardware store. Taking place in a designated industrial zone, at one level this might not seem a bad thing. However, the developer (not local) has also secured the subdivision of adjoining farmland into 43 low-density lots. McDonald’s has bid to have two large advertising pylons topped with the ‘golden arches’; one would be 12m high. None of this development is walkable to the town centre or public transport, or complemented with a range of local social infrastructure.

A second development proposal has bid to subdivide a 30-acre farm into 87 housing lots, 4km south of Kyneton’s town centre. 11.03-2S of the Macedon Ranges Planning Scheme calls to “locate urban growth close to transport corridors and services” while the state government’s Precinct Structure Planning Guidelines call for precinct structure plans that: “create greater housing choice, diversity and affordable places to live; …provide better transport choices; respond to climate change and increase environmental sustainability.” Yet the Council’s In the Rural Living Zone Strategy, which sets out to “determine the theoretical supply of rural living zoned land across the Shire” for the next 30 years, does not once mention climate change, let alone the impact of low-density sprawl on sense of place or community or the experience of authenticity. And it is highly unlikely that these 78 blocks would result in diverse, affordable housing or any of the other 11.03-2S

On 16th February, Macedon Ranges Shire Council’s Senior Statutory Planning Officer advised residents opposed to the subdivision that the land is zoned Low Density Residential Zone and has been for many years and as a result it is permitted for an application to be made for subdivision and in the right format I would otherwise recommend approval.

Local council dysfunction can only be fixed by State-level leadership

How can we ensure local councils are acting in the interests of our communities, environment, and our future? The solution depends on leadership from State and Federal government.

Failures of governance at a local level are sometimes compounded at the state level. A key piece of legislation that currently fails us is the Planning and Environment Act 1987.

It is compulsory for planning authorities to consider potential social and economic effects when preparing a planning scheme and deciding whether to approve a planning application. However, the Act does not engage directly with considerations of health. Consequently, Health Impact Assessments are not required for any development proposal. This leads to fragmentation and ‘cancellation’ between local government policies and plans that are required under State legislation. For example, there is no requirement that Municipal Strategic Statements (the urban planning frameworks that frame the kinds of developments that can occur across local government areas) be informed by Municipal Public Health and Wellbeing Plans.

Along with health and wellbeing outcomes, one would expect the climate emergency to be a lens through which all development proposals must be viewed. The Climate Change Act 2017 “provides Victoria with a world-leading legislative foundation to manage climate change risks, maximise the opportunities that arise from decisive action, and drive our transition to a climate resilient community and economy with net zero emissions by 2050”. However, it also seemingly fails to prevent non-liveable development that cannot demonstrate low-carbon and liveability outcomes in line with the Public Health and Wellbeing Plan.

Currently, the state and local government policies and plans, on which citizens should rely to protect the shared vision for the region, end up cancelling each other out through lists of aspirational, ultimately toothless language such as: “should”, “ought to”, “encourages”, “could”.

We need empowered state government instruments that can assess developments through an overriding climate/health lens. State agencies such as the Victorian Planning Authority, infrastructure Victoria, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) or the Department of Health must provide the authority and direction to ensure that actions we take today not only deliver the health, wellbeing and environmental outcomes we need right now, but secure them for the future.

The current rush to lead a COVID ‘economic recovery’ through regional development places regional towns at grave risk from destroying the very things that make them special in the first place, and takes us further away from the vital action we must take to respond to our climate emergency.

Glen Junor’s rigorous research and planning show what we can achieve easily, with the right collective vision and political leadership. Now we just need planning decisions to be made in line with existing state legislation and local policy. I suggest that we begin at a State level by testing any proposed development against the Victorian Climate Change Act 2017, which the State Government triumphantly proclaims is “world-leading legislation to drive action on climate change across government and the economy.” At the local government level, all decisions should be justified against the Council Plan.

It’s time for state government leadership

To achieve the Objectives of the Climate Change Act we need to strengthen the Planning and Environment Act. Instead of facilitating ‘business as usual’, it needs to usher in truly climate-resilient development by requiring any proposals to submit integrated health, social and environmental impact assessments. And rather than just spruik ‘jobs and growth’, economic impact assessments need to quantify the longer-terms costs which are typically externalised and paid for by our health, environment, and justice sectors.

For too long, communities and health and sustainability advocates, have been forced to demonstrate why urban sprawl should not go ahead, rather than any developer demonstrating why it should. Back in 2012, research identified that were Australia to work systematically to address the social and environmental factors that lead to disadvantage, disease, and distress, then we could generate at least $15 billion in economic growth and savings to health, welfare, and criminal justice expenditure.

What we need is State Government to take action, including:

  • Strengthen the Planning and Environment Act so that health and wellbeing outcomes become a demonstrated core deliverable of any development.
  • Integrate the Climate Change Act, the Environment Protection Act, Planning and Environment Act and Public Health and Wellbeing Act, and require any development to report outcomes against these Acts simultaneously.
  • More strongly align to the UN Sustainable Development agenda with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, as a useful unifying and reporting framework.
  • Consider the necessary governing oversight to ensure this work is coordinated and integrated across government

 

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