Green belt: sacrificed to real estate?

Issue 

The Victorian government released plans on June 17 to expand Melbourne's Urban Growth Boundary for new housing developments. This overturns previous commitments in its "Melbourne 2030" strategy for limited urban sprawl.

The announcement has been criticised widely. Michael Buxton, former senior planning advisor to the government, told June 9 Age: "We have Rafferty's rules led by the development community and the Government just rolling over ... we are going to end up with two cities — we are going to end up with a whole lot of houses far from services and employment in the outer suburbs and more and more people being shoved into them."

Areas under consideration for urban expansion are in Melbourne's outer-west, north and far south-east. These areas include endangered native grasslands, which are among Victoria's most endangered ecosystems and home to 68 threatened animal and 26 threatened plant species.

While the government has announced new grassland reserves, environment groups are sceptical about its intentions.

Matt Ruchel of the Victorian National Parks Association welcomed the new reserves on June 17. But he added this "does not excuse the potential loss of more than 6000 hectares of grasslands that could be destroyed by new urban developments.

"Within the proposed expanded urban growth area there are some of the best examples of high quality grasslands and these areas need to be retained as part of the urban parks network within growth areas, not automatically cleared to make way for more housing."

Government spokesperson Matthew Hillard defended the new housing plan to the Age on the grounds it would boost employment. "In these difficult economic times, the Brumby Labor Government makes no apologies in doing what the community expects of it, which is securing and protecting jobs."

The government has also changed planning laws, removing community appeal rights against developments by schools or developments that include community housing.

"Development Assessment Committees" will be set up for decisions on some planning matters. The move has been warmly welcomed by real estate advocacy group the Property Council of Australia.

Residents' groups held a rally in Melbourne against these changes on June 10. A statement on the Property Council's website by Jennifer Cunich called protesters "NIMBYs" 9"not in my backyard") and said that critics of the changes "advocate the BANANA approach — building absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone".

The Green Wedges Coalition — uniting 162 community and environment groups in Melbourne — has condemned the government's plan. On June 16, it said the "government is giving developers a green light for the destruction of grasslands, wetlands and grassy woodlands".