Melaleuca Media
The Brisbane Line

Queensland's days of trying to control development with rhetoric might finally be coming to an end, although much depends on the the State government's ability to resist its natural instinct to turn to marshmallow at the slightest whiff of an adverse headline. Phil Dickie looked at the prospects for Business Acumen.

Queensland followed half a generation of governments that believed any development was good development and a little bit of corruption to oil the wheels was no great deal with half a generation of governments that knew development needed to be controlled but were too nervous to do it.

Queensland as a consequence is rapidly running out of both time and space as Australia's fastest growth rates run headlong into some of Australia's feeblest development controls. The amount of land that can potentially be developed around State capital Brisbane is well above the proportion available for development in Sydney and Melbourne. The consequences if it is developed in terms of congestion, pollution, infrastructure requirements, environment impacts, residential amenity and the famous Queensland lifestyle are horrendous.

These trends have been known for a long time – indeed the Goss government began planning to have a plan about it all almost as soon as it was elected. After the brief Borbidge interruption, the Beattie government began planning to have a new plan.

Some time ago, the expression “the Los Angelisation of south east Queensland” came into vogue among academics as a way of warning that pell-mell unregulated growth in attractive sunbelt areas eventually makes them unattractive. People stop arriving and start leaving, and in areas where large lumps of the local economy are devoted to building new suburbia and remaking old suburbia this has dire economic consequences. Some local government leaders picked the term up and it now occasionally shows up in the media. The Courier-Mail has run campaigns on both disappearing open space and looming transport chaos. ABC local radio's Steve Austin believes development issues to be the number one concern among his listeners.

Urban infill, disappearing open space, traffic congestion, real estate rorting, tolls on infrastructure and levels of government service struggling to keep up with growth are becoming sleeper electoral concerns prone to bursting into brushfires around the marginals at the council and state level. For a politician, it is a fearful prospect if the electors and the media start joining the dots and linking these issues up. To underline the point that it might be time to stop churning out endless reports and strategies and time to act, complacent councils in Brisbane, the Gold Coast and elsewhere were shot to pieces by the voters in local government elections in March. But two mayors who have made their names advocating and implementing tight controls on growth and development – Noosa's Bob Abbott and Douglas Shire's Mike Berwick – both walked comfortably back into their jobs. Redlands delivered the interesting result of emphatically returning both its pro-development mayor and its most vociferous green-tinged councillor.

In addition to the increasing clamour from below for some substance to the rhetoric, the State government now also has to look over its shoulder at a powerful new player in planning and development decision making – the Federal government. New legislation enacted over recent years to enable Canberra to live up to international treaty obligations means that the Feds can now storm in over the top of negligent or inactive State governments, conduct their own prosecutions of environmental vandalism and demand their own conditions of developers.

As well as muscling their way into what used to be an exclusively State and local government preserve, the Federal legislative framework also sets standards of accountability miles above State benchmarks. Unless the State starts to play catch-up, the growing trend for conservation and local interests in particular to direct their appeals towards Canberra rather than Brisbane or Town Hall will continue to further erode the State hold on this key area of their responsibilities.

This is the essential context to Mackenroth’s May bombshell that some firm limits to growth are to be spelt out in a preliminary way at least in October. It should be noted however that there have been some curious aspects to all this. The announcement that the Treasurer was to be appointed as the man responsible for urban growth and infrastructure development was buried in yet another announcement about an integrated transport plan for south east Queensland just before the State election. After the election, a committee was hastily cobbled together to work out where to put the new Office of Urban Management and how to connect it to a busy supremo whose other job was State Treasurer and a Planning Department that has had similar responsibilities to other ministers for years.

It is all a bit messy but by October there will be a draft plan for public comment which will include lines on the maps and no doubt provoke a storm of outrage. This plan is to have some force from the date of release but when bedded down it is to have the full force of legislation.

If it sounds a bit like a recent Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority exercise on the reef that boosted the proportion of reef protected areas from around five percent to more than 30 percent, well it is not nearly that scientifically based or rigorous. However it does have more than a passing resemblance to the Victorian government’s bold and substantial recent achievement in confining Melbourne.

As the new century dawned, the Victorian State government figured it faced an extra million Melburnians over the next 30 years. A Melbourne 2030 strategy was devised and on the day it was handed down in 2002, the city had an interim boundary intended to halt erosion of the so-called “green wedges” that were a previous enlightened government's efforts to preserve some open space amid the suburbs. Under Melbourne 2030 all outer suburban growth is to be channeled into five designated growth areas.

The government then took submissions on the interim boundary and at the end of the day, substantially strengthened their scheme by putting boundary's around 33 townships within the green wedge areas. The Victorian statistics are worth setting out, not least because they will provide the only available yardstick against which the Queensland government's ability to resist the pleas of this developer or that farmer can be measured. The Victorian planners received submissions requesting boundary changes to 503 blocks, of which 29 percent were accepted, and 40 percent rejected as not being compatible with the Melbourne 2030 strategy. The remainder will be determined in the context of detailed reviews of the growth areas.

And as one final safeguard against the corrupt and the malleable, future ministers have lost their right to get out the pencil and fiddle with the line after a long lunch with a lobbyist. Proposed changes have to go before parliament, which at the very least means an enhanced level of scrutiny and the ability to one day correlate plan amendments against a register of political donations.

Queensland appears to pick up the notion of a growth boundary, of an interim plan taking effect on the day it is released and even the parliamentary scrutiny safeguard for amendments to the final plan. This itself is indicative of the Beattie government’s new reading of the political equation on urban growth. This correspondent inquired of a Minister only last year whether there would be any interest in following Melbourne’s lead and it is fair to say that the response was that there wasn’t.

On closer examination, what the Queensland government is doing is upgrading the joint State government and regional council planning exercise of SEQ 2021 into something that produces a map which will be given legal force. The preceding regional planning exercise, SEQ 2001, produced a multitude of maps and a Regional Framework for Growth Management which was being unpicked by intending developers, councils and the State government itself from the moment of issue.

Naturally, the new plan has had a mixed reaction. If you are a farmer and you were hoping to turn the back paddock into suburbia, your superannuation scheme looks as though it might go up in smoke. The natural spokesperson of rural landholders, State opposition leader Laurence Springborg, acknowledged the plan as a step in the right policy direction but raised concerns over compensation.

The irony occurring to some is that Mackenroth's appearance on the planning centre stage is because Queensland's Integrated Planning Act isn't working in its stated aim of delivering ecologically and economically sustainable development to Queensland. The much maligned IPA was the particular baby of Goss-era Local Government and Planning minister Terry Mackenroth.

In his Act's defence, Mackenroth argues that the option of stronger State controls on development was considered when the IPA was being framed, but was opposed by local communities and councils.

However, if the new scheme has a potentially fatal weakness not present in the Victorian recipe it is in exposing councils to possible compensation payments for any reduction in development rights in accordance with the quaint and nearly Queensland exclusive “injurious affection” provisions. To return to our farmer with his back paddock suburban superannuation scheme – if his land was long ago zoned future urban, as far too much rural land was, then if he puts in a development application in the next two years and it gets knocked back by the council – possibly because the State prohibits back paddock subdivision in that area – then there is a possibility the council might have to compensate the farmer. Not all the detail has been fleshed out yet, but it looks as though the State intends to stand aloof from any such claims.

Mackenroth says “I am not aware of a single successful injurious affection claim in Queensland under the Integrated Planning Act.” However, disregarding cases that may be settled prior to judgement, there is some evidence that the existence of the provision is enough to deter councils from making any downzoning decisions. Compensation rights should only be preserved where an applicant can establish that they have suffered an immediate and demonstrable loss, and claims for compensation should be eliminated where there is no substantive restriction on continuing use of the land for existing lawful purposes and where the only loss is loss of the speculative possibility of future development for some other purpose.”

What everyone is waiting for of course is the actual maps. Where will the Brisbane Line be? Where will the growth areas and corridors be and which rural and bushland areas have been marked down to stay rural and bushland? What happens to the large areas of caneland in the Beenleigh and Sunshine Coast areas that have developers salivating, scientists worried about acid sulfate soil issues and urban scholars wondering how the infrastructure needs can possibly be met and what the consequences will be if they are.

Even more entertaining perhaps will be the argy bargy in getting from a draft Brisbane Line to a final, legislated Brisbane Line. There will be tremendous pressure on the Government to not include a multitude of back paddocks or to put the growth corridor someplace else.

Will they perform as well under fire as the Victorian government did?

Some highlights in the evolution of planning law

1989 – Landmark Nelly Bay case puts the skids under Bjelke-Petersen area planning legislation after Judge Wylie awards more than $300,000 in costs against Julie Walkden, a single mother of two who appealed a Townsville City Council decision on environmental grounds.

1990 Goss government widens grounds of appeal to include environmental impacts and bans cost orders for non-vexatious appellants, starts overhaul of planning legislation and preparation of first regional plans under the banner of South East Queensland 2001.

1993 SEQ 2001 produces a regional framework and strategy which ultimately evolves into the current regional plan without teeth. Regional Open Space Scheme (ROSS) introduced to ensure sufficient open space survives development.

Member for Brisbane Central Peter Beattie waxes lyrical on the imminent introduction of integrated public transport ticketing with generous Federal funding support. This followed 20 years of reports saying integrated ticketing was vital necessity and nearly 20 years of announcements it was being introduced. It doesn't happen to the Beattie timetable. No word is ever forthcoming on what happened to the Federal millions.

1994 Treasurer Keith De Lacy increases conveyancing search fees to pay for purchase of strategic land for open space purposes. Fee increase raises estimated $35 million in first five years, but governments spend only $7 million in purchase of 11 properties. Extra fees, still in force, have by now raised in excess of $70 million to be trousered by Treasury.

1997 Integrated Planning Act on essentially the Mackenroth model is enacted by the Borbidge government. The act obliges councils to prepare new IPA compliant planning schemes. Most recent request for extending the time to do these plans was in March 2004. State Planning Policy mechanism allows State to require councils to do the right regional thing – 2004 tally is that NSW has 64 active State Planning Policies and Queensland has six.

ROSS is quietly taken out the back and shot.

Integrated Regional Transport Plan released, calling for integrated public transport ticketing plan as matter of high priority.

2001 Beattie government in conjunction with regional councils commences new regional planning exercise SEQ 2021, due to be concluded by June 2004. Government makes first announcement that it will set up fund to purchase land for open space, caveat it against development, and release it back to market. Announcement is made again in 2003 and 2004. Purchases yet to be made.

2002 Premier Beattie announces that an integrated ticketing plan for south east Queensland will commence in 2004. For some unexplained reason, Toowoomba disappears from SEQ for the purposes of this plan.

2004 New minister responsible for urban affairs Terry Mackenroth announces that a legislated plan will prohibit inappropriate development in specified areas. Integrated ticketing is actually introduced.

Judge Wylie excuses himself from hearing the case of Townsville City Council vs Julie Walkden over a certain matter of outstanding court costs. Council goes on to lose the case, declines to say how much had been spent on its 15 year pursuit of Ms Walkden.