By Terry Tovey - Warrandyte Community Association President
Great vision established Melbourne’s green wedges, created to be the "lungs of Melbourne". These were to be non-urban areas where agriculture and the natural environment could thrive and where city dwellers could escape the urban world and find recreation and respite in the open spaces of a natural and rural landscape close to the city.
Sadly, Sir Rupert Hamer’s original vision has been greatly diminished over the past 50 years as successive governments have allowed developer and commercial interests to override the common good.
A number of factors have led to this situation: bad-faith governments; inadequate or poorly drafted legislation and regulation; a planning and legal system which allows well-funded commercial interests and their lawyers to exploit the inadequate legislative and regulatory framework; management spread across multiple local councils with varying degrees of competence, resources and integrity.
However, the most significant factor in my view is that there is no one – no minister, no government body, no regulator ¬– whose primary responsibility it is to monitor the wellbeing of the green wedges, to ensure that their purposes are being fulfilled and to advise government and the community on how best to protect these valuable community assets.
The Yarra River now has its own legislated protector, the Birrarung Council, to look after the wellbeing of the river. Melbourne's green wedges need a similar level of protection, in the form of a Green Wedge Commissioner, otherwise they will continue to be degraded and urbanised by stealth.
Given appropriate resources, a statutory officer of this kind could monitor and promote the welfare of the green wedges on an ongoing basis, ensure that government policy is coherent and coordinated, and report regularly to the parliament and the people with appropriate recommendations.
With the growing threat of climate change, the dramatic reduction in biodiversity and our desire to reduce food miles, the need to preserve Melbourne's green wedges is even more urgent.
A current case involving Melbourne Water clearly illustrates why there is a need for a coordinated and coherent approach to green wedge protection across government.
Melbourne Water is in possession of 1300 hectares of land in Christmas Hills, within the Nillumbik green wedge. The land is a mixture of bushland and pasture. This land was reserved over 50 years ago for a possible holding reservoir which Melbourne Water now says is surplus to its requirements. While some of this land is to be added to the Warrandyte-Kinglake Nature Reserve, Melbourne Water is proposing to subdivide and sell off the bulk of it because of a narrow government requirement to maximise the value of surplus land disposal. There are two worrying consequences of the Melbourne Water proposal.
Firstly, it turns a large tract of green wedge bush into residential lots with consequent loss of biodiversity and habitat. Furthermore, residential development in these areas also creates unacceptable and unnecessary bushfire risk.
Secondly, the agricultural component of this land is to be fragmented through subdivision into smaller, hobby farm-sized lots where meaningful agriculture is unlikely to take place.
While the Government advocates for the protection of biodiversity and professes a desire to support agriculture within 100km of Melbourne, one of its agencies behaves in a completely contrary manner.
You might think that the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) would have something to say about this, but it has been notable by its silence. This department has clearly demonstrated that it is not the protector of Melbourne's green wedges. It has largely played a hands-off role when it comes to green wedge protection, showing only spasmodic interest in their welfare.
One such spasm of interest from the department was its recently circulated draft document, Planning for Melbourne's Green Wedges and Agricultural Land.
This document displayed a woeful lack of analysis and strategic insight into the problems besetting the green wedges, so much so that one of its key recommendations was to accommodate urban development pressures through the notion of "transition" from urban to rural. "Transition" is an idea created by developers as a tactic to white-ant the urban growth boundary, which the Bracks Government introduced to clearly delineate the green wedges and prevent creeping urbanisation.
The Andrews Government went to the last election promising to increase protection of Melbourne's green wedges. It is time to give some meaningful substance to this promise. One significant way it could do this would be to legislate for the creation of a Green Wedge Commissioner charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the purposes of the green wedges are fulfilled. In the government’s own words: "once they’re gone, they are gone forever".