Divided Council passes the draft Green Wedge Management Plan.
Despite over 700 community submissions largely pointing out the egregious shortcomings of the draft Green Wedge Management Plan it was passed by four Councillors at the November Ordinary Meeting of Council. Councillors Ashton, Egan, Ranken and Clarke voted for the flawed Plan amidst protests from a packed gallery.
The following article is a report by one of the Green Wedge Management Plan Panellists who is disturbed by the deeply flawed Process by which this Council conducted their rewriting of the GWMP. This farcical and divisive process which they Nillumbik Council claimed would bring the community together has resulted in disquiet and distress in our community especially amongst those who thought a green wedge management plan should address environmental concerns about the well documented loss of biodiversity in our shire.
Green Wedge Management Plan Process Deeply Flawed
Favourable treatment given to ONE community group
A randomly selected community Panel was appointed by Council to make recommendations on the future management of the green wedge. Submissions to the Panel from the community were not called for; that was not part of the process, but a lengthy, complex submission from the Pro-active Landowners (PALS) group arrived and, to the consternation of many panellists, it was made available by Council for the consideration of the Panel. Other community groups were not given the opportunity to put submissions before the panel.
It is impossible to characterise this as an inclusive or equitable approach; nor does it accord with principles of natural justice that underpin good governance.
Minority Report debacle – poor governance prevails
At the end of the Panel process a minority report, prepared outside the agreed rules of the Panel process was handed to the Mayor. It contained views aligned to Pro-active Landowners positions and unsubstantiated accusations of bullying by ‘some panellists’. Council published this, unabridged, on their website! A furore ensued, the document was taken off the website, and denied minority report status through a Council motion. One or more of the authors went to the Ombudsman’s office and its minority report status was subsequently reinstated. No matter what one thinks about the informal advice proffered by the Ombudsman, the Panel process was bookended by two documents associated with the PALs lobby group, and neither arrived according to the process rules agreed by all panellists at the outset. Onlookers drew their own conclusions. I doubt many thought they had witnessed good governance.
Expert Speakers – an early partisan decision
Panellists had the opportunity to ask for expert speakers to present to the group. One speaker, Scott Pape, was invited to speak on the economics of running a business in the green wedge. He was unable to attend. Council took a decision, without consulting the panel, to replace him with a key PALs spokesperson, Max Parsons. Max spoke mostly about his opposition to current planning controls and his beliefs about landowners’ rights to develop their land and businesses . Not surprisingly, the decision by council to introduce Max into the process was seen by the majority of panellists as inappropriate, and partisan.
Council Consultant promotes Council preferred minority view
Council also provided expert speakers from within the organisation. Geoff Lawler gave a presentation on planning. Looking back on that presentation is a telling exercise. He spoke about a number of things he thought were important, after having met with various groups and individuals around the shire. A number of Panellists took notes. Despite having had a meeting with Nillumbik Environmental Action Group (NEAG), which I attended, and other groups who emphasised the importance of environmental and biodiversity protection, he chose not to highlight the community’s widespread desire for better planning results in this area.
He did discuss a ‘need’ for more jobs in green wedge areas, although unemployment is 3.1% lower in the green wedge than in greater Melbourne (3.7% vs 6.8%. GWMP Background Report for Community Panel. p.39), and the way in which the introduction of “buffer zones” could help solve “land management problems” on rural land abutting the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). He also spoke of “our hoped-for tourism economy” and the “great opportunities” associated with our active arts culture. In answer to a question about the ‘in conjunction clause’ which requires tourism developments to be ‘in conjunction’ with an agricultural use, he said that it was “an impediment to business innovation in the green wedge”, and that exemptions for particular sites requiredscheme amendments which took too long to obtain.
Mr Lawler spoke about the ageing population and ‘ageing in place’, the need for improved bushfire and hazard planning in any new GWMP, and suggested that empowering and engaging the community through organisations such as the CFA and Landcare groups would induce cooperation that would lessen the need for planning regulation. He said that ‘Leadership’ was an important part of the answer to future management of the green wedge and should be central to a new GWMP. I well remember wondering as Mr Lawler was speaking, whether he was actually sketching out council’s (or his own) view of what a new GWMP should look like.
The result confirms our worst fears, ignores majority community feedback
The draft Green Wedge Management Plan is poorly organised and difficult to read, but if one perseveres and keeps a list of Mr Lawler’s key points handy, it becomes clear that the issues he raised are the foundation on which the draft plan is built. It does not pay much regard to the Panel’s majority recommendations nor does it pay much respect to the responses from the wider community, especially their primary concern, the ongoing protection and care of the environment. If good governance processes are employed, people are more likely to accept government decisions even when they don’t agree with them. They are able to have confidence that their government is trying to do the ‘right’ thing in the community’s overall interest, and not simply ‘looking after their mates’. People don't expect, or want, to be consulted on everything. However, when communities are consulted, and people give their time and energy, hoping to contribute to the common good, they expect their representatives to take heed. Poor governance and faux consultation are likely to inspire people to reject rather than accept an outcome.
Further result – divisive process leads to a community divided
I have given enough examples of poor governance (throughout the entire process). From my point of view, after twenty two years in Nillumbik, the proof is in the pudding. I think the community is more polarised than I have ever seen it, and this distresses me. The GWMP review has made things worse, I think, but there are other forces at work. We live in a difficult political environment where impressing one’s social media allies is more important than talking to your neighbour. There was talk at the beginning of this process about bringing people closer together as I recall. That was always going to be difficult, given the deep divisions which were already present. Council would have had to run an excellent, inclusive and courageous process for which it took full responsibility. Handing the task to a community panel, at arm’s length, and not supporting their conclusions was never going to do the trick. Much time and money has been wasted. The Lawler plan could have been written months ago, without the invention of a Panel.
Green Wedge Conversations Program?
The one thing in the draft plan which sparked something in me was mention of a Green Wedge Conversations Program. If such a program was very well run and resourced it might stand a chance, but this council would not be trusted to influence it. Large sections of the community have too little faith in this administration, but the idea has merit, and should be explored. We need to find something.
Peter Yates, Sept 2019