The assessment of ‘neighbourhood character’ has been a long standing contentious issue in the assessment of planning applications. Recognising that this tension shows no sign of abating the state government recently released Planning practice notes PPN90 and PPN91 with the aim of guiding local council planning departments on best practice in how to prepare their planning schemes to accommodate housing growth in some areas, balanced with the protection of neighbourhood character in others.
Local council’s housing strategy is often accompanied by a neighbourhood character strategy along with other relevant strategic work such as heritage, landscape, environmental or land capability studies.
While a housing strategy identifies the extent and density of future housing, a neighbourhood character strategy assists in identifying valued characteristics of areas that need to be considered when identifying the preferred future character for residential areas. Actions can then be identified to ensure that existing character is respected, or a preferred new character is achieved. Conflict arises however when the housing strategy identifies a need for housing growth in a specific geographical area and the neighbourhood character strategy places an emphasis on retaining features such as ‘spaciousness’ and ‘large gardens’ in the same geographical area. The practice notes aim to resolve this inherit conflict that is created when these conflicting objectives make their way into planning schemes.
Role of local housing strategy:
- Ensures a range of housing opportunities are available across the municipality to meet the needs of the projected population
- Outlines the strategies and implementation mechanisms to accommodate the projected population and household needs
- Identifies where and how the housing needs of the future population will be met across the municipality
- Identifies suitable locations for housing growth including those areas close to services, jobs, public transport and activity centres, and strategic development areas.
Role of local neighbourhood character strategy:
- Considers both the public and private realms
- Provides strategic direction for neighbourhood character to guide future development through preferred neighbourhood character statements or neighbourhood character objectives
- Identifies the comparative significance of each neighbourhood character area. In assessing the significance of areas, comparisons need to be made, not only with other parts of the municipality but also with the wider region
- Forms the basis for neighbourhood character statements, policies, objectives and local variations to clause 54 and clause 55 being included in residential zone schedules, a Neighbourhood Character Overlay or other overlay.
Neighbourhood character is not a static concept, streets and neighbourhoods are dynamic places and evolve over time to meet modern living standards and architectural tastes. For example, respecting character does not mean protecting character in an incremental change area. If growth is earmarked for an area under the housing objectives then the preferred neighbourhood character statement should complement that objective by acknowledging change in the built form of streets is expected to occur.
To achieve this, DELWP suggests local councils to develop a residential development framework by feeding neighbourhood character strategy into local housing strategy which identifies minimal, incremental and substantial change areas; to balance the need to protect valued character with the need to ensure housing growth and diversity
What does ‘respect’ mean?
Respecting character does not mean preventing change. In simple terms, respect for the character of a neighbourhood means that development should be designed in response to its context.
Depending on the neighbourhood, there are two broad approaches for building designs to respecting character:
- Respecting the bulk and form of surrounding development
- Respecting the architectural style of surrounding development.
Respecting neighbourhood character does not mean mimicry and pattern book design or limiting the scope of design interpretation and innovation. Instead, it means designing the development in response to the features and characteristics identified in the neighbourhood.
What is preferred neighbourhood character?
Under clause 54 and clause 55, new development should respect the existing neighbourhood character or contribute to a preferred neighbourhood character.
Preferred neighbourhood character is either:
- The existing character of an area; or
- An identified future neighbourhood character different from the existing character of an area.
Where the existing neighbourhood character is the preferred neighbourhood character, it is important to identify the existing features and characteristics of the area to be respected. This is something local council planning departments need to focus on.
Preferred neighbourhood character statements
The planning practice notes suggest councils to produce preferred neighbourhood character statements for each municipality. A preferred neighbourhood character statement can articulate the valued features and characteristics of an area to be respected by new development and these statements should be ‘forward-looking’ so that if an area is identified for increased housing growth, the growth is not undermined by neighbourhood character policies that seek to maintain the existing neighbourhood character.
Identifying change areas
The Planning practice notes place emphases on council to clearly distinguish and define minimal, incremental and substantial change areas.
Minimal change areas
Minimal change areas have characteristics that are ‘sufficiently special’ to a municipality, metropolitan Melbourne or Victoria, and should be protected because of their special neighbourhood, heritage, environmental or landscape characteristics.
Minimal change areas can also be areas that are constrained by planning considerations such as the physical capability of the land to safely accommodate more residential development. For example, restricting additional housing in areas close to airports, land subject to bushfire risk, flooding or erosion.
Minimal change areas should not be identified based on remoteness from activity centres, jobs, services or transport, or because single-dwelling covenants or other restrictive instruments exist.
Minimal change areas may appear differently in different built form contexts. For example, inner city heritage terraces and large lots with landscape values may both be considered minimal change areas but are very different residential environments. In both cases, the special characteristics of each area is the principal input into whether they are categorised as minimal change.
Incremental change areas
Incremental change areas are where housing growth occurs within the context of existing or preferred neighbourhood character.
The built form context of incremental change areas can vary widely. For example, incremental change in an inner urban area can represent a very different scale of development from an incremental change area in an outer suburban area, or a regional town or city.
The key point is that incremental change is relevant to its context.
Substantial change areas
Substantial change areas are where housing intensification will occur that results in a substantially different scale and intensity of housing compared to other areas of a municipality. This may include areas in and around activity centres, along public transport corridors and strategic development areas.
Substantial change areas will reflect a different degree of change in different built form contexts. For example, a substantial change area in an outer urban and regional context may more closely resemble an incremental change area in an inner urban context.
Example of residential development framework
What does it mean for you if you are thinking of subdividing?
DELWP recognises the tensions between councils and developers around housing growth and neighbourhood character objectives. DELWP suggests local councils to develop a residential development framework which identifies minimal, incremental and substantial change areas; to balance the need to protect valued character with the need to ensure housing growth and diversity. These Planning practice notes will provide guidance to local governments on how to apply new zones and how to structure their local residential development framework.
What is most encouraging for those that are thinking of subdividing their property, is that these frameworks can provide certainty for the community about where changes are likely to occur as well as expecting in what form it will take.
With councils clearly outlining what is the definition of Preferred Characteristic for each area and what is meant by respecting the characteristic of an area in a Preferred neighbourhood character statements; applicants can design their subdivision project with confidence, knowing the chances of their application being refused by council because of not respecting the local preferred characteristic is much lower.