Every piece of land in Victoria has a designated land use (or group of compatible land uses) and is allocated to a zone whether it be for road use, housing, industrial development or open space. Zones both dictate how land can and cannot be used in certain areas.

Moreover zones help shape the pattern of development across the state. The zoning of land helps dictate the look and feel of our CBD, our suburbs, the regional hinterland and the many towns in between. Together with overlays and local policies they determine the height, setbacks and built form of development and assist in shaping the character of an area.

Last year the Victorian Minister for Planning announced the reform of all planning zones across Victoria to ‘return certainty to our suburbs and towns and in particular to councils, residents and the development industry’.

After consultation and an advisory committee report, in March the Government released new draft residential zones while all other zones remain under review. This reflects the sensitive nature of residential zones and their role as a tool for councils to meet future housing needs balanced with protecting liveability and neighbourhood character.

The three current residential zones will be replaced by the new Residential Growth Zone (enables new housing growth and density, typically where most multi unit developments will go), General Residential Zone (preserves neighbourhood character and allows moderate growth and density) and Neighbourhood Residential Zone (restricts housing growth in areas identified for urban preservation such as those with predominately single dwellings).

So what do they all mean?

Certainly the zones do not neatly replace the previous residential zones and all participants in planning will need to become familiar with their nuances.

For instance there will be fewer restrictions on non-residential uses in the Residential Growth Zone and the General Residential Zone, ushering in the possibility of medical centres, places of worship and convenience stores in these areas.

For local government – the changes mean they will need to think strategically about where the new zones should be applied in their municipality. To support their decisions they will need to have local planning policies in place that are updated and robust to justify their allocation of areas to various zones. For instance a council without a current housing strategy will struggle to justify why an area should be given the limited change zone of Neighbourhood Residential if they have no data or guidelines to underpin it.

Councils will have opportunities to tailor the zones to reflect local conditions through the planning scheme amendment process. It will be critical that Councils ensure they win community acceptance of their proposed allocation of these new zones through a thorough consultative process.

For the community the new zones reinforce an ongoing problem of the current planning system – most residents only participate in the planning system as an objector to a planning application rather than being involved in establishing the parameters under which those applications are judged – through structure plans, local policies and planning scheme amendments.

It is very important that local communities get involved at any early stage in the creation of strategic policies and guidelines – rather than only mobilising in opposition to an application after the rules have been set.

For the development community the new zones should give them a clearer sense of what areas are designated for growth and what areas are risky to try to develop.  Developers would be also wise to work with both the local council and the community through the implementation of the residential zones, rather than blindly submitting development plans only to find them the subject of staunch community opposition.

As with most reform processes, the key to whether these new zones meet the stated goals of certainty and simplicity will lie in the implementation process of the new residential zones – and indeed how they interact with the other zones under review. All those with an interest in shaping the future of residential development should involve themselves at the earliest opportunity.