local government - local community
February 2012 - Community Anxiety About New Housing Developments In Ballan
Ballan StreetscapeIn my home town of Ballan, a village of some 2,500 people, the nature of the town and its probable future consume hours and hours of local talk and local thought.
The town experienced an immigration wave in the 1990s and early 2000s when a number of arty- and urban-types arrived from Melbourne. They brought social and visual changes that are generally well-liked, but that wasn’t always the case. In the beginning the newcomers were viewed with suspicion. Some were even accused of witchcraft and one artist was reprimanded for ruining a perfectly good main street building (now much loved for its mosaic fence and ornamental paintwork).
Inglis Street BallanIn even more recent times, a wave of young families has arrived. Many have settled into newly built homes on newly developed estates. The most charming result has been a shift in the nature of wheeled traffic on Ballan’s footpaths. Prams and strollers are now giving motorised scooters a run for their money.
I suspect that both waves of new residents (the arty-urban types and the young families) were attracted to Ballan for the same reasons. The town is only an hour from Melbourne, has a train station, a supermarket, a hardware store, a hospital, primary schools, an ambulance service, some interesting shops, good views, lovely deciduous trees… and it’s less expensive to buy into than many comparable places.
Autumn in BallanAnd queerly, these new residents seem to share with long-term residents high levels of anxiety about change, especially about the nature of continued housing development in and around the town. I say queerly because it does seem ironic that on the one hand it is all right for us (the existing new people) to build or buy and alter, but on the other it’s anxiety-inducing to see strangers arriving to do the same.
I have wondered whether this is the subtle pull of xenophobia and I’m still not sure about the answer.
There are some in town calling for a limit on population growth, but I don’t believe this is the majority position. What the majority does seem keen on is control and intervention in relation to housing developments. What is unclear is what, in the long list of preferred (and often contradictory) development prohibitions, newcomers and the dreaded developers should be barred from doing. The conflicting candidates include:
- creating a Melbourne-style sprawl through endless lateral expansion
- building multi-storey buildings
- creating intensive housing developments
- building large houses on small bits of land
- turning farming land into housing land
- building suburban-style housing
- building city-style housing
- spoiling the village atmosphere.
But in truth, this individualist utopia isn’t my considered position. I know myself as a frightful architectural snob. In my heart of hearts I hope that Ballan’s new buildings will be artistic, anarchic and radically different from everything on offer from Australia’s master builders of ugliness. I just don’t like the big stick approach and I really don’t like the notion of population limits.
I feel we should make it easier for developers and newcomers to create beautiful and eccentric places to live.
Currently it isn’t easy for people on modest incomes to make interesting aesthetic choices when they build. The most accessible housing packages are usually the most suburban, dull, low-ceilinged and claustrophobic.
If we want to influence housing styles in Ballan we should have an eclectic selection of free plans on offer that are supported by local builders and promoted by local real estate agents as a point of difference.
If we want developers to create thoughtful subdivisions we should provide meaningful, non-monetary incentives within the context of sensible regulation and visionary planning.
Two thousand and twelve will be a significant year for Ballan and its ceaseless debate about its future. The Moorabool Shire Council has engaged consultants to develop a strategic structure plan for the town. At the same time there is a new group in town called Keep Ballan Village Rural with a conservation, motor traffic reduction and population limitation agenda. In the background, keeping a low profile, are farmers and other land holders who are believed to be poised to cash-in on their holdings through the creation of tight, infrastructureless, suburban-style subdivisions.
Municipal Office in BallanAt last week’s Council meeting community members raised a number of familiar anxiety-induced questions about future land development and planning issues in Ballan. They received superficially reassuring answers about the new structure plan and about due process, planning controls and zoning restrictions.
Ballan resident Vicki Buchanan asked about the timing of the community workshops that are intended to inform the new structure plan. Mayor Pat Griffin told the meeting that the consultants are likely to be working with the community during March and April of this year.
Bernard Wright, also a Ballan resident, asked whether development approvals would be restricted prior to the completion of the structure plan. He was answered by Peter Hawkins, acting general manager of Planning, who advised that Council had an obligation to evaluate all submitted planning applications. He added that Council is seeing applications for 20- to 30-house lots, ‘which is big for Ballan’, but pointed out that this wouldn’t necessarily be considered major elsewhere.
Inglis Street BallanBallan resident Janine Mitchell asked what level of community consultation was mandated prior to approving rezoning applications. Peter Hawkins told the meeting that those who were likely to be affected were informed about applications, but added that there were no rezoning applications under consideration. He said the structure plan would be used by Council when assessing any rezoning applications in the future and that any application outside the plan would be unlikely to be supported by Council officers.
It was interesting to see this renewed interest from Ballan community members in attending Council meetings and asking questions. Interesting too that attending local council meetings is one of the four steps advocated by the Keep Ballan Village Rural group.
If the new structure plan for Ballan manages to satisfy everyone, it will be a miracle. If Council adopts the plan in a timely manner, I will be impressed. If Council abides by the plan I will be even more impressed.
And just in case you’re wondering, this is my How to Create a Pool of Free Housing Plans vision:
1 Invite anyone in town who owns copyright in the plans to their existing homes to donate those plans to Council for the purpose of making them freely available to anyone moving into the Shire.
2 Prompt the Council to seek external funding to contract, through a competitive process, a series of architects-in-residence. These visiting architects would, incrementally, develop a pool of Moorabool house and commercial building designs. This could be achieved using the tried, tested and highly successful ‘community collaborative design’ public art model. The result, over time, would be a body of designs owned by the people of Moorabool that were freely available to anyone building in the Shire and available for a fee to those building outside Moorabool.