Legal Insights

Councils advocate for improvements at Suburban Rail Loop Hearing

By Terry Montebello, Briana Eastaugh, Zina Teoh

• 02 March 2023 • 6 min read
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Defining Matter 2023 | Maddocks Publication

Melbourne’s Suburban Rail Loop (SRL) has been described as a ‘city shaping’ project that will transform Victoria’s public transport system.

The first stage of the loop, SRL East, received planning approval via Amendment GC197 on 30 September 2022 following an Environmental Effects Statement (EES) process and a 10 week Inquiry and Advisory Committee (IAC) hearing, making it the largest planning hearing of the year.

Monash, Whitehorse and Kingston City Councils were key submitters to the IAC hearing. They were instrumental in achieving changes to the project and approval documentation to better represent the interests of each community. Monash and Whitehorse City Councils were represented by Maddocks. Together with Kingston City Council, their submissions were important to strengthening the business and retail support measures and addressing various transport issues. Council representation on the advisory panels, which will be set up for various urban design and public open space matters, was another outcome of the councils’ efforts.

As future stages of SRL continue to be planned, along with other Big Build projects, councils will remain a key voice for advisory panels as they look to ensure their community interests are understood within projects to transform our city.

The project

SRL proposes a 90km orbital rail line linking Melbourne’s middle suburbs, activity centres and existing rail lines from Cheltenham to Werribee, including a connection to Melbourne Airport.

The project is expected to be delivered in stages. SRL East is the first stage of the loop, with stations at Cheltenham, Clayton, Monash, Glen Waverley, Burwood and Box Hill, a Stabling Facility in Heatherton and twin-bore rail tunnels providing a rail connection along 26km of track.

The 1.6km radius surrounding the new SRL stations is considered to be the SRL ‘precincts’, which are expected to undergo ‘precinct planning’ to bring the planning controls in line with the anticipated population and employment projections for the precincts.

Construction of SRL East commenced in June 2022 in Clayton with initial and early works (which sit outside the main infrastructure and did not require planning approval under GC197). SRL East is proposed to be operational by 2035.

Image source: Victoria's Big Build website

Melbourne Suburban Rail Loop _Map

The Act that provides for the planning and delivery of SRL

The primary legislation supporting the planning and delivery of the SRL project is the Suburban Rail Loop Act 2021 (SRL Act) which came into operation on 1 December 2021. The SRL Act established the Suburban Rail Loop Authority (SRLA) and gives the SRLA very broad powers for the station areas and surrounds, including:

  • the status as a planning authority for a declared area
  • modifications to the planning scheme amendment process
  • a requirement for other planning authorities to notify the SRLA of any planning scheme amendment which may potentially impact the SRL project, and
  • the power to compulsorily acquire land for the SRL project.

The SRL Act is unique in that it positions the SRLA as both the planning authority (in the way that the VPA is, for example) as well as the development authority (in the way that Development Victoria is, for example). Further, the objectives of the SRL Act make it clear the project comprises more than just an orbital train line, given the SRLA’s role is broad enough to encompass the planning of the precincts around the stations, including ‘value capture’ which may include the collection of taxes and levies, such as the new Windfall Gains Tax for rezoning.

Approval of the SRL East infrastructure

Amendment GC197 provided planning approval for the SRL East project infrastructure such as the stations, stabling facility and the tunnels. It resulted in two new incorporated documents in the Bayside, Kingston, Monash and Whitehorse Planning Schemes which are described as follows.

Special Controls Overlay 14 – SRL East Incorporated Document, August 2022

The SCO14 Incorporated Document approves the infrastructure required for the project. It prevails over any other provision in the planning scheme, and provides that a permit is not required for the infrastructure required for the project.

In summary, the SCO14 Incorporated Document includes requirements for:

  • surface and tunnel plans for the Project;
  • an Environmental Management Framework, which includes Environmental Performance Requirements (EPRs) which set the conditions to control the environmental effects of the project; and
  • an Urban Design Strategy and Public Open Space Framework, with new advisory panels to be set up to provide advice on these matters to the Minister for Planning.

Victoria’s Minister for Planning is the responsible authority for administering and enforcing the SCO14 Incorporated Document.

Special Controls Overlay 15 – SRL East Infrastructure Protection Incorporated Document, August 2022

The SCO15 Incorporated Document includes requirements ensuring the protection of SRL infrastructure from development, including demolition, which may compromise the structural integrity or operation of that infrastructure.

Under these obligations, a permit is required for the construction of a building, demolition and certain types of works within land designated as the ‘Project Infrastructure Protection Area A’ in the incorporated document and includes various application requirements.

The relevant council is the responsible authority for administering and enforcing the SCO15 Incorporated Document. However, applications must be referred to the SRLA. Applications are exempt from the notice requirements of section 52(1)(a)-(c), decision requirements of s 64(1),(2) and (3) and review rights of section 82(1) of the Act.

What comes next?

While Amendment GC197 was a significant step in the planning process for the project, in some ways, the ‘city shaping’ aspect of the SRL project is yet to come. The planning to be conducted for each of the precincts around the SRL stations will result in activity centres popping up where none existed and current activity centres undergoing significant transformation with development intensifying significantly.

Undoubtedly, the precinct planning stage will result in rezonings, and the new Windfall Gains Tax will ensure a 50% tax on the uplift in the land value is triggered at that time. It is this precinct planning process which we think will ultimately transform what these middle ring suburbs look like.

Looking ahead, we expect the precinct planning process has already commenced within the SRLA, although at present, there is no publicly available information to confirm this. The Victorian Government’s Big Build website indicates structure planning is to occur this year. It is likely the planning pathway adopted for amendments to the precinct planning process will be an expedited pathway - similar to what transpires for the planning of new suburbs around Melbourne.

If you have questions about SRL or advisory committees, please contact our Partner, Terry Montebello from our Planning Team.

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