“Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot”
PHILLIP Island is a beautiful place with incredible natural advantages that could easily be lost unless we decide to value them and preserve them. In the past we’ve seen some very ordinary planning decisions that have significantly changed the Island. Now we find ourselves at a watershed.
Do we want a poorly planned dormitory suburb with great but overcrowded beaches, congested roads and a famous motorbike race?
Or do we want it to be a special place because of its natural environment, exciting sporting and cultural events, vibrant attractive hospitality and accommodation centre and beautiful coastal villages?
Hopefully we are on the verge of a paradigm shift toward the Island being recognised as a special place, gaining momentum for the vision. With some strategic thinking, we have an opportunity to ensure a sustainable and prosperous future for Phillip Island.
It would mean greater density of development within the town of Cowes, with no expansion of the town boundaries. Sensitive development must also be demanded in the small coastal towns to preserve their integrity and appeal.
This will require a shift from the “one size fits all” approach of the State Planning Policy framework, which requires councils to ensure 15 years’ land supply for residential development. This dictum is driven by a desire to house an increasing Melbourne population but is blind to the requirements of a tourism destination that relies on its natural environment.
The state policy, abetted by the Bass Coast Planning Scheme, has driven the alienation of farm land for housing development and led to a predisposition to expand town boundaries. On Phillip Island it’s resulted in a proliferation of holiday houses that remain empty for most of the year and fill up during the Island’s already congested period.
The developments we are seeing are outstanding for only one thing – their sameness. A Pete Seeger song comes to mind “Little boxes made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.” The skill in development seems to be to cut a plot of land into as many small rectangles, independent blocks, as one can. I will celebrate the day a developer comes along with an innovative concept that seeks community and open space above isolation in single blocks.
The towns to our north are rapidly becoming suburbs of Melbourne, predicted to grow by over 230,000 people by 2035. We are also at risk of over-development through the spread of housing developments across the rural land as people seek to live and commute or have holiday houses here.
The Visitor Economy Strategy states “the environment is the economy of Phillip Island and San Remo”. The current trajectory of development threatens the rural and bushland appeal of the Island and hence the tourism base of the Phillip Island economy.
Preserving Phillip Island’s character demands recognition of serious targeted strategic planning that maximises the area’s natural assets. The council is currently reviewing the planning scheme to bring it into line with the council plan and incorporate its strategies. Our advocacy must also seek change to the state policy to give it a rational application in a tourism and conservation precinct.
Council inherited an excellent policy framework that includes the Phillip Island and San Remo Visitor Economy Strategy 2035, the Cowes Activity Centre Plan and the Phillip Island Integrated Transport Study.
The activity centre plan recommends a change to the planning scheme to offset the pull of the town toward Settlement Road – to give it a heart – and rezoning to allow denser development in Cowes to provide a walkable, accessible town. Significant in this is the development of a design and development overlay for the Isle of Wight and Warley Hospital site to facilitate their development as key hospitality and residential locations for Cowes.
The activity centre plan and the visitor strategy stress the urgent need to invest in infrastructure now while preserving the natural and rural environment. They recommend that Council modernises the Jetty Triangle, develop the Transit Centre and redevelop the Cowes Civic and Cultural Centre (CCC). The first two are happening now and the CCC is undergoing a detailed design with architects appointed.
These strategies also envisage iconic walking and cycling trails around the Island, with events and the visitor load spread throughout the year.
An irritating problem at this point is that the strategies are not considered in planning decisions with Bass Coast’s out-of-date planning scheme taking precedence. This is despite the strategies being considered by Council on at least two occasions and the planning scheme undergoing significant amendment and review by council. Council approved putting the amendment to the public two months ago.
This means that recent decisions of Council to refuse the Red Rocks Road development, a unit development on the Esplanade and a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre on the old Warley site could be overturned by VCAT treating the planning scheme as superior to the council strategies.
The actions being taken by Council to reform the planning scheme are crucial to reframe development and to allow full consideration of council strategies in planning decisions.
The Phillip Island economy’s dependence on tourism is the highest in Victoria and second across Australia, with visitor numbers growing by 4.5 per cent a year. Yet Phillip Island receives less than the Regional Victorian average from visitor spend because our tourism is dominated by day trip visitors who spend their money in Melbourne rather than in the region.
The Visitor Economy Strategy recommends a focus on building off-peak visitor levels to spread the economic activity and help business to be viable all year round. Interestingly the strategy does not recommend road and bridge duplication as this would feed into the day visitation and congestion.