The Future of the Green Wedges and the importance of agriculture
This is a copy of an article that I preared for Planning News the regular publication of the Planning Institute of Australia, Victorian Division, in March 2015 edition. It discusses the importance of agricultural land use to the future strategic planning for the Green Wedges.
The future of the Green Wedges
Agricultural land use in the green wedge areas of Melbourne has a total production value of just over $I Billion dollars, which represents some 10% of the total production value for Victoria. Agricultural land use dominates the green wedge areas and provides the rural open landscape that characterises these areas. The vision for the green wedges was driven by the then Minister for Local Government, Rupert Hamer, in the late 1960’s. He directed the Metropolitan Board of Works, the planning authority at the time, that in planning for the future of Melbourne ‘..nobody could happily contemplate a future metropolis of seemingly endless suburbia spreading out to infinity’ and that ‘..It must be strongly emphasised that the future planning should take account of the surrounding countryside as a vital part of the metropolitan environment.’ This was a bold vision to contain urban sprawl, building on a highly treasured British planning tradition of urban green belts, and was incorporated in 1971 into the planning for future growth of the Melbourne Metropolitan Region.
To gain an objective perspective of agriculture in the green wedge areas I have undertaken an analysis of the 17 ‘green wedge’ local governments for their respective values of production for agricultural commodities from the ABS data for 2010/11. This data indicates the type and distribution of agricultural land use in the respective green wedge municipalities. It clearly shows that agricultural land use is predominantly concentrated in the eight interface councils on the boundary of the Melbourne Metropolitan area. These municipalities ring the entire Melbourne metropolitan area and are from west to east the cities of Wyndham, Melton, Hume, and Whittlesea and the shires of Nillumbik, Yarra Valley, Cardinia and Mornington Peninsula. These eight interface councils account for some 86% of the total value of agricultural production in the green wedge areas. They are also the largest in area accounting for 85% of the total area of the green wedge municipalities.
Agriculture can be broadly divided into extensive and intensive land use. Extensive agriculture encompasses broadacre crops (e.g. wheat, barley) and animal grazing (e.g. sheep, cattle). Intensive agriculture encompasses horticulture and animal husbandry activities such as broiler farms and cattle feedlots. The analysis of the ABS data shows that intensive agriculture accounts for approximately 88% of the total value of agricultural production and covers only a relatively small area of rural land.
Extensive agriculture in the form of sheep and cattle grazing for meat production is the single biggest agricultural land use in terms of area but accounts for only some 12% of the total value of agricultural production. Part of the reason for this low value of production is the trend in extensive agriculture for a change from commercial to lifestyle farming (where the dominate income is not from farming).
Extensive agriculture is the land use that currently gives the prominent proportion of the green wedge areas their rural countryside landscape.
In Melbourne, as earlier in England in the development of London’s Green Belt, ‘openness’ of the landscape is fundamental to the green wedges. In the UK their National Planning Policy Framework states that ‘The fundamental aim of the Green belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristic of the Green Belts are their openness and permanence’. This policy position is not quite as assertively presented as part of the provisions of the Green Wedge Zone (GWZ), the principle planning instrument for determining future land use and development decisions for the green wedge areas. The GWZ states as part of the purpose of the zone ....To protect, conserve and enhance the cultural heritage significance and the open rural and scenic non-urban landscapes’. Decisions on future land use and development need to address the issue of maintaining the openness of the landscape as fundamental to the role of the green wedges.
If extensive agriculture declines what is the future for the rural landscape that characterises the value of ‘openness’ that defines the green wedges and provides relief from the urban sprawl?
The Green Wedge Zone allows either as of right or through application for a planning permit a wide range of potential of uses. Many of these potential uses are for forms of development involving the construction of buildings such as housing, exhibition centres, outdoor major sports facilities, residential hotels, restaurants and most recently primary and secondary schools. Many of these uses must be used in conjunction with agriculture but the balance between the open and the built environment is open to wide interpretation. Intensive agriculture is also allowed subject to a planning permit and is often not soil based and involves structures such as for horticultural activities for mushrooms and tomatoes, and livestock activities for poultry.
In addition the pressures for urban expansion are enormous and successive State Governments have stated the importance of providing a permanent urban growth boundary (UGB) to protect the green wedges from urban development. However since the UGB was enacted there have been changes to extend the boundary.
Considerable work has been done on the development of green wedge management plans by individual municipalities to address the future of these areas, but I want to focus on land use planning for the green wedges that will ultimately determine the future of these areas. There are two critical areas that I think need to be addressed for determining the future directions for the green wedges.
What is the impact on the green wedges if there is an ongoing decline in extensive agriculture as a land use? What is the risk that over time that decisions over future land use and development by individual municipalities, under their respective planning schemes, will lead cumulatively to a change from an open to an essentially built environment? Integral to this is the need for a clear and common understanding of what protection of an open rural and non urban scenic landscape means and is interpreted in determining planning permit applications for a wide range of potential developments permitted under the GWZ.
What is the role that the planning system should take in protecting areas of productive agriculture in Melbourne metropolitan region as a precious natural resource for sustainable food production? Is the locality of these productive agricultural areas close to urban Melbourne an additional factor that needs to be taken into account in evaluating the significance of this resource? While this issue needs to be resolved for Melbourne’s green wedges it clearly also has wider applicability at the State and National levels.
A summary of the detail of the agricultural statistics for the value of agricultural commodities by municipality can be obtained by contacting Alan Thatcher at email@example.com