Common sense is the oft-overlooked ingredient when it comes to making planning decisions that are good for everyone involved. The primary objective of planning is to provide order in development.

Think of the times you drove around a new city and commented that the streets were laid out in an orderly way and precincts planned so you could venture out into the new city with more confidence.

Planning has an overarching control of land development, subdivision, services, roads and infrastructure, local community needs, the heritage of the place, while ensuring economic sustainability.

Balancing the needs and prioritising the order is where common sense can be used to produce a great outcome…and a lack of common sense produces something mediocre.

Think of the local council or shire planning authorities as those entrusted to balance the built form of the areas, improve the quality of life of the residents and create vibrant communities while protecting the environment.

These are valued principles to underpin the thinking at the council, but failures often occur as decisions become more subjective or politically driven.

State governments have enacted planning laws which are supposed to guide local government’s planning decisions. In Victoria, the Planning and Environment Act 1987 sets out the operational requirements and frameworks.

Unfortunately, the contextual references and a lack of an empirical formula often lead to disagreements between a land owner and the council planning department when it comes to yield, land use, height and built form, parking, open space, or the style of a development.

Some of the commentary in the planning scheme relies too much on the past, which makes little sense in an era where Melbourne’s population is expected to grow dramatically.

The world is looking at compact living forms while councils are still often pushing for large areas of garden areas, bulky roof forms which do not have any secondary benefit or built forms which create waste – both in terms of material production time, travel and labour.

The planning scheme is the framework and direction to decide whether a development application should be granted or refused. It is used to enforce compliance and helps in settling disputes.

While the Act is continually undergoing amendments by successive state governments, it’s time more down to earth language and the ease of finding information becomes a higher priority than creating new amendments sometimes for the sake of stamping a new Planning Minister’s “thought bubble” authority.

Take for example the recent amendments regarding “garden areas” in subdivisions; even those smaller ones in the backyard and the new design standards for apartments.

The garden area concept is fine. It wants more green space for visual separation between neighbours and more vegetation is good for the environment. A typical mid to outer ring municipality will have to sacrifice 35 per cent of the site for garden. The consequential trade-off between the smaller building footprints versus more free garden space on the ground was an allowance to go higher up vertically – generally up to three storeys – so useable dwelling space was not compromised.

But the caveat lay in the hands of the local council. The height (or now increased height) would need to conform to the existing neighbourhood character.

It is rare to find three storey houses in most suburbs, so a developer would have to give away 35 per cent of garden area but still be locked into a double storey (or single storey in some instances) new home if the prevailing neighbourhood character was double storey dwellings. This 35 per cent garden area is over and above the mandatory open space requirements which must be met.

A 35 per cent garden area could mean the reduction of two dwellings on a 900 square metre block of land. Will that provide economic sustainability? Will that add cost to housing? Will that be the balance between built form and sustainability? The answer is most likely no.

This is where common sense failed.

Then take the example of the new standard for apartments where a development must have a mix of layouts: one, two and three bedrooms. In some areas there is little demand for three bedroom units. Or take the example of providing a larger balcony in favour of losing a bedroom. Or providing more car parking than what residents need or can afford and while there is more talk of green travel and bike racks are becoming mandatory the dispensation of parking spaces is resulting applications being refused.

A bit more common sense led by the community could create that vibrant environment the planning scheme mentions so often!

We may have to balance the subjective guidance planning provides against good design which only those trained in Architecture can provide. Town planners as a general rule are not designers and their standards are set by whether a new development design mimics the past or not. That cannot be the underpinning formula for deciding whether an application fits or misfits an area undergoing change or close to infrastructure that the old must make way for the new demands of society.