By Mark Waldon – Director St-wise Pty Ltd
A crucial part of any planning assessment is considering how a new development responds to neighbourhood character. All Councils place an emphasis on new development fitting into the local character context. This includes the following considerations:

  • Is the scale (size) of the development appropriate to surrounding buildings?
  • Is the form of the new development appropriate to the prevailing architecture in that area?
  • Are the building setbacks appropriate to the common setbacks in the area?
  • Are the intended materials sympathetic to the prevailing building materials in that area?
  • Are the roof form and fenestration sympathetic to surrounding buildings?
  • Has enough room been left around the building for appropriate landscaping?
  • Will the new building be sympathetic to the neighbours’ outlook, especially from their backyards?

A development that fails to ‘respect neighbourhood character’ will generally be refused by Council.
Is Character an important consideration in all development applications?
The simple answer is yes. Character is an important consideration, even for a new factory in an industrial area or for a new commercial development in a shopping centre. In regional areas, it is even important for a new shed in a farming area to ‘fit’ with the landscape.
But it is even more important for new residential developments (multi -unit, two or more dwellings) in an established residential area as this is where Councils get most objections. This is why Council planners are very focussed on how a new development will fit in with the current or future preferred neighbourhood.
Respect for neighbourhood character
There are many parts of a planning scheme that talk to issues of ‘fitting in with neighbourhood character’. An example is this requirement for new medium density development. Standard B1 at Clause 55 of the Scheme states:

The proposed design must respect the existing or preferred neighbourhood character and respond to the features of the site.

This is in every planning scheme in Victoria. But what does it mean to ‘respect the existing or preferred neighbourhood character’?
The State government has tried to bring some clarity to this and provided guidelines that suggest analysing the dwellings close by, and opposite in the street – what are their setbacks, their architectural style, and their scale? A new design is expected to reference these findings.
However, this is where respecting neighbourhood character becomes confusing. ‘Respecting’ is often interpreted as requiring a new development to be exactly the same as the neighbouring buildings. This is not the case.
VCAT has wrestled with this issue innumerable times over the years. In a well-known decision – Australand Holdings v Boroondara (VCAT Ref 1997/47741) the Tribunal stated:

“The Good Design Guide requires that medium density proposals be respectful of neighbourhood character, it does not imply a slavish repetition of what already exists.”

Your analysis shows that most buildings nearby are single storey, post-War, of brick construction, and with pitched roofs and eaves – the new design is expected to reference these aspects of nearby development.
However, this does not mean that the design has to faithfully exhibit these aspects of character. It can interpret them, as follows:

  • A new proposal can be more then single storey, but the upper storey may need to be further recessed from the street, and the height should be minimised;
  • The post-War architectural style was quite basic – the new design can provide for difference, but not be too different;
  • The prevalent material may be brick, but render would also be considered a ‘masonry’ look, and satisfactory;
  • There should be use of pitched roofs and eaves, but maybe with some parapet elements as well.

Council Guidelines
Most Councils have prepared character statements that form reference documents within their planning schemes. They may break the municipality down into differing character precincts. They will detail Council’s expectations for how the character may change in each precinct, and therefore what will be preferred.
Most Councils will indicate some parts of their municipality where change will be more limited, and others where more active change can be expected. It is important that a designer look at these requirements before commencing their design. A developer may want a more modern and larger building, but such guidelines may be seeking more traditional architectural expression and subdued scale.
Does this frustrate modern architecture?
Yes. An unfortunate by-product of respecting existing character is that more modern design can often be considered a poor fit in a ‘traditional’ streetscape.  The same can be said for the increasingly popular French provincial and Classical architectural styles. It is notable that often such change occurs where a planning permit is not required. For example, this could be an ‘as-of-right’ new single dwelling development.
When making an assessment of appropriateness or impact on neighbourhood character, it can influence Council if it can be demonstrated that some new dwellings nearby are leading to a change in style.
 Note: Relevant Neighbourhood Character Statements or Neighbourhood Character Studies can be found on each local municipal Council website on the strategic planning pages.