The Suburban Rail Loop (SRL) is a 90-kilometre railway line that will ring Melbourne from Cheltenham to Werribee, creating the country’s first ‘orbital’ metro system. It consists of three sections: SRL East (Cheltenham to Box Hill), SRL North (Box Hill to Melbourne Airport), and SRL West (Melbourne Airport and Werribee).
The SRL was a key part of the Victorian Government’s 2018 election platform and is one of the largest railway investments in Australian history at over $50 billion and a construction time of over 25 years. The project is currently in the procurement phase, with groundworks for the SRL East portion expected to commence as early as next year.
To realise this project, the Victorian Parliament passed the Suburban Rail Loop Bill 2021 (Bill) on 7 October 2021 to establish the Suburban Rail Loop Authority (Authority). The Bill gives the Authority “appropriate functions and powers” to plan and deliver the project and associated development and, eventually, to operate and manage the SRL. Clause 5 of the Bill outlines the key objectives of the SRL, including to:
These objectives are to be achieved using the broad powers given to the Authority. Under clause 8 of the Bill, the Authority is established, and under clause 12, the Authority is provided powers, including, to:
These powers also interact with existing legislation. For example, the Bill allows access to powers under the Major Transport Project Facilitation Act 2009 which streamlines the development of major transport projects that are deemed to be of economic, social or environmental significance to the State.
The Bill also amends the planning process under the Planning and Environment Act 1987. Under clause 65, the SRL Minister can declare an area of land to be an SRL planning area which will trigger changes to planning processes under the Planning and Environment Act 1987, such as the Authority being the planning authority in the SRL planning area.
Furthermore, planning scheme amendments in the SRL planning area are to be referred to the SRL Minister rather than the Planning Minister, with amendments exempt from exhibition and notice requirements in the Planning and Environment Act 1987 if the Minister considers compliance with any of those requirements is not warranted, or it is appropriate in the interests of Victoria. These changes to the planning authority, and potentially the Authority then making itself the responsible authority for declared SRL precincts, may raise concerns for some local councils about the planning of their communities. The scale of these precincts is yet to be determined, but one would expect the areas to be potentially large with a mix of potential uses.
The Bill also proposes important changes to the compulsory acquisition process. Although there has been debate around whether the acquisition of subterranean interests is compensable (this was a key issue in some of the East West Link compulsory acquisitions), the Bill proposes that claims cannot be made for interests greater than 15 metres beneath the surface of the land.
Overall, the Bill’s significance can be summarised by the first line of the Minister’s second reading speech for the SRL – “the Suburban Rail Loop will transform Melbourne like no project in our history.”
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Authors: Joseph Monaghan & Christopher Watt
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