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A man with a plan

A man with a plan

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From the military to politics to planning, HIA Life Member Geoff Underwood has had a diverse career. His specialist knowledge helped to form HIA’s policies on behalf of industry for decades.

Laura Valic

Editor

‘For 10 years, I was private secretary to ministers for local government and planning. I learned from each of them about politics – and especially how politics interferes with planning.’

In 1971, a 23-year-old Geoff Underwood was fresh out of the army after being conscripted to serve in Vietnam. He hadn’t stepped foot in Victoria for more than two years, but he was looking for a job and managed to line one up directly under the newly appointed Minister for Local Government, Alan Hunt.

On day one, the minister slapped down a thick yellow-paged, dog-eared binder about an old, unresolved matter leftover from his predecessor: the registration of builders. Provided with only a brief outline of the issues, the nervous new starter was invited to give his opinion. Startled, Geoff responded with: ‘Why can’t they do it themselves?’

‘Exactly!’ the minister shouted in agreement. 

It was to be the beginning of Geoff’s long association with builders, housing development, and with it, HIA. 

HIA Life Member Geoff Underwood

Policy vs practice

For the next 10 years, Geoff had a front row seat to policy development under three different government ministers. Back then, ministerial staff were small, almost one-man teams, tasked with being advisors, researchers, press liaison and intermediaries. For a conscientious young man, the work across various portfolios was both interesting and challenging.

‘I was dealing with the politics of planning, municipalities, industry and community groups, and other governments. It was a terrific experience,’ Geoff reveals.

What he soon learnt was that not every policy initiative comes to fruition, nor does all policy result in good outcomes. ‘Alan Hunt used to say he welcomed submissions from industry because people came with a problem and a solution. Governments don’t have all the answers. Putting policies into practice requires the assistance of experts.’

As an active group representing the residential building industry, HIA’s leadership team would regularly communicate issues affecting builders to the Victorian Government, with Geoff often part of the conversations. He remembers a brief run in with the late Randal Dossetor OBE DFC, one of HIA’s founding fathers, who was the Victorian President between 1964-66, among other roles. 

‘Randal rang and said in no uncertain terms that he didn’t agree with the Minister’s change to planning controls in the Dandenong Ranges,’ Geoff recalls. ‘I explained the change removed a legal uncertainty and did no more than confirm a permit application was needed. 

‘I remember we failed to agree,’ he says, smiling. 

Given the encounter, Geoff believes Randal may have found it ironic that he would one day become a champion for planning to get out of the way of development, and a constant advocate with all levels of government ‘to do more to do less in planning’.

L–R: HIA Life Member Geoff Underwood (centre) with Ian Hazan (Board Director), Stephen Bright (Victorian President), Fiona Nield (HIA Chief Executive Business Services), Craig Muse (Board Director) and Glenn Mitchell (Victorian Vice President).

Getting underway

Armed with his knowledge of the Victorian planning system, Geoff left ministerial service to open a town planning consultancy firm Underwood & Hume in Melbourne in 1981. Over time, Underwood & Hume became well regarded for its statutory, strategic and development planning. 

Much of what Geoff initially concentrated on however was helping builders get development approvals. But as the system became more complex, it increasingly became necessary to help them navigate its varied nuances. ‘I describe what I do as solving problems,’ he explains. ‘If someone wants to do a major development, we’ll work out a plan on the best steps, who they need to see and how to run the planning process.’

At one point, Geoff was HIA’s honorary planning consultant and volunteered his time to help members with their planning issues. His specialist knowledge became highly sought after within and out of the industry. For example, the 2012 Review of the Victorian Planning System – colloquially known as the ‘Underwood Report’ – came about because Matthew Guy, the Victorian Minister for Planning between 2010-2014, asked Geoff to lead a new Ministerial Advisory Committee.

‘It’s a common refrain that planning is a problem so every government since I’ve been involved from the ’70s has looked at how to cut red tape and speed up processes,’ he explains. ‘[The committee] presented a report of recommendations…and then was asked to deal with particular sore points. Some things got changed, others didn’t.’ 

Geoff smiles when he facetiously says: ‘I can’t imagine why there are still problems in planning; people have been making recommendations about how to fix it for more than 50 years!’

Being the change

While change might be frustratingly slow to come, that hasn’t stopped Geoff from stoically contributing where he could. In 2007, he took up the chair of HIA’s Victorian Environment, Planning and Development Committee and has served ever since on the Regional Executive Committee. Geoff says they are a great way for members, especially those coming up through the industry, to give their input.

‘A lot of special interest or regional committees operate across the states, providing an opportunity for younger people to contribute,’ he says. ‘One of the reasons I’ve continued is because sometimes people don’t realise that certain issues have been around before, with solutions found. You don’t have to go back and reinvent the wheel.’ 

Geoff adds members can gain a lot by serving on HIA committees: ‘You can hear other industry perspectives and give your own. Some things others are dealing with might assist you in your business. Young people can learn why things are as they are, and if necessary, can contribute to change.

Geoff at the Dubai World Cup
It's a common refrain that planning is a problem so every government since I've been involved from the 70s has looked at how to cut red tape and speed up processes.
HIA Life Member Geoff Underwood

Quiet achiever

Today, Geoff still likes to keep his finger on the industry’s pulse, but says he wouldn’t mind starting ‘to pass the baton on’ to free up his time to enjoy other pursuits. Reflecting on his career, he sees a series of incremental changes as his legacy. ‘It’s been about trying to improve the system and make things better.’ 

During the President’s Dinner at the HIA 2022 National Conference last April, Geoff was presented with HIA Life Membership for his contributions to the Association and broader industry. Not one to enjoy the spotlight, he was surprised but ‘delighted’ by the acknowledgement. 

And though the old issue of builder registration was eventually resolved, he knows there are plenty of others, such as fixed price contracts, which still need addressing. In planning, he feels subjectivity needs to be removed. ‘The biggest thing we could do in Victoria would be to improve the code assessment approach, applying current technical standards and determining proposals accordingly. If you met those standards, then that’s the test – not somebody’s taste test. I’m not a lone voice on that.’

A national planning system?

According to HIA Life Member Geoff Underwood, a national planning system is ‘never going to happen’. 

‘There was the move years ago to standardise planning systems across Australia, but it was idealistic; the states won’t give up the processes they believe are right for them.’

He says we instead need to ensure that each state system operates effectively without unnecessary red tape: ‘Set the rules of the game and let people go play the game.’

First published on 17 May 2023

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