“An unethical choice”: Councillors slam “unwelcome” new Lonsdale St pokies venue, but no choice given in approval

David Schout

City of Melbourne councillors have lamented a proposed CBD venue that will feature 50 new poker machines, and said that while the venue would cause “harm” it had no choice but to approve it.

One councillor said the move was “unethical” and said the state’s gambling regulator “should be embarrassed” by the move.

The application from Bay Road Hotel Pty Ltd sought to convert the basement, ground and rooftop level of a 19-floor building at the corner of Lonsdale and Hardware streets — currently featuring commercial and serviced apartments — into a hotel with 50 new electronic gaming machines (EGMs) on the ground floor.

After a permit application was lodged in late 2021, the council formally objected to the new machines in a case heard by the Victorian Gambling and Casino Control Commission earlier this year.

However, it lost the case, and the application for EGMs was approved by the regulator on February 14.

As a result, councillors voted unanimously to approve the new venue at a July 12 Future Melbourne Committee meeting.

However all three councillors who spoke on the evening said the council did so with hands tied.

“I don’t want to support this application, but I will on the basis that we’re obliged to as an administrative body to uphold the planning rules within the City of Melbourne,” Cr Rohan Leppert said. “That system is wrong, but that is the system that we’ve been asked to perform a quasi-judicial role within.”

Acting Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece said the council had “vigorously fought the application” and while he welcomed investment into a new city venue, did not support more pokies within the CBD.

The venue’s 50 new machines would bring the current number of licensed machines in the Hoddle Grid to 625.

It will also be located 240 metres from the nearest licensed venue (The Meeting Place on Elizabeth St).

Speaking on behalf of the applicant, Travis Finlayson from Ratio Consultants said the $5.4 million investment would provide 42 full-time equivalent employment opportunities and further economic flow-on affects through significant supply contracts.

Mr Finlayson said the pokies area of the hotel was considered appropriate by the state regulator and was sensitively set out.

“The gaming room is well-designed; it’s set back, it’s not visible from the public realm. You have to enter the venue, experience the other facilities before going into the gaming room.”

However Cr Leppert said the EGMs would cause further harm within the CBD.

“I don’t welcome this new investment into the city despite the number of employees anticipated to be working on this site. The harm to the community will be outweighing that purported benefit by a factor of many, many times over.”

Cr Jamal Hakim said he approved the application “reluctantly” and questioned why an alternate use could not have been considered.

“Look, it’s a great investment in the built form, [but] it is still a poor choice by the applicant. Other investments can still mean that this investment can go ahead and could have been picked. But this is an unethical choice,” he said.

“Others have delivered successful hospitality venues in the CBD without the aspects of harm the gambling function will bring … we don’t want a revitalisation that’s built on the abuse of people within our community.”

Cr Hakim slammed the VGCCC and said the regulator “should be embarrassed in placing marginal weight or lower weight to the impact of problem gambling right here”.

The CBD (along with Docklands and Southbank) does not have a cap or municipal limit on how many EGMs can be situated in the area, unlike the rest of Victoria.

The Alliance for Gambling Reform has previously written to the Minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation urging an appropriate cap, arguing that at the time of its introduction the CBD had far fewer residents.

Three-year delay a “joke”

At the July 12 meeting, councillors also called on new planning minister Lizzie Blandthorn to approve a City of Melbourne planning scheme amendment to replace the current gaming policy.

The council submitted Amendment C366 in August 2019, but it was yet to be approved by the state government.

While the amendment would not give the council the power to reject poker machine applications outright, it would “strengthen policy to reduce the concentration of electronic gaming machines in the Hoddle Grid where they contribute to convenience gaming”.

It would also enable a “more comprehensive assessment of the social and economic impacts of gaming” and “assist in guiding the appropriate location and operation of gaming venues”.

Cr Leppert slammed the delay.

“Three years is very clearly a joke,” he said.

“I do hope the new planning minister departs from her predecessor’s approach to this issue, which is to sit on it and say nothing.”

A government spokesperson had told CBD News in October 2021 that the assessment of Amendment C366 was “at an advanced stage”. •

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