Council rejects injecting room site

By David Schout

City of Melbourne councillors have knocked back a proposed safe injecting room near Queen Victoria Market (QVM), and will request the state government remove it as its preferred site.

In a U-turn decision, councillors unanimously voted to reject the “inappropriate and inadequate” site at the July 21 Future Melbourne Committee (FMC) meeting, just four weeks after resolving to keep the cohealth facility at Victoria St on the negotiating table.

Strong concerns from residents next door at the Drill Hall affordable housing units, plus overwhelming displeasure from market traders, helped sway councillors to now reject the site.

Importantly, information also emerged to councillors that the City of Melbourne held a 299-year lease on the proposed site, leaving it in a strong negotiating position with the state government. In addition, cohealth only has 18 months remaining on its current lease, which doesn’t provide the state government with certainty for a proposed two-year trial at the site. 

“This, in effect, means the MSIR (medically-supervised injecting room) cannot proceed at this location without council approval,” Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood’s motion read.

The move is likely to ruffle feathers at Spring St, which believes the northern CBD site is a best-fit.

In June, the findings of an independent report found Victoria’s one and only injecting facility in North Richmond had saved at least 21 lives in 18 months, and needed help dealing with demand.

While the report merely recommended that a second Victorian facility should be located within the City of Melbourne, the government went a step further and nominated the cohealth site near the corner of Victoria and Elizabeth streets, without consulting with the council. 

While pleased with the decision to reject the site — something he had unsuccessfully pushed for on June 23 — Cr Wood said the past month had created needless “confusion and fear” among residents.

He was critical of the government’s perceived lack of transparency on the issue, after it had reportedly failed to show relevant data to the council. 

“Nothing was right about this site in terms of the location,” he said.

“The fact we’re sitting here after two requests for the information about what sites were assessed and what criteria was used, [but] we’re still waiting for that information. We don’t have it, yet we’re being asked to engage respectively.”

Several other councillors were highly critical of the state government.

Cr Jackie Watts said it was “appalling” that the council hadn’t seen relevant evidence, while Cr Nicolas Frances Gilley said they had “been treated with complete disdain”.

While the seven present councillors in Capp, Wood, Riley, Pinder, Reece, Frances-Gilley and Watts supported the motion, the two Greens councillors Rohan Leppert and Cathy Oke, were forced to declare an indirect conflict of interest due to uncertainty surrounding an apartment owned by Cr Oke, which was understood to be potentially linked with the cohealth site. Councillors Kevin Louey and Philip Le Liu were absent from the meeting. 

It’s believed a big factor in convincing councillors to reject the site was a July 1 meeting with around 15 Drill Hall residents, who each relayed their concerns about an injecting room next door. 

Issues raised at the forum included safety concerns, the impact on residents who have dealt with addiction in the past, and the amenity impact on the nearby community garden.

Soon after, a survey conducted by QVM’s management revealed more than 90 per cent of traders and customers did not support the site.

It is believed the sharp community feedback, plus the previously unknown revelations about its long-term lease of the site, gave the council a strong mandate to outright reject the site.

Drill Hall Residents Association president Martin Mulvihill said he believed the collective voice of residents, of whom passionately articulated their issues with the proposal, was important to informing the position taken by councillors.

“I strongly welcome the fact that Sally Capp and Arron Wood got together on it, and I’m also glad that our forum we had with them seems to have been part of that process,” Mr Mulvihill said.

“Our concerns were fairly central to both of them, which I obviously welcome.”

Not all residents in the building were against the proposal for an injecting room, however. 

James Lockwood, who volunteers at cohealth, said the facility remained an ideal location to address a vital community issue. 

“There has been a consistent effort by multiple groups to frame the discussion of the proposed safe injecting room in a negative light, which I believe has contributed to this outcome,” he said.

“While the concerns of the community do need to be heard and addressed, I do not believe they constitute a serious rebuttal for the implementation of the safe injecting room.”

Councillors stressed that cohealth’s track record had nothing to do with their rejection of the site. 

“Cohealth and the services they provide are not in question. They do fantastic work right across the municipality,” Cr Wood said. 

In response, the state government maintained it was open to suggestions for a different site within the municipality.

“As we’ve previously said, if in our work consulting with the local council, they locate a different site that also meets the criteria … then we’ll remain open to that,” Minister for Mental Health Martin Foley said.

The latest development comes as the government-appointed former Police Commissioner Ken Lay to lead the rollout of the state’s second injecting room.

“Mr Lay will work with health and drug reform experts to analyse data and evidence on drug harms within the City of Melbourne and oversee a public community engagement process, seeking the views of all interested parties on the government’s preferred site.”

Mr Lay is a vocal supporter of medically-safe injecting rooms, and admitted in 2017 that “we probably weren’t brave enough” on the issue during his time as top cop from 2011 to 2015.

“Forget about trying to arrest your way out of this,” he said.

“You need to invest in the front end, you need to invest in harm reduction, you need to invest in education and you need to wrap services around people who are basically sick – they’re not criminals.”

Working with health and drug reform experts, Mr Lay will consult with relevant voices during the next five months before presenting his findings to the government by the end of 2020.

There were 51 heroin-related deaths between January 2015 and September 2019 within the City of Melbourne.

It has the second-highest ambulance attendances for heroin overdoses, behind the City of Yarra •

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