Councillors prickly over accusations

By Shane Scanlan

The City of Melbourne is removing itself from the high-level decisions which will determine the viability of its Victoria Market redevelopment.

It voted on March 8 to refer its somewhat controversial planning amendment C245 to an independent panel, which, in turn, will make recommendations to Planning Minister Richard Wynne.

The council wants to abolish building height restrictions around the market so it can cash in on its two large adjacent development sites.  Should it not get what it wants, it stands to lose tens of millions of dollars.

The council has been surprised by the large number of criticisms of its proposed planning amendment.  Some 156 submissions were received, with very few offering favourable feedback.

There were numerous categories of criticism.  Traffic, heritage, density, height, amenity, parking – the usual suspects.  The comments were unforgiving, but none were acknowledged by council management as meritorious and no changes will be made to the draft planning amendment to go before the expert panel.

The accusation that did get under councillors’ skins was “conflict of interest”, with many councillors lining up to defend their position at the March 8 Future Melbourne Committee meeting.

They should not have been surprised by this charge.  While their cynically-professional consultations asked people about a lot of the “feel good” issues, they have never asked the public how they felt about the council funding the development via land speculation resulting in reduced amenity for residents to the immediate south.

Submitter’s responses to the proposed planning amendment were sanitised by council management before being included in the public report to the council on the matter.

However, it is clear that submitters such as Mary Lou Howie, Elizabeth Grgacic, Mick Brancatisano, Sarah Butterfield, Anna Epstein, Boo Radly (sic), Jillian Bamforth, Louis Christou, Richard Stevenson and the Friends of the Queen Victoria Market believe the council has a conflict of interest.

Ms Howie’s submission was summarised as: “Development of council-owned land around the market is driving the proposed market ‘renewal’ rather than the reverse. Submitter has no faith in the motives for the changes. Donations from property developers to election campaign funds have muddied the waters somewhat and the submitter is suspicious of the council’s drive for the changes proposed in the amendment.”

The Friends of the Market said: “There is a conflict in that the council is the proponent for the market redevelopment as well as the amendment and is also the responsible authority for any future approvals.”

At the March 8 meeting Queen St property owner Peter Papageorgiou  asked: “Should the council be permitted to make these decisions seeing that it is the responsible authority and, at the same time, has a major interest in this site?”

Deputy planning chair Cr Rohan Leppert articulated the councillors’ response: “Under the Act it is very clear that council does not have a conflict of interest.  We are not, by the way, acting as responsible authority for any application.  We’re acting as the planning authority at the moment.  Council, as a whole does not have a conflict of interest.”

However, he acknowledged a clear perception of conflict.

“Certainly there’s a perception of a conflict because we are changing the built form controls and two large sites in this area we own.  And if you consider that we own the market itself, then it’s more than two,” he said.

“Officers have recommended that we give as much authority to the independent planning authority as possible to consider all submissions, to consider the council draft planning scheme amendment and to give us their very best advice as to whether or not council is going down the right path.”

Cr Leppert also addressed the suggestion that council’s rejection of all the arguments in the 156 submissions was evidence it was “railroading” through its own position.

“I don’t think that’s the case.  I think that the stronger argument here is that it is fair that the independent planning panel considers all submissions on their merits.”

“There’s a big theme coming through here that council needs to be very careful about perceptions of conflict.  And we do,” he said.
Finance chair, Cr Stephen Mayne, said: “We didn’t own the Munro site when we first publicly articulated our vision for the changed height regime on that site.  So we didn’t control the fact that the private owner put it to market. We said we were an interested buyer and we publicly disclosed our vision for how controls might work on that site and then we won at a competitive auction. With the other site, we don’t actually have title at the moment.”

“It’s not as if council had two long-term holdings abutting the market and said: ‘right, this is how we do it’.”

“We didn’t own either and negotiated in both situations to improve our options to have greater control on development abutting the market and to help fund a $250 million spend.”

“If we didn’t have some asset realisation from both those parcels, we’d be jacking the rates up a lot more and slugging ratepayers to deliver the biggest spending capital project in council’s history.”

“So it is a part of the financing plan, but we’re very respectful of the controls that need to be there.”

“You say we may have a conflict, but we are not the decision-maker. In my view, that perceived conflict is managed by referring to the panel for its independent advice and by having a separate decision maker.”

Cr Jackie Watts offered: “This is a regrettable position that we find ourselves in that we have to defend ourselves to our constituents so long and hard.  Do we have conflict? Don’t we have conflict?  This is a very fraught position in which we find ourselves.”

Cr Arron Wood countered: “I feel extremely comfortable in the integrity and independence of the process and the role that council is playing on behalf of our ratepayers.”

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