Narrow approach comes back to bite government

Comment by David Schout

The Victorian government’s eggs were firmly in one basket for the state’s second injecting facility in the CBD. But now that has failed, it has created a mess it might have avoided from the outset. 

For more than six months the government considered just one location, Cohealth at 53 Victoria St, for the new supervised injecting room (SIR).

The narrow approach has not paid off however, after reports suggested it had now scrapped the idea in favour of a Flinders St site, at the opposite end of town.

Backlash from the council, Drill Hall residents and Queen Victoria Market traders was enough to convince the government to ditch the Victoria St proposal. 

Now, it is seemingly back to square one.

Which begs the question: why was just one site considered for such a long period?

Why wasn’t the net cast wider, with a number of CBD locations considered as part of the review led by former police chief commissioner Ken Lay?

Things could have — and should have — been handled better from the start, 12 months ago in June 2020.

Back then, the release of an independent report showed that Victoria’s only injecting facility (in North Richmond) had saved at least 21 lives in 18 months

However, it needed help dealing with demand.

“One site cannot effectively address all the needs for such a service in a city the size of Melbourne,” the report said.

“Based on analyses of available data, the panel recommends that the government considers an appropriate location within the City of Melbourne.”

But before consulting key stakeholders — not least the council itself — the government went ahead and nominated Cohealth as its “preferred” site.

This incensed councillors, who would later reject the location.

One said they had “been treated with complete disdain” by the government, while another said it was “appalling” they had been kept in the dark regarding relevant evidence.

The council’s position is broadly supportive of a SIR, but it rejected the Victoria St site for a number of reasons.

“It is one of the most densely populated areas in the City of Melbourne; opposite the Queen Victoria Market which is the City’s most significant tourist attraction, a transport interchange, child care services and vulnerable residents all within hundreds of metres,” a spokesperson said in November.

At the time, Lord Mayor Sally Capp indicated that the council (which had a long-term lease on the Cohealth site) would look to block the government’s plans.

But despite the council’s round rejection of the site, it was next-door residents at Drill Hall that likely convinced Mr Lay the location wasn’t right.

Drill Hall, a pre-war army officer training facility, was refurbished in 2011 whereby seven levels of affordable housing were built atop the original building, and residents now occupy the 56 apartments inside. 

One of those, Martin Mulvihill, a retired teacher and president of the building’s residents’ association, expressed his concerns to Mr Lay.

Theirs wasn’t a NIMBY fight (not in my backyard), but one of genuine concern for existing residents. 

He was worried about the “relegation effect” of a SIR, which would place “different stigmatised groups together in the one area to the disadvantage of all of them”.

Mr Mulvihill said some vulnerable residents, plus those experiencing homelessness who often congregate in the community garden downstairs, would be in one confined area should the injecting facility go ahead. 

“We would have had three groups shoved up against one another,” he told CBD News. 

“And in our minds, it would have multiplied the problems. I made that point to Ken Lay and my impression was he was very responsive to it.”

This, plus council and market pushback, threw the government’s plans off track.

It had said Mr Lay would present his findings by the end of 2020 (as late as November 20 it confirmed this was on track) and, it was assumed, they would push on with establishing the SIR at Cohealth in 2021.

But the report, now five months overdue, is still yet to be seen.

It is not expected until late July at the earliest.

The delay is because it has had to shift focus entirely away from the Victoria St site.

For months the government said this was its “preferred site”, and all consultation was focused on this. 

Now, however, everything is up in the air.

“Ken Lay is currently leading a process around the preferred site, which has not been finalised yet,” a government spokesperson confirmed. 

Had the government expanded the scope of his consultation from the outset, things might have played more favourably for all parties. 

The former police chief should have been afforded more time, and more CBD locations, to properly assess before reporting back to the government the most appropriate site for the state’s second SIR. 

Instead, it spent more than six months considering just one site which would eventually prove unfit given the issues it could cause to those nearby. 

The government might argue that the vexed injecting room debate now playing out at Spring St, Town Hall and in the media is inevitable wherever they decide to put the state’s second SIR.

And this is true.

But it might have avoided the ire of almost every stakeholder had it better handled the consultation process from the outset •

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