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Who’s this Guy?

09 Mar 2017

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Editorial Comment by Sean Car

After years of hammering former Liberal Minister for Planning Matthew Guy over poor planning, it would seem our current minister isn’t so different after all.

In just one approval, Minister Richard Wynne and his government have lost a great deal of credibility when it comes to respecting proper planning.

And he’s not alone. Many Southbankers also feel let down by his boss Premier Andrews, the Lord Mayor and our highly respected local member Martin Foley, who were all seemingly happy to follow the beat of Crown’s drum.   

Yet no one, including myself, is anti-development and particularly on what has long been a redundant series of sites on a prominent part of Queensbridge St. Southbank will be so much better for its redevelopment.

But the manner in which this has been approved really is unfathomable in so many regards. Where to begin?

Let’s start with trying to understand the planning exemption of ‘state significance,’ for which this was approved under. Or was it?

The Premier himself had referred to it as “truly state significant” and a spokesperson for Minister Wynne initially provided the following statement:

“One Queensbridge Street, which delivers $2.1 billion in economic impact and 4000 jobs, while exempted from the controls on the basis of its state significance, was approved within the spirit of these controls.”

Under s201F of the Planning and Environment Act 1987, ‘state significance’ is a formal declaration and is often used for public infrastructure projects.

When I pursued my original enquiry for a list of other projects that had been approved under this exemption (which I now know includes projects such as the Melbourne Museum), the spokesperson changed their tune.

“Queensbridge Street has been determined as being ‘In the interests of Victoria,’” the spokesperson said.

‘In the interests of Victoria’ is the wording used regarding s20 (4) decisions, and can be used for public infrastructure projects. It’s an entirely different exemption to the one the government has spruiked in press releases and to other media following the approval.

Based on my experience and having read several other news reports that also used the term “state significance” I’m not convinced by the minister attempting to brand the approval anything otherwise.

While Crown’s tower is more aligned within ‘The Interests of Victoria’, the Government suggesting that a new hotel is significant to the state or is public infrastructure is, as Freshwater Place OC Chairman Peter Renner put it, “a joke”.  

But the jokes don’t stop there! Next we have Minister Wynne’s public benefits package to open.

While Southbank will be pleased to see a makeover of the promenade and Queensbridge Square, these areas are tourism epicentres. Just what Crown wants. From a local perspective, $100 million of such ‘benefits’ represents an opportunity lost for real community infrastructure. But hey, at least we get a sky deck…

And more broadly, at a time when so many of our most vulnerable Melburnians are doing it tough, most would make the case for public housing over public realm improvements any day.

And then there’s the Lord Mayor Robert Doyle. In case you hadn’t heard, Cr Rohan Leppert moved a motion at the Future Melbourne Committee meeting last month requesting that council’s planning officers complete a report to assess Crown’s planning scheme amendment to be published on its website. Some transparency for the public, which is devoid of a voice on what is the largest building ever approved in our city.

However, the Lord Mayor and ultimately his team were forced to declare a conflict of interest having accepted an election donation from Harold Mitchell, who just happens to sit on the board of Crown.

We could talk for days about the minister compromising his new C270 planning controls or how in opposition his government opposed many aspects of the project, including the sky-bridge or overshadowing of the Shrine.

In short, this approval has made a mockery of the planning process. Will we now see other developers pushing through hotels on the grounds of state significance or ‘In the interests of Victoria?’ The government’s anything goes approach in this instance suggests nothing is impossible.

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