Concerns raised as millions earmarked for open space reallocated to Greenline

David Schout

More than $6 million of developer contributions set aside for public open space in Southbank has been reallocated to the City of Melbourne’s “city-shaping” $300 million Greenline trail after a last-minute budget change.

The move led one councillor to say he was “nervous about the reallocation” of funds and concerned that the “public open space reserve” — a pool of cash from developers used to create new community public spaces — was not delivering in the short-term.

In a recent review process of the now-endorsed 2022-23 budget, the City of Melbourne became aware that the $9 million it planned to draw from the reserve to fund the Kings Way undercroft project in Southbank was not, in fact, an appropriate use of funds.

The northern end of the undercroft is owned by the Victorian Government rather than the council, and the project (which includes a recently opened dog park) was therefore not eligible.

As a result, the council decided to fund the undercroft project itself, however it opted to reallocate the $9 million from the open space reserve to unspecified aspects of Greenline ($6.2 million), parks renewal ($2 million) and tree planting and replacement ($800,000).

Cr Rohan Leppert said that while the last-minute changes were “technically” acceptable, he was concerned about where the funds were now going.

“I’m quite nervous about the reallocation of the open space fund, but happy to go with it now because I think it’s the only thing we can do,” he said at a Future Melbourne Committee meeting on June 23.

“I do think that we’ve found some projects that are technically suitable for the open space fund, like replanting of trees in existing parks and nominally putting an amount aside for Greenline. But we don’t yet know what those Greenline funds will be for.”

Greenline is one of the council’s most significant projects in decades and proposes a six-metre-wide pathway along the Yarra River’s northbank from Birrarung Marr all the way to the Bolte Bridge.

The council wants the Victorian and Commonwealth governments to each pump $100 million into what it calls a “city-shaping” project.

However there were concerns about whether the project was the most appropriate use of the public open space reserve.

The reserve is a significant pool of funds from developers who must, should they not contribute adequate land as part of a new project, pay a fixed public open space contribution for new projects.

In areas like Southbank and the CBD, this amounts to around seven per cent of the site value.

The council can then allocate the funds in order to “to create community public spaces”.

Cr Leppert said that the primary objective of the developer-funded reserve was to ensure new open space for areas that particularly required it.

Southbank, for example, is one of the most densely populated suburbs in Australia and its lack of open space has long been a source of angst among local residents.

“I’m nervous that developers who have been contributing for many, many years into the public open space reserve specifically for the purpose of new public open space for growing populations, that in the short-term we’re not actually going to be directing those funds solely to new open spaces,” he said.

“We’ve done that now because we have to make sure we’ve got a budget, and we only found out recently about the undercroft issue. But I consider this a holding pattern.”

“We need to continually review the governance around the public open space reserve and make sure that every cent that we’ve collected in that open space reserve is going to one of the most critical issues we have in this municipality, especially in the dense areas, and putting those funds towards new open space.”

When contacted by Southbank News the City of Melbourne could not answer what aspects of Greenline the funds had now been allocated towards.

It said that budgets for the undercroft and Greenline projects remained unchanged and that the only change was to the funding stream the council would draw on. 

The council added that it was delivering on its commitment to provide more green and open spaces in Southbank, with $25 million allocated over the next four years.

As part of its 2021-22 budget, the City of Melbourne allocated $20 million towards “new Southbank open space”, while a further $5 million was planned for 2022-23 financial year, to redress the critical shortage of green space in the area.

Cr Leppert said the $25 million was still in the council’s budget.

“We’ve still got the $25 million in our budget for Southbank open space, which is this year and next, and a lot of this year’s, of course, will be rolled forward; as soon as those opportunities arise to pursue new open space in Southbank we will be grabbing them.”

“We can discuss that at another time.”

But while last year’s funding announcement has been welcomed by the community, Southbank Residents’ Association (SRA) president Tony Penna feared with most of Southbank almost entirely developed, the funding was “too little, too late”.

“I can’t see where the council will find any land suitable for conversion to open space, with the exception of the concept plan to cover the Burnley Tunnel, as outlined in the Southbank Structure Plan 2010, and create open space behind Melbourne Square. Maybe this $20 million should be allocated to getting that off the ground?” he said.

For more, read SRA’s regular column here.

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