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What’s behind the lights?

The government thinks it has fixed Fishermans Bend. It’s only just begun

05 Feb 2020

The government thinks it has fixed Fishermans Bend. It’s only just begun Image

By Cr Rohan Leppert - City of Melbourne

In July 2012, former Liberal Minister for Planning Matthew Guy shocked locals, politicians and planners everywhere when he rezoned Fishermans Bend from industrial to the generous “capital city zone”.

The zone allows residential and commercial uses without a permit, and applications to construct new buildings are exempt from public oversight. Land values instantly soared, gifting extraordinary wealth to landowners.

No land was purchased in advance to secure sites for schools, civic buildings and parks, and no controls were put in place to require even the tiniest part of the windfall gains to be returned for public benefit. It is a matter of public record that some of those landowners happened to be Liberal party donors. Fishermans Bend instantly became the textbook example of what not to do in urban planning.

 Fast forward to the 2014 State election and Labor came into government with a mission to fix Matthew Guy’s mess. Like many, I was relieved that a new Minister for Planning Richard Wynne, and the highly engaged local member, were back in charge and committed to fixing the disaster.

Minister Wynne acted quickly to appoint an advisory body to create a vision for what Fishermans Bend could be and created a rigorous process of introducing planning controls to shape building form and density. The Cities of Melbourne and Port Phillip threw resources into the exercise as we knew that sound planning would make all the difference between a liveable precinct or an unhealthy one. To his credit, the Minister pushed the new controls through a hostile and litigious process, and today we have built form controls where previously there were none.

But we’ve only just started the Fishermans Bend urban renewal adventure. A plan is one thing, but implementing it is another entirely. For starters, 80,000 new residents and 80,000 new workers need some way to get to and from, and around, the precinct.

Political leadership over Fishermans Bend shifted from the Minister for Planning to the new Minister for Priority Precincts after the 2018 election. The new Minister Gavin Jennings has not issued a single press release dedicated to Fishermans Bend since taking over, and the impression emanating from Spring St is that fixing Fishermans Bend was an exercise that started and finished in the last term.

The Cities of Melbourne and Port Phillip have been pushing for years to clarify a governance arrangement with the State to oversee construction of basic infrastructure and public spaces in Fishermans Bend, but the State won’t have a bar of it and we still have no idea how most infrastructure is going to be paid for. A new Fishermans Bend Secondary School is on track to open by 2022, but we’re going to need multiple schools for a community of 80,000, and the government will struggle to purchase the necessary land if it waits for population thresholds for each new school to be reached.

The Fishermans Bend Board, led by the brilliant Meredith Sussex, are experts in their fields, but are overseeing a severely under-resourced Fishermans Bend Taskforce that clearly doesn’t have sufficient political backing. And the Mickey Mouse “Mayors Forum”, the body for coordinating the work of the two Councils with the State, has had meetings cancelled due to lack of business. Absurd.

The state government’s new attitude towards Fishermans Bend was clarified again in September last year, when the Premier unveiled Victoria’s “Future Rail Network” map. It reflected Labor’s 2018 State election promises, with regional rail upgrades and a new $50 billion Suburban Rail Loop, and was a representation of the government’s intentions for future rail projects through to 2050. Those intentions did not extend to Fishermans Bend, with rail through the precinct conspicuously absent. $4.5m worth of tram route planning is committed and underway, but not a cent for construction can be found in the forward estimates. New tram routes aren’t quick to build. The University of Melbourne wants to open a new campus in Fishermans Bend in 2024: how will its staff and students get there?

There is no doubt that the state government is under intense financial pressures at the moment, exacerbated by bushfire recovery and major transport projects with nebulous budgets. But it simply can’t leave precincts half-planned and without public transport and expect them to succeed. Matthew Guy’s initial decision that kicked off this mess is always going to be seen as the most disastrous moment in the history of Fishermans Bend, but Labor will also leave a legacy of failure if it doesn’t stump up with a timeline and funds for basic infrastructure and public transport to service the 80,000 new residents and 80,000 new workers that private land owners can build for at any time.

The government had optimism and vision for a sustainable, connected and liveable Fishermans Bend when it came to office five years ago. We need that momentum back •

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