“Policy by stealth”: Former Deputy Lord Mayor accuses council of edging out city helipad
The writing is on the wall for the Yarra River helipad, which has operated for more than 50 years.
Former Deputy Lord Mayor Clem Newton-Brown has accused the City of Melbourne of creating a “policy by stealth’ that sought to push out the city’s Yarra River helipad.
Mr Newton-Brown, who served as Town Hall deputy from 1999 to 2001, said the council’s cooling on the Batman Park helipad “doesn’t make sense”.
On August 15 councillors unanimously endorsed the a master plan for the Greenline project, a four-kilometre northbank trail from Birrarung Marr to the Bolte Bridge, which noted that the helipad “impacted the park experience”.
It follows previous findings, including from the 2019 Yarra River-Birrarung Strategy, which were similarly critical of the helipad as having “adverse impacts on the experience and amenity of this important green space”.
Crucially, the master plan also committed to exploring new options for the former screen house building, which the council currently leases to helicopter charter Microflite.
Mr Newton Brown, now CEO for aviation consultant Skyportz, said it had become clear the council was looking to push the helipad away from Batman Park.
“The policy has been created by default. It’s essentially snuck into other policies such as the Yarra-Birrarung Strategy, the Transport Strategy,” he told councillors at the August 15 Future Melbourne Committee meeting.
There has never been an actual consultation with the industry, with the existing operator, with potential future operators of that site … there’s an existing operator there that employs 40 people and 20 aircraft.
“They take 20,000 tourists a year out to regional Victoria … it’s an icon of Melbourne and certainly the events that happen in Melbourne wouldn’t be the same without the promotions that helicopters provide for the Grand Prix, Spring Racing Carnival, etc.”
Mr Newton-Brown said he was recently in Paris and saw the city’s first vertiport in the French capital, where electric air taxis were set to operate as part of the Summer Olympics next year.
“They’re putting in a vertiport, and we’re proposing to take one out. It just doesn’t make sense.”
He said the council was “out on a limb here”, with funding committed at state and federal levels to explore the concept of air taxis and urged councillors to call for a review of the helipad’s future that sought input from both sides.
“There’s a bit of a disconnect there. It would be good for council officers to do a report, bring in state government, bring in the players, bring in the people who are impacted by this policy by stealth, I suppose, to remove that.”
Mr Newton-Brown also suggested the council could overcome funding issues at the site by partnership with helicopter operators.
“Don’t assume that the impact of a helipad is negative on a park. Yes, there is an impact, but there’s potentially a very positive impact … the excitement of having the aviation industry having a new centre in Melbourne would be a great attracter to the park. Indeed, the industry would probably pay for much of that section of the park as part of the integrated proposal. That gets around the problem that council has of actually paying for Greenline, or part of Greenline.”
Cr Rohan Leppert argued the findings of now numerous strategies were clear, and the council would make decisions that benefit the wider population.
“[They are] inconsistent with the growth of the helipad into an electronic aircraft hub of any type. I think it’s procedurally fair for us to continue to design policy in the interests of the public,” he said.
“Of course, the policy doesn’t seek to extinguish any existing use or development right. What happens after those rights expire is an entirely different matter.”
Cr Leppert rebuffed a suggestion that a move to edge out the helipad had “snuck in”.
I’m surprised to hear the criticism about procedural fairness. I think this process has been as transparent as it could be.
Mr Newton-Brown concluded that Melbourne would give up a comparable advantage it had over other cities should the helipad be moved from a central location.
“This is an opportunity council has which is not available in any other capital city. We’re the only capital city that has a central city helipad. Certainly, it’s not the place for intense operations but it’s a massive advantage you’ve got.” •