Victoria Barracks up for review prompting sale concerns
A cloud of doubt has been cast over the future of Southbank’s historic Victoria Barracks after the federal government announced it would be reviewing its entire Defence estate portfolio.
An independent audit, announced in late August, would consider the 5.7-hectare military site on St Kilda Rd, with its findings and recommendations to be presented to the government for consideration at the end of the year.
According to the government, the review would “consider a range of matters to ensure the Defence estate meets operational and capability requirements, now and in the future”.
“In particular, the audit will examine whether the estate reflects contemporary needs in light of the government’s decision to prioritise investment in Australia’s northern network of bases, ports and barracks, in response to the Defence Strategic Review,” the government said.
The Victoria Barracks is a prominent landmark, sitting opposite the Shrine of Remembrance and the Domain Parklands.
It is of great historical significance after being built between 1856 and 1872 to house the colonial government’s soldiers and officers. During World War II the imposing bluestone building became the headquarters of the Australian War Cabinet.
Today, the site is used as the Department of Defence administrative centre.
While the audit is still in its early stages, it has nonetheless prompted community concern over the site’s potential loss of heritage they say cannot be quantified or replaced once divested and possibly redeveloped into housing if the government found it to be surplus to its requirements.
Raelene Lockhorst, deputy director of professional development at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, said it was their understanding that the Defence estate audit would consider whether the government should “consolidate, divest, or dispose of assets that no longer contribute to ADF (Australian Defence Force) capability and force posture requirements”.
According to Ms Lockhorst, Victoria Barracks’ is one of the most valuable sites in the Defence estate portfolio in terms of its location and size, but she added, “I would also argue that Victoria Barracks heritage value cannot be measured or replaced once divested”.
“One of the key aims of the Defence estate is to recognise and manage heritage values; I would argue that a potential divestment of Victoria Barracks and the proposed divestment of the former repatriation hospital does not align with the objectives and had government invested in the sustainment of the assets at the right time, we would not be discussing this today,” she said.
Ms Lockhorst said it was not known what the drivers were behind the audit, including whether there was incentive to free up capital for investment in Defence capability such as AUKUS to or to reduce sustainment costs of operating a dilapidated heritage-listed asset.
“Further, without understanding the evaluation criteria that will be used to determine a divestment decision, it is hard to determine if Victoria Barracks will be identified as a suitable candidate.”
That said, decisions on retaining, consolidating, or divesting Defence estate are heavily influenced by the location, the size and value, the current use, the electorate in which it sits, and the attitudes of local community.
The Australian National Veterans Arts Museum (ANVAM), a not-for-profit community charity based in Southbank dedicated to the support and rehabilitation of veterans through the arts, has long sought to become trustee of the disused building at 310 St Kilda Rd (located within the Victoria Barracks footprint).
The former repatriation clinic at 310 St Kilda Rd, which has been empty for more than 20 years.
ANVAM’s aim is to establish a veterans’ arts and cultural institution including gallery, studios, cafe and retail spaces.
ANVAM chairman Mark Johnston said while it was too soon to pre-empt what the audit may consider in respect to the Victoria Barracks, he said any proposal to divest the land must be treated “very delicately” while preserving the site’s rich historical and heritage significance.
He said such a move could be achieved based on precedent, in reference to the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust (Harbour Trust), which was established by the Australian Government in 2001 to protect former defence sites and return them to the people of Australia.
Sites under this trust feature heritage-listed structures and other remnants from Australia’s colonial, maritime and military history.
“Applying this sort of principle to both Melbourne and Sydney’s Barracks, if they were serious about actually selling them, is being very conscious of the history of both World War I and World War II,” Mr Johnston said, adding Victoria Barracks represented a shared past and the sacrifices made by previous generations who served in the armed forces.
“Our history and heritage of service is important to us in the veteran community and to Australians, and to not take that into account in terms of those places where we have served ... it would be in the face of what the Prime Minister has said that veterans deserve, and his cultural policy touting ‘a place for every story’.”
Mr Johnston said he hoped the Harbour Trust precedent would pave the way for a similar arrangement with ANVAM appointed as trustee of 310 St Kilda Rd, a former Repatriation Commission Outpatient Clinic built in 1937 for the wellbeing of World War I veterans.
He said members of ANVAM had met with Assistant Minister for Defence Matt Thistlethwaite on September 6, noting “we are in constructive discussions with the Minister and government”.
In March last year, a feasibility report commissioned by the Department of Defence in relation to 310 St Kilda Rd put forward three options for Defence, including offices, a conference centre and childcare.
The Department of Defence did not respond directly to a series of questions about the future of Victoria Barracks, including site’s estimated value or what was being considered for 310 St Kilda Rd.
Instead, a spokesperson said, “the Defence Estate Audit is enterprise-wide and all estate holdings are subject to consideration”.
Community group Southbank3006 president David Hamilton said the site’s history needed to be respected in any future plans for the area.
“While it is premature to jump to any conclusions as to what the review may find, the review needs to recognise that this is a site with heritage buildings that have played a vital role in the lives of many Victorians for over a century,” he said.
“If elements of the site were ever surplus to Defence requirements and available for redevelopment, then this should be the subject of wider community consultation, including how any proposed redevelopment is integrated into the needs and life of the wider Southbank community. This is essential.”
Southbank Residents’ Association (SRA) president Tony Penna said there was an opportunity for Victoria Barracks “to be transformed into much-needed community space”.
“ANVAM has been a strong advocate for the benefits to the veteran community through an arts space for many years. SRA has been supportive of ANVAM with their advocacy for this space too.”
In 2014, the City of Melbourne’s Melbourne Arts Precinct Blueprint found possible future development could include the Victoria Barracks.
“Redevelopment could include preservation of heritage elements. Opened up, the grounds and barracks could host markets, festivals and other outdoor events and new pedestrian pathways would lead from St Kilda Rd to Wells St and beyond, integrating the site into the arts precinct and the civic spine of St Kilda Rd,” it said. •
For more information: minister.defence.gov.au/media-releases/2023-08-28/independent-audit-defence-estate