Tuesday 18 December

Cr Rohan Leppert writes —

This Thursday marks a year to the day since the Victorian Labor Government revealed it had changed the planning rules without any public consultation to facilitate the demolition of the Yarra Building at Federation Square, and replace it with a massive “Apple Global Flagship Store”. The public backlash was intense, and the battle for Melbourne’s premier civic meeting space continues.

It’s also nearly two years since the Victorian Labor Government approved One Queensbridge; Crown’s hotel and mixed use tower that broke the planning scheme’s built form controls so severely that it needed its own special planning rules. This too was a decision made without public notice; the decision was deliberately taken just days before the City of Melbourne could consider the application at a public meeting in February 2017. Presumably key advisors were worried that the Council would oppose the development, and wished to avoid the embarrassment of approving an unpopular proposal – so the State’s approval came before the public had a chance to see it.

Both Apple and Crown were deemed ‘projects of State significance’, to justify the making of the decisions in secret using a section of the Planning and Environment Act that exempts the Planning Minister from the requirement to give public notice of proposed changes to the planning rules.¬†And both were made over the Christmas and new year period.

So what does this summer have in store?

Unfortunately, I think we could see another massive public gift of property rights to Crown, again at One Queensbridge. I hope I’m wrong.

Crown indicated its clear intention again on Monday in the Herald Sun to pursue construction of the tower, once financing has been sorted out. They are almost certainly going to need another planning scheme amendment to allow them to do this, because the special rules in the planning scheme for Crown required construction to commence by March 2019.

An extension of time would be an extension of the extraordinarily generous exemption from the planning controls that Crown has already received. The planning controls, introduced with planning scheme amendment C270 by Minister Wynne are designed to guide development in the public interest:

  • minimum tower setbacks to facilitate equitable development;
  • a costed public benefits requirement for super-dense buildings; and
  • a podium and tower typology that ameliorates the worst wind and amenity impacts at the street level.

Crown’s tower didn’t comply with any of these. For example, there is no setback from Queensbridge Street for the entire 330m height of the tower. Because it breached the controls in the planning scheme, Crown asked for a special site-specific planning scheme amendment, and the Minister – at the behest of Cabinet – granted it. Now it wants an extension to these special rules.

When government changes the rules for one land owner, there must be a strong reason to do so, and questions of fairness and equity come to the fore. Granting exemptions to planning rules is always a gift of government acting on behalf of the public. These public gifts of property rights to the wealthiest must be quantified and justified.

It is never enough to say that the gift is warranted because the project is one ‘of state significance’, without explaining what is actually meant by the term. ‘State significance’ loses its meaning when it is applied to a private development and no attempt is made to demonstrate how the project is so much more beneficial to the state’s economy than would be the case if the standard planning rules applied.

The farce is greater still when the public benefits are costed at a fraction of that which would be required under the usual rules. In the case of One Queensbridge, the public benefits provided by Crown were $60 million less than should have been provided based on the approved gross floor area (as estimated by the City of Melbourne), and a tiny fraction again of the overall value of the gifted property rights.

To make matters worse, any decision by Labor to extend a gift to Crown will surely be tarnished in public perception due to Crown’s long history of donations to the Labor party. And there is no guarantee of gratitude and cooperation from Crown: despite receiving extraordinarily generous provisions from the NSW government to build its casino tower in Barangaroo, Crown still successfully sued the government to force the most generous possible interpretation of those special provisions. (See AFR, 13 December 2018.)

Labor in Victoria has two choices.

Either it can let Crown’s special rules expire, and require Crown to go back through a proper, accountable planning application process, and thus end the charade that One Queensbridge is a project of state significance. By doing this it can avoid providing a massive public gift to a highly litigious developer, and avoid perceptions of favouritism towards a generous election donor.

Or it can accede to Crown by extending its astonishing gift – made on behalf of us, the public – to a private land owner. An enormous gift of property rights that go well outside the usual planning rules. By doing so it would be undermining its own planning system, and would be rewarding a private company that has a history of making donations to Labor.

There is obviously only one right answer here.

I challenged Labor before the November state election through Southbank Local News to rule out the second option. No undertaking was given.

But there’s still time to do the right thing.

This summer does not have to be marred by yet another secret decision to change the planning rules to benefit the wealthiest at the expense of the public interest and the integrity of the planning system.

Don’t screw this up, Labor.