• Serena O'Meley

Breakthrough in the campaign to save parkland at the former Ruthven Primary School

[First published on Facebook 6 June 2016]


More than 150 local residents turned out to the St Joseph the Worker Church Hall, Reservoir, on Sunday 5 June 2016, for the campaign to stop the rezoning, sale and development of public open space at the former Ruthven Primary School. It was another feisty public meeting with members of the community immediately on the offensive and demanding answers from elected representatives about retaining the site as public open space. The meeting came about when Cr Angela Villella arranged to send a busload of residents to meet the Member for Preston, Hon. Robin Scott, MP to lobby for the land. Instead Minister Scott offered to come to the Ruthven site to meet with the community. Cr Gaetano Greco was invited but Cr Tim Laurence was not invited; he turned up anyway and brought with him the Federal Member for Batman, Hon. David Feeney, MP. They all took to the stage and Cr Villella facilitated the meeting. Why the three La Trobe Ward councillors couldn’t all get together to cooperatively plan a public meeting, about an issue which they share, will be an enduring mystery. So the meeting was launched amid some controversy! I have summarised below the following key points from the meeting:

  1. The State Government commits to a fair and equitable negotiation with Darebin Council for retention of the land as public open space;

  2. The State Government commits to a fair and equitable negotiation with Darebin Council for retention of the land as public open space;

  3. Federal ALP pledges $2 million towards the park;

  4. Petitions demand action from Darebin Council and the State Government;

  5. Resident makes case to spend money from the Public Open Space Reserve;

  6. Urgent motion to Darebin Council to purchase the land

Importantly, it was clarified with Minister Scott that he would negotiate with the Darebin Council for the retention of the entire site for public open space. Minister Scott has also offered to come to more public meetings until the matter is resolved. His offer was well-received with loud applause. There is a much improved chance, and very high community expectation, that the land at Ruthven will now be saved. We need to remember that the current angst about the Ruthven site could have been avoided if Darebin Council had answered correspondence which was sent to it by the State Government on 2 September 2015 and had been prepared to put some money towards the purchase. Thus, it was concerning to see that there were still efforts at the meeting to try to shift blame for the impasse over the future of the land onto the State Government. Minister Scott was very gracious considering some of the unrestrained anger from the audience which was misdirected toward him. The fate of the 3ha Ruthven site, and also 1.8ha of land at the former Lakeside Secondary College adjoining the Merri Trail, rests firmly with the nine elected Councillors who must now pledge to put aside a fair sum of money from the Public Open Space Reserve, during the current budget process, to facilitate the purchase of the sites. It is clear from the angry and skeptical mood at the public meeting that if Darebin Council does not acquire the land there will definitely be electoral consequences.

1. State government commits to a fair and equitable negotiation with Darebin Council for retention of the land as public open space

Minister Scott opened his speech by explaining the limitations around gifting the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development land to the council. Transcript. Minister Scott: A gift of land is exactly the same as an expenditure, as far as the rules work in accrual accounting. So we do dispose [of land] but what we do with councils is we have a different zoning in place if it is going to be used for public use, which has a lower value than if it is being zoned for commercial or residential use. We are very happy as a government to engage with the council to try and get a fair and equitable solution for the community, to ensure that the community has access to open space in the area. Very happy to do that. Very happy to engage fairly with the council. It is unfortunate that the council didn’t respond at an earlier juncture because it triggered a planning process [Fast Track] which is why you have the signs up about three or four stories [buildings] ...up on the site. That process was triggered, which makes recommendations, and it doesn’t contemplate - that process - a public open space utilisation, because the council didn’t ask for it at that point in time. That’s unfortunate. I think it was done...it wasn’t an act deliberately... I’m happy to accept that there was some sort of error made and that we should work to undo... Cr Gaetano Greco [interjects]: That’s wrong, that’s wrong...anyway we’ll get to that...that’s wrong, that’s wrong. Minister Scott: Well I have asked the bureaucrats whether a letter was sent. I have asked the bureaucrats who work in the department, who have no reason to lie to me, Gaetano, about whether a letter was sent. They said yes. They said they did not receive a response. They have no reason to lie, none whatsoever... Minister Scott noted that Council had not yet made an offer for the land, spoke about the discount offered to councils to purchase such land and that such land sales are intended to assist the State Government with building public infrastructure for the whole state. He pointed out that lack of due process in relation to land transfers can lead to corruption. Minister Scott was also at pains to communicate that he lives in the community, just down the road from the former school, and that he shares our concerns. He is committed to trying to resolve the impasse between Darebin Council and the State Government.

2. Federal ALP pledges $2 million towards the park

Minister Feeney brought a very welcome contribution to the public meeting, pledging on behalf of the Federal Labor Party election campaign, the following: “...$1 million dollars to the City of Darebin to ensure that it is able to acquire the land from the Victorian Government”; and “...a further $1 million dollars to ensure the site is developed as state-of-the-art open space, complete with sports and playgrounds.” Obviously the Federal ALP would need to be elected to make good on the promise but it was clarified that the money would be forthcoming whether or not Minister Feeney retains his seat. His offer of Federal money should the ALP be elected puts the council under more pressure to do the right thing and buy the land at the discounted rate offered by the State Government.

3. Minister Scott is asking for the Fast Track rezoning to be stopped

Terry Mason asked Minister Scott if he could stop the Fast Track process, which already has public hearings scheduled on the 16 June 2016. The Minister was careful not to give a direct commitment because the Fast Track process is managed by other bodies but he did state that a request is being made. Transcript. Minister Scott: “My view is that the Fast Track process should be stopped because it doesn’t contemplate public open use” [applause].

4. Petitions demand action from Darebin Council and the State Government

Cr Greco still appears to be struggling with the notion that Council needs to make a monetary contribution towards the purchase of the land. At the meeting he continued to push for a land swap for the Preston Girls School even though it is clear that it is not tenable due to a disagreement about the land tenure. However, given the strongly expressed views of the meeting, I am hopeful that he will join other councillors in putting money behind the purchase. The real revolution in views was that of Cr Villella who circulated a petition intended for Darebin Council with the following words: “We the undersigned believe the former Ruthven site should stay in public hands for the present and future needs of the community. We urge Darebin Council to negotiate on behalf of residents to


  1. Not allow private development on the site

  2. Negotiate with the state government to urge it to make a fair and just offer to council to maintain the site in public hands."

A further petition was circulated urging both the State Government and the council to break the deadlock and come to an agreement. Cr Villella is to be congratulated on amending her position and arguing to put some real money behind the purchase of the land.

5. Resident makes case to spend money from the Public Open Space Reserve

The following is my own statement to the public meeting in my capacity as a La Trobe Ward resident: Transcript. Serena O’Meley: : I’ve been looking into this thing quite recently because I happened upon that [Fast Track] meeting at Keon Park. And that’s where we discovered that the Council did not respond to correspondence from the State Government on 2 September 2015. If you want evidence of that I have the response to the questions that I put to Council after that meeting, where it is quite clear that they didn’t respond. We need to get a few facts on the table here...what we are talking about. If they had responded to that correspondence then we wouldn’t be in the Fast Track process. And because we are now in that Fast Track process - and we don’t all want to get run over by that particular train - it’s a real issue. I want to urge the people on the stage at the moment to stop the Fast Track process. Because - I’ve been invited to speak on 16 June at that process - I think it is a colossal waste of government money to go ahead with an unnecessary process, when there are demands in the room for this to stop! [applause]. The second thing is that under the Liberal Government the Valuer General valued the site at $10 million. It is unclear to me whether when the subsequent Labor government came in whether that $10 million did or did not have a discount applied to it... Cr Laurence [interjects]: and takes the microphone to talk about the value of the land and his attempts to get council “to move from zero dollars” towards the purchase of the land. He put the discounted cost of the land at around $6.7million. He said, “We need to meet somewhere between zero and $6.7 million.” Serena O’Meley: : That 45-50% discount was offered to the council last year by bureaucrats within the State Government. Now, I know that $11 million has been mentioned about the Open Space Reserve. We’ve got to keep in mind that some of that money is already committed [to other projects]. According to the figures that I have, there’s a maximum of $8 million in the Public Open Space Reserve... Cr Laurence [interjects]: Free! Serena O’Meley: : That’s free money - unallocated money - now you don’t want to deplete the lot of it. You really don’t want to deplete the lot of it. We want to be able to have a fair price, a fair price for this land. And not send it into a situation where council can’t afford to do any other public open space remediation. Cr Villella [interjects]: That’s right, that’s right. But judging by the nodding heads on the stage...I think that particular point [has been accepted.] Cr Laurence [interjects] We need the council on Monday to make a decision. Serena O’Meley: : We do need the council. I will say this about the council; the council has not wanted to put a single cent behind this land. That is what the Public Open Space Reserve is for, that is what it should be spent on - not all of it - some of it! And so I would urge the council [to use some of this money], and I was very heartened to see to the petition saying that they want to negotiate. That is the first time that some councillors have come up and said, yes, they are willing to put any money behind this at all. So let’s put some public money behind this. This is what we pay our rates* for! Thank you. [loud applause]. * As a point of clarification money in the Public Open Space Reserve comes from a levy on the subdivision of municipal land and is not, strictly speaking, derived from rates. This strengthens the argument that the money should be spent to purchase the site.

6. Notice of motion to Darebin Council for purchase of the Ruthven site

Cr Tim Laurence circulated his own flier to residents which showed the gradual loss of public open space in that area of Reservoir over several decades, a copy of his notice of motion and he urged them to attend the Council meeting, which is being held on Monday 6 June 2016, to support the motion: 8.2 Urgent purchase of the former Ruthven Primary School site in Glasgow Avenue, Reservoir to secure open space NOTICE OF MOTION NO. 285 CR. TIM LAURENCE

Take notice that at the Ordinary meeting to be held on 6 June 2016, it is my intention to move: That Darebin Council resolves to offer to buy the former Ruthven Primary School site using funds from Darebin Council's open space and recreation reserve, that is expected to be $11.960 million as at 30 June 2017, to ensure adequate open space is maintained in the Merrilands estate area in Reservoir. Furthermore, that the Darebin Mayor write to the Premier and relevant State Ministers an (sic) reaffirm the Council's desire for a halt to the fast tracking of the rezoning and private sale of the former Ruthven Primary School site at Glasgow Avenue Reservoir and also inform the Premier and relevant State Ministers of Darebin Council's desire to buy the former school site using funds from Darebin's open space and recreation reserve, that is expected to be $11.960 million as at 30 June 2017, to ensure a valuable neighbourhood park is maintained in this pocket of the Merrilands estate in North West Reservoir. Notice Received: 22 May 2016 Notice Given to Councillors: 30 May 2016 Date of Meeting: 6 June 2016 [Council Agenda, Monday 6 June 2016.]

Conclusion

There were many proposals at the public meeting for how the land might be kept in public hands. Some were practical, some were wildly impractical. But everyone in the room from the community members in the audience, to the elected councillors, to the State and Federal politicians were united in a single purpose to save the former Ruthven Primary School site for future generations. Everyone is determined, and everyone will be held to account. Photo: L-R Cr Tim Laurence, Hon. Robin Scott (standing), Hon. David Feeney, Cr Gaetano Greco. Out of shot, Cr Angela Villella.

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