[First published on Facebook 3 May 2016]
Last night Terry Mason and I went to a community consultation about the disposition of school sites that were formerly the Lakeside Secondary School and the old Ruthven Primary School. I’ve seen a lot of angry public meetings over time but this one was unique. It was attended by fifty people, many of them more than 80 years old, who had made a considerable effort to travel to the other side of Darebin to respond to the proposals.
Prior to the meeting many participants had gone as directed to the Reservoir Library to look at the consultation documents. The librarian could not locate the documents. One community member had a school teacher friend help her to access ‘that www thingy’ to try and get the additional planning attachments. The teacher could not find the right documents to download from the web. There was a sense of immense frustration that people were being denied essential information because they were not computer literate.
The Ruthven School site is 3ha of public land which has been recommended to be sold off for private housing blocks. People were deeply worried about the loss of the option for a public school for the next generation of children in a growing neighbourhood, increased traffic in narrow streets, the risk to native vegetation, poor water drainage, the lack of social housing options and the potential for medium density/tall buildings to spoil the amenity of the area and overlook their single story homes.
The Lakeside Secondary College site is intended to be rezoned and sold as industrial land [see photo above]. The major concern is whether the public will be able to access all of the 2ha of creek frontage of the portion of the land which adjoins Merri Creek, including for additional bicycle access. The meeting was told, rather tongue in cheek, that once the land is rezoned it will be up to the new owners whether they wanted to have their own private picnic bench next to the creek and deny access to the public.
According to Friends of Merri Creek (29 April 2016): “The main Merri Shared Trail runs across the frontage. A narrow easement has been placed along the Trail, ‘allowing for continued public use’. However factory buildings, car parking or other development could occur on both sides of the Trail under the proposed re-zoning. It would be a major interruption in the public open space and habitat corridor along the Merri Creek that has been steadily restored over the past 40 years.”
Most people at the meeting assumed that the public consultations would allow them to influence decisions in relation to the sale of the two parcels of land. The Chair of the Government Land Standing Advisory committee made it clear that the committee is only in charge of the new planning overlays. It cannot impose any other covenants on how the land is used. The decision that the land was ‘surplus to requirements’ was made some time ago (apparently with little consultation) and challenging that decision is outside the committee’s terms of reference.
Darebin Council minutes which were read out at the meeting showed that it intended to obtain some of the Lakeside Secondary School land: “It has been determined that land at the rear of the site is required for municipal purposes and that the DEECD be advised that Council is interested in acquiring an interest in the land” [minute number 452, 15 September 2014].” Council tried to get the State Government to gift it the parcel of land (worth either $230,000 or $925,000 depending upon the area sought) even though it had a budget of some $2million available for purchasing the land. When its proposal was not accepted Council apparently threw up its hands and walked away.
Anger and hostility turned to outrage when people realised that the land for both sites had been offered for sale to Darebin Council twice and that the Council had failed to respond to the second letter which was sent to it by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) on 2 September 2015. The failure to respond to the State Government correspondence drew audible gasps from the audience. The Chair of the Advisory Committee undertook to write to Council about the matter once again.
Had anyone from the Council been at the meeting they could easily have been set upon by an angry group of senior citizens! However, it turns out that this important public meeting was scheduled for the same night as the regular Council meeting. The fact that no one from Council had turned up despite being invited was cause for a significant amount of negative comment.
It was at this point that participants twigged as to why they were made to meet at the Keon Park Children’s Hub which is miles away from either school site, rather than a public meeting space near where they live and where there is accessible public transport. This was of considerable annoyance to people who were not very mobile and who felt that the meeting location was part of a set-up to stifle community opposition to the pending sales.
The meeting wrapped up with people mobbing the front table for the name of the relevant State Government politicians to forward their complaints. Council especially can expect a pasting after this debacle.
Submissions regarding the planning overlay are due on 28 May 2016 and public hearings commence in mid June 2016.
The next meeting of Darebin City Council is Monday 16 May 2016. Questions can be emailed to Council at PQT@darebin.vic.gov.au .
Hon. Robin Scott, Member for Preston - email@example.com
Hon. James Merlino, Minister for Education - firstname.lastname@example.org
Hon. Natalie Hutchins, Minister for Local Government
Photo credit: Department of Land, Environment and Water Planning