• Serena O'Meley

Darebin Council’s failed lobbying strategy jeopardises public open space at former Ruthven PS

[First published on Facebook 15 May 2016]

Figure 2. Existing Conditions at the Former Ruthven Primary School, Reservoir

Overview

The former Ruthven Primary School site is located in an area of Darebin which the Council describes as having a deficit of public open space. When, in 2013, the Education Department decided that the land was surplus to requirements Darebin Council was given the opportunity to purchase it. So began a long and convoluted saga stretching over three years to try and secure part, or all, of the 3ha site for public use. Council officers consistently affirmed the importance of retaining this public open space and initially recommended that 1.4ha of the land be purchased through the Department of Treasury and Finance. The elected councillors sidestepped this option. As a consequence councillors attempted to get the government to gift the land to the community; or swap it with a different parcel of land; or use it for another community purpose. Multiple government Ministers were written to under these pretexts with requests for the land. The driving agenda behind the lobbying appears to have been to avoid using rate payer money for its purchase. This agenda is ill-conceived. Nearby residents are furious about the pending rezoning and sale of the former Ruthven Primary School site for residential development. There is still scope for much of the land to remain in public hands given that the rezoning is unlikely to take place before September 2016. Council should immediately enter into discussions with Education Minister, Hon. James Merlino, and the Planning Minister, Hon. Richard Wynne on behalf of the community, to purchase the land from its owner, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD). In support of this contention I note that:

  1. This is a site, in whole or in part, which could ultimately deliver tens of millions of dollars to developers. Yet council negligently failed to respond to crucial correspondence dated 2 September 2015 from DEECD offering to sell it the land. There is no explanation for why some elected councillors appear to have been unaware of State Government consultations regarding the rezoning or why no council officers attended the related public meeting run by the Government Land Standing Advisory Committee. Council had a responsibility to respond to the correspondence and attend the public meeting in order to answer to ratepayers.

  2. Council was originally under the misapprehension that it would have to pay the full market value of the land. This view was later corrected by council officers who noted that the State Labor Government would provide a discount on the market rate in accordance with the Victorian Government Landholding Policy and Guidelines 2015. This discount is substantial and amounts to between 45-50% of market value. This effectively means that the cost for retaining the land for a community purpose would be shared between Council and the State Government.

  3. There is a known “strategic gap in open space provision in the north western quadrant of Reservoir” (Minutes - 5 October 2015) and it is unlikely that any comparable space nearby will come on to the market at such a discounted price. Given that the council officers formally recommended that the land be purchased one can infer that they did so knowing that there was sufficient money in the Council budget to acquire the land. Furthermore, the pending 2016/2017 Council budget is currently out for public consultation and will not be finalised until June allowing scope for it to be amended to include the purchase.

Ratepayers make their contributions precisely so that the amenity of their suburb is maintained. Such overblown fiscal conservatism from a purportedly progressive council is puzzling to say the least. Darebin Council, the fate of the Ruthven Primary School land is firmly in your hands. Related note: Darebin Council alienates senior citizens in land zoning debacle.

Chronology and sources

  1. On 5 March 2013 Preston Leader reported that the former Ruthven Primary School site was going on the market. Councillor Tim Laurence made a case in the article that the government should take into account $370,000 worth of improvements which had been made to the site by Darebin Council under a joint land-use agreement.

  2. Councillors ran a community forum on 13 March 2013 to discuss the future of the land with local residents. This meeting called for the land to remain in community hands (Minute no.428 Minutes - 17 August 2015) and a council working group was established. “The community consensus was that the site would be best used as green space in an area with a known open space deficit” (Minute no.96. Minutes - 16 February 2015).

  3. Over a year later, on 5 May 2014 Council received a detailed report about the planned disposition of the former Ruthven Primary School site which included the statement that, “Based on the existing population, an open space area of 1.4ha (14,000m2) is required in this area to meet the current and future needs of the population. Existing sportsgrounds in the north-west of the City are operating at close to capacity and will be unable to meet increased demand from expected growth in population and participation in sport.” (Minute no.254. Minutes - 5 May 2014).

  4. Council officers made the following recommendation: “It is recommended that Council write to the Department of Treasury and Finance seeking to finalise negotiations in relation to the purchase of a minimum of 14,000m2 (1.4 hectare), with an estimated (to be confirmed) cost of $5-6M, to support the provision of open space and recreation services in the north-west of the City.” (Minute no.254. Minutes - 5 May 2014).

  5. This recommendation was initially supported by Crs Villela and Laurence but they accepted an alternative proposal put by Cr McCarthy to defer further discussions until the June 2014 meeting.

  6. Unfortunately, discussions about purchasing the site appear to have lapsed for the rest of 2014.

  7. In 2014 the only references to the former Ruthven Primary School site which I could find were several resolutions calling on the Minister for Education to deal with the ‘neglect’ of the site and remove rubbish, erect higher security fencing and get rid of long grass (Minute no.330, Special Meeting Minutes - 23 June 2014, Minute no.48. Minutes - 1 December 2014).

  8. In October 2014 the government was in caretaker mode and the new Labor State Government was sworn in on 4 December 2014. Lobbying efforts to retain the land shifted to the new government in 2015.

  9. In February 2015 a report in the minutes states that the Council has been offered the, “...opportunity to purchase the site, or a portion of the site, at residential zoning full market value.” Based on this report it was adjudged by councillors that the cost of the land would be prohibitive. As a result the following resolution put by Crs Greco and Laurence was unanimously adopted: a report in the minutes states that the Council has been offered the, “...opportunity to purchase the site, or a portion of the site, at residential zoning full market value.” Based on this report it was adjudged by councillors that the cost of the land would be prohibitive. As a result the following resolution put by Crs Greco and Laurence was unanimously adopted: THAT the Mayor write to the State Minister for Education requesting that the former Ruthven Primary School site be maintained in public hands and that the land be transferred to Council at no cost so that Council can restore the land so it can once again be made available to the community as open recreational space (Minute no.96. Minutes - 16 February 2015).

  10. In August 2015 a unanimously carried resolution moved by Crs Villela and Li directed that, “as a matter of urgency the Mayor write to the relevant state government ministers to convey Council’s position that the former Ruthven primary school site remain in community /public ownership by transferring the land to Darebin City Council.” The Labor government is strongly criticised in the resolution for allegedly trying to sell the land off “without consulting the residents affected by the sale” and notes that, “The area is deficient in open space compared to other areas within the city of Darebin” (Minute no.428. Minutes - 17 August 2015).

  11. In October 2015 council officers reported that under the Victorian Government Landholding Policy and Guidelines 2015 the land could be sold for less than the valuation amount to a council. The minutes state that, “The Department of Education has recently re-approached Council with offers for former schools in Reservoir offering discounts of up to 45-50% of the market value if Council commits to use the land as open space.” (Minute no.483 Minutes - 5 October 2015 ).

  12. The Council report states that, “The site of the former Ruthven Primary School would, if acquired by Council, serve to fill a strategic gap in open space provision in the north western quadrant of Reservoir. Negotiation with the Department of Education and advocacy with other stakeholders may ensure that this open space can be secured for future generations” (Minute no.483 Minutes - 5 October 2015 ). The possibility for a land swap with the former Preston Girls’ School site was mooted in this report.

  13. The report was apparently generated in response to correspondence from the DEECD to Darebin Council on 2 September 2015, offering to sell it the land. There is no explanation for why council failed to respond to this crucial correspondence from DEECD.

  14. In March 2016, apparently oblivious to a missed 60 day deadline for responding to the 2 September 2015 correspondence, a unanimously carried resolution put by Crs Villela and Greco asked that the Mayor write to the relevant Minister and the Member for Preston, Hon. Robin Scott, to belatedly ask for a land swap between council land at the former Preston Girls’ School site and the former Ruthven Primary School land (Minute no.145. Minutes - 23 March 2016).

  15. It is unclear whether this letter was answered before the following, quite extraordinary resolution from April 2016, moved by Crs Laurence and Williams was unanimously adopted by Council, trying to tie the sale of the land to the state government’s attempt to address insecure housing for women escaping domestic violence: “Council resolve that the future of the former Ruthven primary school site should be resolved via a MOU with the State Government to preserve 66% as open space in council ownership and that 33% of the site should be secured for use in the State Government's women's housing blitz. ...” (Minute no.193. Minutes - 18 April 2016). The resolution goes on to direct the Mayor to write to the Ministers for planning, housing, finance and status of women to lobby for the arrangement!

  16. On Monday 2 May 2016 the Government Land Standing Advisory Committee held a public consultation about rezoning the former Ruthven Primary School and Lakeside Secondary College lands in readiness for them to be sold.

  17. The relevant government department must have written in advance to the Darebin Council’s CEO informing him of the public meeting and it is likely that government bureaucrats would have met with council officers to discuss the rezoning proposal. It is unclear whether any of this information was passed on to councillors. The public consultation meeting was held on the same night as the regular Council meeting, at an inconvenient location for local residents.

  18. The outrage of local residents about the pending rezoning and sale is documented in the following note: Darebin Council alienates senior citizens in land zoning debacle.

  19. The pending council meeting Agenda - 16 May 2016 (Item 6.7) states that the cost of the land is prohibitive because it would be sold at market value, despite other briefings correcting this assertion in accordance with the 45-50% discount that would be provided by the current state government. Image credits: Darebin Council Minutes - 5 May 2016. Fig 2. Existing Conditions at the Former Ruthven Primary School, Reservoir (half of the picture), and Figure 1 (below) Planning Scheme Map of Former Ruthven Primary School, Reservoir

Figure 1. Planning Scheme Map of Former Ruthven Primary School, Reservoir

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