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  • Writer's pictureSerena O'Meley

How Darebin Council lost the Dumbarton grassland

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

(First published on Facebook 29 December 2019)

Dumbarton grassland assessed as ‘of no strategic interest’ to Darebin Council

In early 2015, the State Government introduced the Victorian Government Landholding Policy and Guidelines 2015 which required its departments to only retain land where its ownership would contribute to current or future service delivery. The policy gave three levels of government 60 days to exercise first right of refusal to purchase surplus land. If that right was not exercised it would enter into the government’s ‘Fast Track’ land sales process whereby it would be rezoned and sold at market value. A large number of parcels of surplus State Government land came up for consideration at Darebin Council’s 5 October 2015 meeting (Item 9.03). Council’s estimated market valuation for four blocks of land fronting and at the rear of Dumbarton Street was $3.62 million (Appendix A). Officers used an assessment tool called the Decision Logic Map Assessment to determine the strategic significance of the Dumbarton Street land (Appendix B). The tool took no account of the environmental significance of the land (Appendices B&C). It followed that the officer recommendation in Item 9.03 was that, “VicRoads be advised that Council has no strategic interest in acquiring surplus VicRoads land at 16-20 Dumbarton Street, Reservoir; Rear 16 Dumbarton Street, Reservoir...” (p.21). But was it really of no strategic interest to Darebin Council?

Dumbarton grassland found to be of National Natural Heritage Significance in 2011

The draft Darebin Natural Heritage Strategy 2015-2015 (the Strategy) was considered at the same Council meeting of 5 October 2015 (Item 9.05) which decided the fate of the Dumbarton grassland (Item 9.03) but no connection seems to have been made between the two agenda items. The draft Strategy marked the Dumbarton grassland in Map 1 (site no.55) as being of National Natural Heritage Significance (based on a 2011 report) (Item 9.05, Appendix A). Yet the body of the draft Strategy failed to show a) the name of the parcel of land in the documentation - the address is merely listed in Appendix 2; b) the ownership of the parcel of land which should have been marked on Map 3; c) any stakeholder interest in the site which should have been in Table 3 - even if to say that there were no relevant stakeholder groups. In short, the Dumbarton grassland is virtually invisible and friendless in the draft Strategy.

DNHS 2015-2025 - Site 55 is at Dumbarton Street - Map 1 (extract)

The final body of the Strategy was adopted and later posted online in the Conservation and Wildlife section of the Darebin website - with low resolution maps which prevent the identification of small parcels of land.

The Strategy relies upon earlier work undertaken by consultants Practical Ecology in 2009-10 which was incorporated into the Darebin Heritage Study Natural Heritage Plan - draft 2011 (DHSN) (unpublished) (see Item 8.13, Appendix E, 14 October 2019). This comprehensive assessment included Natural Heritage Significance Statements for each mapped area in Darebin. It found that an area in the centre of the Dumbarton Street site was of, “...National Natural Heritage Significance due to the presence of critically endangered EPBC-listed ecological community Natural Temperate Grassland of the Victorian Volcanic Plain” (p.160). Unfortunately, these Significance Statements were not included in the later Strategy.

The DHSN report noted the lack of protection overlays at the Dumbarton site and the risks of inappropriate management and made the following recommendation:

Darebin Heritage Study Natural Heritage Plan - draft 2011

In summary, when Councillors were considering the fate of a large number of parcels of surplus State Government land on 5 October 2015 they had no accessible information in front of them that would point to the environmental significance of the Dumbarton Street site because:

  1. The property assessment tool did not deal with the site’s environmental significance (see Item 9.03)

  2. The Significance Statement for the Dumbarton Street site from the DHSN report was not included in the agenda papers (see Item 9.05)

As a result the following resolution (extract) was adopted by Council:

Item 9.03, 5 October 2015, p,30. Darebin Council Minutes

Voting in favour of this resolution were the mover and seconder, Crs Gaetano Greco and Tim Laurence; and Crs Oliver Walsh, Angela Villella and Julie Williams. Against the motion were Crs Steven Tsitas and Vince Fontana. Absent from the meeting were Crs Bo Li (apology) and Trent McCarthy (approved leave of absence).

It’s unclear why the resolution would include a request to transfer this land to Council at no cost when it was assessed as being of no strategic interest. Not only would such a transfer be contrary to the government policy at the time, but it would also be irrational given that it would cause an uncompensated loss on the State Government’s balance sheet. I have previously written about the failed strategy of the 2012-2016 Darebin Council to try to get land gifted or swapped from the State Government.

The following year a new Darebin Council was elected, which included the re-election of Crs Greco, Laurence, Williams and McCarthy.

Community intervention to save the Dumbarton grassland

On 16 March 2017, Ed Gardiner reported in the Preston Leader that the State Government intended to sell the Dumbarton land to developers at a discount, in return for retaining some of the dwellings for subsidised housing under its Affordable Housing Strategy. He noted that Council had, “...passed up an opportunity to buy the land in October 2015”. He reports the concerns of local residents regarding its value as an informal park but he was apparently unaware of any environmental considerations.

In 2017, Dr Nadine Richings, a local resident and biologist who lives close by the Dumbarton grassland, created the Friends of Dumbarton Street Grassland group on Facebook, and started a petition, which currently carries 930 signatures, calling upon the Member for Preston, Robin Scott, to save the Dumbarton Street grassland. An e-petition to Parliament created by the same author, was later released around 8 October 2019 with a closing date of 17 February 2020, and currently carries 80 signatures. Dr Richings’ materials appear to be the first to describe the area as the ‘Dumbarton Street grassland’.

Council departments at odds with each other?

Darebin Council commissioned consultancy firm BIOSIS in 2018 to undertake an ‘Ecological due diligence assessment’ at the Dumbarton site (see Item 8.13, Appendix D, 14 October 2019). It’s not clear from the public record what prompted the commissioning of this report. BIOSIS reported to Darebin Council on 28 November 2018 that 1800 square metres at the southern end of the site includes native vegetation, there is a single single River Red Gum Eucalyptus camaldulensis in the middle of the site, and the balance of the site has introduced vegetation. These are their findings for the southern end of the site:

“The patch of native vegetation supports Plains Grassland which is an endangered ecological vegetation class within the Victorian Volcanic Plain bioregion. The patch is of relatively low species biodiversity but high cover abundance such that it comprises the EPBC Act listed Natural Temperate Grassland of the Victorian Volcanic Plan ecological community. Key flora species in this area include Kangaroo Grass Themeda triandra, Common Tussock Grass Pao labillardierei, Common Wallaby-grass Rytidosperma caespitosum, Slender Bindweed Convolvulus angustissimus subsp. angustissmus and spear grasses Austrostipa spp. Inter-tussock space is high providing recruiting area for the grassland. This patch of grassland is also synonymous with the FFG Act listed Western (Basalt) Plains Grassland Community” (pp.1-2). The report found credible amounts of habitat for Golden Sun Moths and could not rule out the possible presence of Striped Legless Lizards.

BIOSIS goes on to recommend that the southern half of the Dumbarton grassland be, “...managed to encourage and promote biodiversity values within it” (p.3).

Six months later, on 20 May 2019, Darebin Council adopted its quarterly progress report on the Council Plan (MINUTE NO. 19-067) in which it noted as one of its achievements that, “Council continued to advocate to and work with the State Government on affordable housing in Darebin, including the Walker Street, Oakover Village precinct and at Dumbarton Street, Reservoir” [emphasis added] (Item 8.5).

In other words, Darebin Council apparently disregarded another of its commissioned biodiversity reports about the Dumbarton grassland, while claiming kudos for working with the State Government on its affordable housing project. This appears to show that the relevant departments within Council are not communicating effectively.

Council’s sudden interest in saving the Dumbarton grassland

On 8 July 2019, the State Government formally notified Darebin Council of its intention to compulsorily acquire a Council-owned right-of-way within the Dumbarton Street site. As noted above, the rest of the site was already in State Government ownership.

Darebin Council closed its 12 August 2019 meeting to consider a confidential report on the State Government’s bid to compulsorily acquire the right-of-way (MINUTE NO. 19-159). After reopening the meeting, a resolution was carried unanimously in relation to Item 14.2 which included an, “Offer to work with the State Government to identify alternative sites for this housing project that are either in Council or State Government ownership” in order to protect the Dumbarton grassland from development (MINUTE NO. 19-161).

Council made a submission to the Planning Minister on 20 August 2019, objecting to the compulsory acquisition of the right-of-way, while at the same time raising its newly realised concern about the overall use of the site for the Social Housing project because of the significance of the grassland (Item 8.13, Appendix B, 14 October 2019).

The Acting Planning Minister, Lily D’Ambrosio, responded on 2 October 2019 (Item 8.13, Appendix C, 14 October 2019). Darebin’s offer to identify an alternative site for the Social Housing project is not addressed. Her letter states that even if the whole of the Subject Land (i.e. the right-of-way) were covered in native vegetation, the site is not in an area mapped as an endangered Ecological Vegetation Class, and that removal of less than 0.5ha of native vegetation would not significantly impact any rare or threatened species. The letter concludes by relying upon the usual environmental and planning assessment processes to “balance consideration” of native grasses and ecological communities on the Subject Land.

In short, the significance of the broader site did not form part of the consideration for the compulsory acquisition of the right-of-way. The Acting Minister states that the environmental significance of the overall site will be considered by the Government Land Standing Advisory Committee which will provide opportunities for the community and council to make submissions and be heard. In the government’s view, there is an urgency to commence the Inclusionary Housing Pilot and there are a lack of comparable sites in the area. On 3 October 2019, the sale of the right-of-way was gazetted and it is now owned by the State Government.

According to a report to Council on 14 October 2019, it wasn’t until, “Late in the proposed discontinuance process, [that] officers became aware that remnant native grasses existed on part of the land that comprises Site and the Road land, triggering the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 (EPBC Act)” (Item 8.13).

This is an extraordinary statement given everything that has been noted above about the Council’s own commissioned reports about the environmental significance of the broader Dumbarton grassland site.

After much criticism of the State Government by some Councillors (see video of debate here) for its failure to protect the grassland, the following resolution was carried at the 14 October 2019 meeting:

Minute No. 19-223, Item 8.13, 14 October 2019 - Darebin Council

When I posted on my Facebook Wall later that night that Darebin Council had not taken up the offer to buy the land in 2015 because it was of “no strategic interest” this clearly came as a surprise to at least one of the newer Councillors.

Can the Dumbarton grassland be rescued?

It is unlikely that the vague offer from Darebin Council to help find an alternative site will be taken up by the State Government given that a whole year earlier, on 4 August 2018, six sites across Melbourne, including the Dumbarton grassland, were put on the market for sale as part of the State Government’s Inclusionary Housing Pilot. Expressions of interest in the sites closed in September 2018. Short-listed bidders for all six sites have already been announced, and the successful bids are expected to be announced soon. Planning controls and reviews of the Dumbarton Street site are expected to be concluded by mid-2020.

If the State Government is going to be turned around on this issue then targeted lobbying will need to be done quickly - preferably before the successful bid is formally announced. The main people to contact are:

Member for Preston, Hon. Robin Scott, MP

Planning Minister, Hon Richard Wynne, MP

Minister for Energy, Environment & Climate Change, Hon. Lily D’Ambrosio, MP

People can continue to add their signatures to the e-petition until 17 February 2020.

There is also still a chance that the southern end of the site and the River Red Gum in the centre may be protected through the planning control and review process. That will depend upon the cogency of the submissions that are made to the Government Land Standing Advisory Committee by Council and the community.

What does this story tell us about Darebin Council’s decision-making processes

I’ve been mulling the implications of this story since the 14 October 2019 Council meeting. The main inferences that I make relate to inadequate decision-making tools, poor information flow between departments, and lack of corporate memory between the 2012-2016 and 2016-2020 Darebin Councils.

These are the key questions I believe that the community and Councillors should consider:

  1. Has Council updated its decision-making tools in relation to assessment of the significance of surplus land that is for sale to ensure that environmental impacts of decisions are weighed every time?

  2. Is there sufficient connection between various departments within Council or are they in so-called ‘silos’, failing to pass on essential information to each other that would otherwise make its way into reports?

  3. Has Council finally learned that demands for ‘gifting’ and ‘swaps’ of land from the State Government are a failed strategy that will not deliver results?

You may have others to add in the comments...

There are other significant parcels of surplus State Government land that remain at risk due to decisions made at the 5 October 2015 meeting (e.g. parts of Clements Reserve). It’s time to seriously reflect on what has gone wrong with Council’s decision-making processes in relation to land acquisition and work out how to make improvements before more irreplaceable sites are lost.

References from Council Agendas and Minutes:

  • Site Plan Right of Way at 16-20 Dumbarton Street, Reservoir (Appendix A)

  • Council submission to Minister for Planning (Appendix B)

  • Letter from A/Minister for Planning - Compulsory Acquisition Right of Way 16-20 Dumbarton Street Reservoir (Appendix C)

  • Ecological Advice Right of Way at 16-20 Dumbarton Street, Reservoir (Appendix D)

  • Darebin Heritage Study Natural Heritage Plan - Draft 2011 Right of Way at 16-20 Dumbarton Street, Reservoir (Appendix E)

  • Summary of Surplus Victorian Government Land (Appendix A)

  • Decision Logic Map (Appendix B)

  • Individual site assessments - 16-20 & 16 Dumbarton Street, Reservoir (Site 1) (Appendix C)

  • Draft Darebin Natural Heritage Strategy 2015-2025

  • Draft “Darebin Natural Heritage Strategy 2015-2025 consultation issues and proposed changes

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