Royce MillarJuly 30, 2011 –>
Alan Hood is worried Melbourne’s Hamer-era green wedges will be eaten into by developers. Photo: Angela Wylie
IN THE weeks leading up to the November state election it was hard not to notice Liberal candidates in the pivotal electorates of Melbourne’s south-east.
Sporting big smiles, Donna Bauer, Lorraine Wreford and Inga Peulich beamed from prominent billboards and hoardings across their respective sandbelt seats of Carrum, Mordialloc and South Eastern Metropolitan.
Given the parlous state of party finances, it was a well-resourced campaign, generously bankrolled, as The Age reported this week, by property interests.
In return, the successful Liberals have fostered expectations among landowners and developers. Almost as telling as the billboards were the properties on which they stood. Some were either the subject of planning applications or owned by people dreaming of the windfall that would flow if only the government and/or local council would allow their plot of land to be transformed into something more lucrative. Houses, for instance.
For some, those expectations centre on the swath of paddocks that runs through their area, once known as the Springvale Wedge, which they see as an underutilised and unkempt no-man’s land.
To develop or not: sites such as this former farmland have become the touchstone issue of local politics in this part of Melbourne. In these suburbs, where the politics are raw rather than refined, the money new rather than old – and where expectations of making lots of it are now high – planning has the potential to be perilous for Premier Ted Baillieu.
Planning is a famously problematic area for governments. In Victoria, Liberal administrations in particular – notably the Hamer/Thompson reign, with the land deals of the late 1970s, early 1980s – have been badly damaged by it.
Forty years ago this year, another Liberal government- under premier Rupert Hamer – first tabled its vision of a city developed around a series of ”green wedges” – farmland and open space that would break up Melbourne’s relentless suburbia.
The south-east is the one region where the green wedge really is a wedge, running as it does like a spine that divides bayside suburbs from Cranbourne and Springvale. But the wedge is also social. One person’s badlands is another’s precious wet, woody grasslands.
A small band of residents, many of whom moved to these areas for their greenery, fear that this year’s 40th birthday of Hamer’s green wedges is set to be a sad one.
Bangholme resident Alan Hood was a Liberal candidate for the seat of Lyndhurst at the 2002 election. He fears that Hamer’s legacy of green space, enlarged and strengthened by Bracks government planning minister Mary Delahunty in 2002, is now under real threat. Despite the promises from both Labor and Liberal governments about protecting green spaces, he says, repeated fiddling and nibbling has fed a belief among landowners that it is only a matter of time before their green turns to gold. ”The biggest problem with the green wedges is that unless you have certainty you create uncertainty.”
Eight months after the election, the Baillieu government has been most notable for its caution, viewed by some commentators as dithering inaction. The oft-noted exception is Planning Minister Matthew Guy.
Baillieu has announced that his government will take two years to develop a big picture metropolitan strategy to update Labor’s Melbourne 2030 plan, but Guy is not waiting until then to get active on the ground. As reported in today’s Saturday Age, the minister is set to write to Melbourne councils asking them to nominate changes they might like made to green wedge boundaries – where ”anomalies” have zoned, as green wedge, land better suited for other things. Houses, for instance.
This comes on top of two earlier announcements contributing to the expectation of change: a government audit of the sorts of economic activities allowed in green wedge areas; and a review of ”logical inclusions”, under which landowners and developers on the city fringe have been invited to resubmit properties that failed to be included inside the metropolitan growth boundary when Labor last reviewed the boundary in 2009.
To champions of the green wedges, such as Alan Hood, the culmination of these reviews and audits will be less a nip and tuck than major surgery.
For his part, Guy has been careful to emphasis the role of local councils; to insist that incursion into green wedges will be consistent with local strategy plans.
It is an assurance that doesn’t wash with seasoned campaigners such as Hood. ”The problem when you write letters to councils asking their opinions is that you create uncertainty, because the developers and landowners suddenly see a windfall. They agitate and they cry and they insist that their turn has come.”
He says developers and property industry lobbyists are fully aware of Guy’s strategy and that lobbying activity at local government level has been intense. ”And if you’re a councillor or MP and someone is taking you out to lunch or dinner and he wants you to do something and he helps you with your election … even the best of MPs are tempted to help out.”
Labor, especially the John Brumby version, was not averse to snuggling up with developers and their dollars. This newspaper in particular scrutinised the former government over such relationships. The farce of the Windsor Hotel redevelopment process became a symbol of Labor’s demise. Many in the ALP, however, remain squeamish about developers and are more inclined to side with environmentalists.
Less so the Liberals. Property, after all, is the party’s home base, both ideologically and practically. Liberal instinct is to deregulate and let the market decide what is best for the city. (Hamer and his ilk were something of an exception.)
THE party’s finances, without the safety net of the union movement, are heavily reliant on property. And with the Liberal Party coffers low last year at party headquarters, fund-raising at the local level became more important.
But the fund-raising that was carried out in suburban backblocks beyond the scrutiny of central party administration, and which was so important to Coalition success in November, is beginning to haunt the Liberals.
This week The Age reported on the hitherto-unknown activities of fund-raising group Business First. Founded by former Mordialloc MP turned development industry lobbyist Geoff Leigh and current MP Inga Peulich, the Chelsea-based group raised more than $50,000 to help local candidates in the lead-up to the state election.
Yet for two years the group and the party failed to declare their fund-raising activities to the Australian Electoral Commission, as required.
Leigh also acknowledged that the $50,000 eventually declared was just a small part of the money generated for Liberal candidates including Wreford, Bauer and Peulich. He has confirmed to The Age that he actively encouraged local businesses to donate not to Business First but directly to candidates. This raises questions about the source of such funds, and how, where and if this money will be declared.
All three MPs have failed to respond to repeated calls from The Saturday Age. Nor will Guy reveal how many times he or his staff have met with Leigh since the election.
No site is more emblematic of the long-running fight over Melbourne’s green wedges than the Din San nursery in the heart of what is known as Dingley Village.
Since Delahunty drew a line around Din San and associated land, declaring it as ”green wedge”, the company has been fighting to get a 15 hectare corner site rezoned for residential development. Success would deliver a windfall of tens of millions for Paul Smith and family, who own the business and land.
Dave Madill moved to Dingley almost 30 years ago, lured by the prospect of a semi-rural lifestyle. He says there is now heightened expectation among green wedge landowners keen to develop their land. ”Everyone thinks they might be able to do something on their land soon. They hope they’ll get their land rezoned sooner than their neighbours, so they’ll be able to sell for a bit more.”
As well as the three government reviews under way, Kingston Council is also reviewing its own green wedge plan. The likely outcome? ”There are many stakeholders associated with this plan and when money comes into it, ideals go out the window,” says Madill.
This week, the former Labor MP for Mordialloc, Janice Munt, confirmed that shortly before the 2006 election the owners of Din San, the Smith brothers, visited her office and while there handed her a cheque believed to be for $10,000. The money was clearly intended to assist Munt’s re-election campaign, and to encourage her to become a champion of their cause. She insists that the cheque was never cashed and was left in an office drawer when she vacated her electoral office after her defeat by Wreford in November.
Din San owner Paul Smith initially told The Age he could not recall offering Munt money, but he later remembered something about a cheque not being banked.
Smith also acknowledged that in more recent times he had become a financial contributor to the Liberal Party through Leigh’s Business First. The Age understands that, this time, his money was banked.
Critics of the Liberal policy and process say it is not surprising that landowners’ hopes are high. They argue that the Liberal habit of using jargon such as ”logical inclusions” to describe disputed farmland under consideration for rezoning risks making the result a foregone conclusion.
The term was first heard in Parliament when Guy, as opposition planning spokesman, asked a question of then planning minister Justin Madden about his review of the urban growth boundary in 2009. Liberal insiders insist development lobbyists, Leigh in particular, have boasted about their role in shaping such policies and language.
Dick Hamer would no doubt be disappointed that his ”lungs of Melbourne” are yet again under challenge. For Baillieu, with his commitment to government transparency and integrity, a challenge of a different sort may come from his own party’s fund-raising activities and his government’s relationship with lobbyists.
While there may be good arguments for an open review of the green wedge policy as part of a major rethink of metropolitan planning, to the likes of Alan Hood and Dave Madill, it is troubling that Guy has been allowed to pursue a raft of reviews separate to the government’s wider planning agenda.
Says Madill: ”At the end of the day you’ve got to ask the question, do you want a green wedge or not?”