What is going on with Ballarat Station redevelopment?
Public land and heritage buildings located on the fringe of Ballarat’s CBD and under control of VicTrack are being sold for the development of serviced apartments, an under-sized convention centre and some shops.
This is generally consistent with a Master Plan for the precinct which was published in 2014. The Master Plan does not include plans for rail or station upgrades, for urban bus services or taxis. It is an economic development plan, and is largely silent on transport issues. It is alleged to have cost $300k and was overseen by a committee of interdepartmental bureaucrats.
This, in turn, relied on the recommendations of a Ballarat City Council report from 2010 on CBD redevelopment. It recommended determining “the future operational requirements of the Precinct for transport services and the extent of land available for redevelopment”. The 2014 Master Plan took the availability of land for redevelopment as a given.
An FOI to VicTrack on the rationale upon which they relied to declare land as surplus to future transport needs shows that no modelling has been done on future transport land needs to meet growing demand.
On the recommendation of its then CEO, Anthony Schinck, citing a request from Regional Development Victoria (not subsequently supported by an FOI for that request), BCC asked the Minister for Planning to declare himself Responsible Planning Authority, in BCC’s stead. Six weeks later, that CEO announced his resignation from BCC and his appointment as Grampians Regional Manager of RDV. He had not declared a conflict of interest either at the time of advising council, nor ever since. He must have been an applicant at the time of offering his advice, or he was head-hunted subsequently, which might be deemed reward for a job done.
His Major Projects Director during this time was Jeff Pulford, husband of Jaala, Minister for Regional Development (RDV). His General Manager, City Strategy was Natalie Reiter, partner of Justin Hanney, lead Deputy Secretary, Economic Development, Employment and Innovation, DEDJTR, and former CEO of RDV. (The subsequent permanent replacement of Mr Schinck as BCC CEO is Justine Linley, who only a few years beforehand, had held the same position Schinck now holds with RDV, as Grampians Regional Manager. This particular appointment appears coincidental rather than conspiratorial.)
The lead agency for the Station redevelopment is RDV.
The sale price of the VicTrack land is exempt from publication by Treasury and Finance due to it being a corporatised government body. The business case justifying the sale of Station land is deemed commercial-in-confidence.
The Andrews Government is putting in $32m to the redevelopment of the Station, with $25m of that to offset the impacts of the land sale e.g. replacement parking, internal traffic management. The bulk of funds (we estimate $15m) is being spent on refurbishing the historic Goods Shed building before it is handed over along with 1.5ha of land and other lesser heritage assets to the developer, Pellicano Group. We estimate the total income to VicTrack from the sale to be $5m – $6m. The Victorian Government Land Monitor assures us the process has followed the rules, even if the results are absurd. Total contribution from Pellicano to the project, for land and building purchase and building of their own 5 storey apartment block, is $19m.
The Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne established an Advisory Committee (AC) to have public hearings on the rezoning of the precinct prior to potential sale (as is govt policy). The terms of reference for the AC forbade submissions on the strategic rationale for the rezoning, limiting it to a debate over the most appropriate zoning for achieving the economic development focus of the Master Plan.
During the hearings, the BCC’s Senior Strategic Planner, advises that BCC is waiving its usual open space contribution required of private sub-divisions, estimated to be around $400k, and which was never subject to a Council decision or subsequent report. Officers are still to confirm who sanctioned this decision and whether it was within their delegations. (The officer who advised the AC of that decision, along with her boss, have both been recruited by their former boss, Natalie Reiter (see 6 above), and all are now working together at Moonee Ponds Council.)
Months after receiving a report from the AC, Minister Wynne declared his determination, which ignored nearly everything recommended by the AC, except that for this project he become Responsible Authority for planning matters, in place of Ballarat City Council. The Minister did not restrict the rezoning to the area subject of the hearings, but rezoned the whole precinct.
When making the corresponding changes to the Ballarat Planning Scheme, the Minister exempted himself from his own conditions relating to car parking, bicycle facilities, advertising signage, liquor licensing, loading and unloading vehicles, and integrated public transport planning.
The Minister signed-off the subsequent development plans on 31 July 2017. In doing so, he ignored more conditions from his amendment to the Ballarat Planning Scheme than just those he had exempted himself from.
A few months later, following a Heritage Victoria consultation and report on heritage impacts of the development plans, Minister Wynne announces he will adopt all their recommendations.
Apart from the $32m currently set aside for redevelopment of the Ballarat Station (which largely excludes anything to do with transport, a $518m upgrade of the Melbourne to Ballarat train line is occurring. All stations along the route, except Ballarat, will be made fully DDA compliant. Ballarat Station provides access from one platform to another only to those able to cope with the 1880’s bridge. People with disabilities, heavy luggage, children in prams and pushers, and those with walking aids, must leave the Station, cross the level-crossing on the abutting Lydiard Street and re-enter the Train Hall. PTV has no plans or timeframe for rectifying this situation. Action via the Disability Discrimination Legal Service is being discussed. (You might expect that a $589m spend on rail would deliver basic access for all patrons. You’d be wrong.)
The $5m set aside for a bus interchange within the precinct is too little. It must pay for design, construction and traffic management works surrounding the precinct. Given the heritage constraints of the site and the omissions from the Pellicano approved development plan, (traffic lights, other abutting street alterations, stormwater detention onsite) it is conceivable that the expenditure for this could be 3 to 5 times that amount. This is to be subject to a separate procurement process to the one already confirmed with the Pellicano Group. It is likely that works on both contracts will overlap, causing massive dislocations for commuters, for the next three or so years.
Having signed a contract with Pellicano, how likely is it that the Andrews govt would re-negotiate it to deliver better heritage and transport outcomes for Ballarat Station? It is a long shot. Neither Sharon Knight (Wendouree) nor Geoff Howard (Buninyong) are standing again, and their replacements do not have high public profiles. If Labor thought it might lose one or both of these seats, it would sharpen their senses. SOS Ballarat has that purpose until November 24, 2018.
A self-subscribing survey conducted in March 2017 by the Ballarat Courier on community attitudes to the Station redevelopment attracted over 600 responses in the four days it was open, and returned a response of 92% opposition to sale of land at the Ballarat Station for non-transport uses, and less than 5% supporting private investment as the highest priority for the site.
The ALP seems to have compiled one bad decision upon another. Dan Andrews pledged a contribution of $25m for a Station redevelopment when in opposition, presumably on the advice of local members, including Jaala Pulford, now his Minister for Regional Development. When the tender results failed to deliver the promised private investment and required dramatic changes to project scope and phasing, they pushed on instead of using it to re-focus the project. Subsequent decisions by the Minister for Planning, and additional funding announcements entrench the stakes Labor has in this project needing to be seen through. An admission that the local members and the Regional Development Minister got this so wrong jeopardises their electoral prospects, for the seats of Wendouree and Buninyong.