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Northern mayors meet on public land

Former state schools and surplus government land should be used for community benefit, not sold for commercial development, according to mayors from Melbourne’s north.

Seven mayors met in Darebin last month to discuss “a lack of transparency and accountability” in the State Government’s public land dealings, which they said were “biased towards short-term commercial gain”.

The mayors want to be involved in decisions about the future of government-owned sites and called for such land to be sold to them at “nominal” prices.

The amalgamation of schools had generated large tracts of surplus land in prime locations, which had a wide range of possible community uses, Darebin mayor Vince Fontana said in opening the summit. “Yet we often find we have very little influence over planning for land disposal or alternative future use,” he said.

Speaking after the event, Cr Fontana said the State Government was developing a policy for the disposal of surplus government land, which the mayoral group welcomed.

Darebin council called the summit in response to concern over the fate of several sites in the municipality which sparked a community campaign for “public land to stay in public hands”.

The Preston Reservoir Progress Association launched its ‘public first’ campaign after being advised by the Minister for Education, Bronwyn Pike, that closed school sites would be sold to private developers if the council did not want to buy them at market prices.

Secretary Marion Harper said the association was opposed to the policy because the land was public land and belonged to the people.

“It is a very short-sighted policy, because you don’t know what the needs are going to be five or 10 years down the track. Once the land is sold, it’s gone forever,” Ms Harper said.

Under the state’s Melbourne 2030 planning policy, helping local government provide affordable housing and community facilities and increasing open space is a priority for the government. The policy says the Government should dispose of surplus land and buildings according to “best use” rather than “highest price”. But critics say the policy has not been implemented.

Melbourne University academic Dr Alan March said the commercial sale of public land in Victoria was market-driven and involved little forward planning.

“What’s happening with the shedding of spare land is these sites aren’t being seen for the range of possibilities they might offer. There’s not really a modelling or a scenario‑building of how the overall suburb or community, or indeed whole regions, are going to work.”

Dr March said there was a “perverse irony” in schools with low enrolments being sold off for high-density housing. “You build your population up, and there’s no school.”

Charging councils commercial rates for land to be used for community benefit was “grossly inappropriate”, he said.

Speaking after the summit, Cr Fontana said Darebin had a growing population with a shortage of open space and facilities. It was not reasonable for the council to have to compete with private interests for land.

“Being a government we provide services and for the needs of our community, so it’s not for profit or to generate income; it’s quite simply a service industry we are in. We should probably be offered an exemption, or some consideration, to have the land value considered at a rate that’s more reasonable,” he said.

Cr Fontana said the mayoral group would write to State Government ministers. Darebin had already contacted local government associations about the campaign.

Victorian Local Governance Association president Heinz Kreutz said the association would support the mayors’ campaign because it was about greater openness and transparency, which was “something the State Government sometimes struggles with”.

He said the Government’s disposal of land needed to be more structured.

“We consider that if something is essentially public land there ought to be a more structured process on how to release and how to sell that public land. If you go back to how this public land became public land, public funds and taxpayers’ funds were used to purchase or develop that land…”

A short statement provided by the Department of Planning and Community Development in response to questions said, “The Government is investigating a policy that improves the assessment of surplus government land to better contribute to government objectives, including affordable housing, aged care, open space and community facilities”.

“…There is scope for councils to indicate to the State Government which uses for surplus sites are consistent with the local MSS [Municipal Strategic Statement] and other local policies and strategies,” the statement continued.

But according to the department’s planning policy executive director John Ginivan, everyone, including governments, should expect to pay commercial rates for land. “That’s the real world, that’s just the way it is,” he told the Heidelberg and Diamond Valley Weekly in April.

Cr Fontana said the northern mayors would meet again to consider their position in the light of the State Government’s Best Use Government Land policy, which was due for release later this year.

The Preston Reservoir Progress Association is gearing up to expand its “public first” campaign in the lead-up to the state election.

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