By Shane Scanlan
The City of Melbourne has abandoned its renewal plans for the Queen Victoria Market (QVM) and is throwing the market’s problems back on “the people”.
At its August 7 Future Melbourne Committee (FMC) meeting councillors voted seven to four in favour of establishing a “people’s panel” of 40 members to re-examine what’s needed to guarantee the QVM’s future.
The move is a radical “U-turn” from where the council was only weeks ago and can be attributed to the influence of new Lord Mayor Sally Capp.
Just before Cr Capp joined the council, on May 15 councillors voted to resubmit to Heritage Victoria (HV) its plans for a three-level basement under the western end of sheds A, B, C and D.
At that time, the only dissent came from Cr Susan Riley and Cr Philip Le Liu, who both wanted to proceed with even stronger action – an appeal against HV’s rejection of its heritage permit application.
In the intervening period, Cr Capp has spent a lot time with market traders and other stakeholders and led the charge on August 7 to change strategic direction.
A week earlier, Cr Capp successfully moved to sideline the QVM Board and replace it with a “committee of trustees” with broad representation, including traders, shoppers and community representatives.
And while Cr Capp achieved a unanimous vote in favour of the new governance arrangements, Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood flagged concerns with the draft arrangements, which are yet to be refined.
Essentially, Cr Wood warned against admitting opponents of the council’s long-standing plans, lest the committee be sabotaged from within.
Among other questions, he asked:
- Other governance structures examined?
- Pros and cons?
- Independent advice received?
- Management of roles and conflicts?
- How can three traders do what the Traders’ Representative Committee (TRC) hasn’t been able to do in many respects?
- How will the two community reps will be considered representative, and therefore, acceptable to groups like Friends of QVM?
Cr Wood expressed concern that the council’s objective to re-purpose the existing car park as civic open space for the City North urban redevelopment could be lost within a narrow focus on QVM operations.
“All the questions need to be answered so we don’t end up with unintended consequences and another governance structure that a group says this isn’t the way we want to go,” he said.
A week later when the 40-strong “people’s panel” proposal came before FMC, he was not so reserved and spoke in opposition.
“Any idea that this new process can take these different viewpoints and do what we haven’t been able to achieve over five years is something that I’m concerned about,” he said. “At the end of the day, what are we elected for?”
He pointed out the council had spent five years working on the plan, had commissioned 60 independent reports and two business cases as well as making 50 decisions – 37 of which were unanimous.
“When you look at the current situation, we’ve got a board, we’ve got a committee of trustees, we’ve got a people’s panel, we’ve got a Traders Representative Committee, we’ve got QVM management and we’ve got council. I raise questions about the unwieldy nature of this approach.”
Cr Wood pointed out that candidates supporting “full renewal” had been successful at the last three elections. “The biggest people’s panel is the voters,” he said.
“If we’re going back to a first principles approach, what if the people’s panel says ‘let’s not renew the market’? and ‘let’s leave it as it is’. Well we should accept that decision because that’s the people’s umpire that we’re subscribing to.”
His suspicions were supported by a comment on the “people’s panel” by Friends of QVM spokesperson Mirian Faine, who told councillors: “Show us the costs. That needs to be preliminary to what we see as an unnecessary and wasteful process which won’t improve the market community.”
Cr Capp, however, said she had faith in “the people” to get the project back on track.
“I have faith in the people to come back to us with something that’s genuinely worthwhile for the renewal,” she said. “Engagement needs to be at the heart of how we go about this process.
“There’s been a perception of a top-down approach in the past and this is definitely a recognition of the value of having a bottom-up approach – making sure that the people are involved in that process.”
“It is a genuine commitment to move this process forward in a constructive way towards an outcome that will become the basis of council consideration and an application process going forward that reflects that overall representative approach and deliberative democracy approach to what that renewal will be.”
Also supporting a panel, Cr Rohan Leppert explained: “This is about momentum. It’s about regaining political capital.”
On the dozens of reports supporting the old plan, Cr Leppert said: “That is just a technical argument and that is not the same as having the political capital here and now to proceed down that route.”
“Now is the time to check in again – to go back to that engagement stage and build the political capital that is necessary to progress any sort of Queen Victoria Market renewal.”
He said the process was designed to get the community to “own the problem and to own the solution”.
Voting for the motion were councillors Capp, Frances Gilley, Le Liu, Leppert, Oke, Reece and Watts. Voting against were councillors Wood, Louey, Pinder and Riley.