Councillors consistently compromised

City of Melbourne councillors were unable to assess two CBD planning applications last month because too many of them had received election campaign donations from a party linked to the developments.

Planning applications for a residential tower at 278 Little Lonsdale St and a mixed-use tower at 280 Queen St were listed for consideration at the July 7 Future Melbourne Committee Meeting.

However, the quorum was lost when four councillors declared an indirect conflict of interest.

It’s not the first time councillors have been unable to reach quorum due to conflicts of interest relating to election donations.

The council was unable to consider Central Equity proposals in December 2014 and May this year.

And in May, the Minister for Local Government, Natalie Hutchins gave six councillors an exemption to vote on the city’s

Melbourne Open Space Strategy, after they were unable to vote due to conflicts of interest over campaign donations.

Cr Rohan Leppert estimated there had been at least 10 incidents of failing to reach quorum on planning matters due to conflicts of interest.

Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, Deputy Lord Mayor Susan Riley, Cr Arron Wood and Cr Kevin Louey all declared conflicts of interest over the CBD applications.

The Lord Mayor explained that Team Doyle had receive donations from Pethica Proprietary Limited, a company employed by the Brady Group, which owns the subject property.

Councillor Kevin Louey said by declaring conflicts councillors avoided any issues of bias. “It (accepting donations) is allowable and it was declared as per the legislation,” Cr Louey said.

Cr Louey said the failure to reach quorum didn’t stifle public debate around planning matters because written submissions were still accepted and taken into account by planning officers who would make the recommendation under delegation.

Alongside the CBD applications, the four councillors and Cr Ken Ong also declared conflicts of interest over a Docklands planning application, due to election campaign donations.

As a result council officers will now provide a recommendation on all three planning applications to Planning Minister Richard Wynne under delegation.

Council officers’ reports to the Future Melbourne Committee recommended objecting to both CBD proposals.

Cr Rohan Leppert said he felt frustrated every time the council was unable to reach quorum due to conflicts of interest over donations.

“It stops us from being able to express an opinion, even as councillors without a conflict,” he said. “We’re unable to fulfil the duties we were elected to fulfil.”

Cr Leppert said none of the conflicted councillors had done anything wrong but, in his opinion, it was the Act itself that needed to change.

According to Cr Leppert, Victoria should follow NSW’s lead and ban developer donations altogether.

“If the State Government needs proof of why the Act needs to change then this is the perfect example,” he said.

Cr Stephen Mayne said, while he agreed it would be better if developer donations were banned, criminalising donations from one category would be difficult and had caused issues in NSW.

According to Cr Mayne, the fact a quorum wasn’t achieved at the July 7 meeting “hasn’t stopped the wheels of government or stopped the process of council”.

“It’s far better to have a good conflict of interest regime than to have councillors voting on donor matters,” Cr Mayne said.

Cr Mayne said none of the agenda items where a quorum wasn’t reached were for planning applications where council was the responsible authority.

He said the outcome would have been the same in terms of the recommendation made to the planning minister whether a quorum had been reached or not as 99 per cent of the time councillors agree with officer recommendations.

“The Minister will still get a report expressing council’s view.”

Cr Mayne noted that for the two CBD applications a quorum would have been reached had Cr Foster not been overseas at the time.

The CBD proposals council was unable to consider at the July 7 meeting related to 278 Little Lonsdale and 280 Queen St.

The Little Lonsdale application proposed the partial demolition of the existing three-storey building on the site, commonly referred to as the Phillips Shirt Factory, and construction of a 59-storey residential tower.

At 186 metres high, the tower would comprise 314 apartments and 158 sqm of ground floor retail.

Council officers’ report on the proposal stated the tower was an “overdevelopment of the site”, “adds nothing of value to the Melbourne skyline” and objected to the proposal.

Officers were similarly unhappy with the proposal for a 77-storey mixed-use building at 280 Queen St.

A low-rise office building currently sits on the site and a planning permit for a 220-metre office tower had already been granted, albeit without the support of council.

The new application proposes a 250-metre tower comprising office and retail space and a total of 589 apartments.

Council officers’ report on the proposal recommended objecting to the plan. The report said the proposal was an “overdevelopment of the site” and provided unsatisfactory layout and amenity in many of the apartments.

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