Government, council remain tight-lipped on injecting room site

By David Schout

The state government and City of Melbourne remain tight-lipped about the location of a new safe injecting room in the city.

In July a standoff saw city councillors reject a proposal for Melbourne’s second medically supervised injecting room (MSIR) to be located at the government’s preferred site near the Queen Victoria Market (QVM), dismissing the location as “inappropriate and inadequate”.

The government did not consult with the council before nominating Cohealth on Victoria St in a move that angered many at Town Hall, concerned about the impact on nearby residents and market traders, and led them to flex its lease control of the site.

Since then the government has reiterated that it remained open to alternative sites with the council should they be appropriate.

But neither would answer whether talks had progressed since the standoff, where one councillor said they had “been treated with complete disdain” by the government in what is expected to be a prominent topic leading up to council elections on October 24. 

The council refused to answer any questions about the injecting room site, including whether it had put forward any alternative site to the Andrews Government.

Similarly, the state government did not say whether talks had progressed with the council.

The government did, however, reveal that consultation for the state’s second MSIR, headed by former Police Commissioner Ken Lay, formally began last month. 

Mr Lay will speak to key stakeholders on the rollout, and present his findings to the government by the end of 2020. 

“The formal consultation process will be delivered in two phases,” a state government spokesperson said.

“The first phase, undertaken in September and October, will focus on speaking with health and drug reform experts, analysing key data and seeking advice from a range of stakeholders to ensure there is a good representation of views about the proposal. Following this, a broad community consultation – including with businesses, residents and clients – will be undertaken.”

Mr Lay has already had informal conversations with affordable housing residents above Drill Hall, which is next door to Cohealth, as well as with market traders.

Drill Hall Residents’ Association president Martin Mulvihill said initial talks with the former top cop had been constructive. 

“He’s very sympathetic,” Mr Mulvihill said.

“He’s a good listener and probably fair-minded. So, I’ve got no problems with Ken as someone who is prepared to listen to what people have to say.”

However, Mr Mulvihill said while he did not doubt the sincerity of the consultation, concerns remained that the injecting would be confirmed next door irrespective of its findings, something he said would have a detrimental impact on residents.

“I have a feeling that it’s heading strongly that way, unless something happens.”

Earlier this year an independent report found Victoria’s one and only injecting facility in North Richmond had saved at least 21 lives in 18 months of operation and needed help dealing with demand.

The City of Melbourne, which recorded 51 overdose deaths between 2015 and 2019 — second only in the state to the City of Yarra — was nominated in the report as the preferred municipality to house Victoria’s second MSIR.

But the government went a step further and nominated Cohealth as its preferred facility.

The council’s issues stem primarily from the location of the site and its impact particularly on vulnerable nearby residents and not the ability of Cohealth, which it has praised, to deliver a public health service. 

It’s not known whether the state government will pursue this site despite the council’s objections •

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