By David Schout
A key report that could determine the future of a proposed second injecting room near the Queen Victoria Market has been delayed.
The state government announced that former Victoria Police commissioner Ken Lay had not finished his consultation period with key stakeholders and required more time.
The report’s findings could play a significant role in whether the Andrews government proceeds with its preferred location of cohealth on Victoria St that is currently opposed by the City of Melbourne, many local residents and market traders.
As late as November 20, the state government confirmed with CBD News that the report would be finalised “by the end of the year”, after which the government would make a decision on its plans.
But it has since said that more time was required.
“While significant headway has been made to date, the government has accepted a request by Mr Lay to extend the consultation into the New Year, when face-to-face engagement is less restricted and key voices are more able to have their say,” Health Minister Martin Foley said.
“While we remain determined to see this important and lifesaving service up and running as soon as possible, we also want to give Mr Lay the time he needs to work through the complex issues in a thorough manner.”
The next phase of the Mr Lay-led consultation is believed to include local businesses and people with lived experience of addiction.
Consultation has already taken place with health and drug reform experts, plus market traders and Drill Hall residents who remain opposed to the new facility being housed next door at cohealth.
Drill Hall, a pre-war army officer training facility, was refurbished in 2011 whereby seven levels of affordable housing were built atop the original building, and residents now occupy the 56 apartments inside.
There are particular concerns, including from the City of Melbourne, regarding the impact of a safe injecting facility on vulnerable residents at this location.
How did we get here?
In June last year, the findings of an independent report found Victoria’s one and only safe injecting facility in North Richmond had saved at least 21 lives in 18 months, and required 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 medically-supervised injecting room.
But the government went a step further and nominated 53 Victoria St in a move that incensed the council which had not been briefed.
While the government has maintained for some time that it remained open to “suitable” alternative sites, in December CBD News reported that no other site had been considered and that the Victoria St site remained the government preferred (and only) current option.
Where to from here?
A stoush between the council and government could eventuate.
And while that is a battle usually won by the latter, the council has a long-term lease control of the site, which could complicate matters.
The council has said it “accepts the evidence that medically supervised injecting rooms save lives”, but “does not believe that the cohealth site opposite the Queen Vic Market is the appropriate location”.
Late last year, a spokesperson outlined the council’s opposition to the site: “It is one of the most densely populated areas in the City of Melbourne; opposite the QVM which is the city’s most significant tourist attraction, a transport interchange, child care services and vulnerable residents all within hundreds of metres … we have provided factual information to Ken Lay to demonstrate why this location is not the right choice.”
Ambulance Victoria data showed that opioid-related ambulance attendances in the City of Melbourne were up 49 per cent in the five years to 2019 and have doubled in the CBD over the same period.
The government has not set a new date it expects Mr Lay’s final report to be tabled.