What has the City of Melbourne done for us?

Editorial by Shane Scanlan

This month marks the 10-year anniversary of the City of Melbourne’s involvement in Docklands, so it’s worth reflecting on whether its involvement has helped or hindered our development.

The council has done, and continues to do, some good things in our suburb. Its community development work has been exemplary. Councils are good at this.

The Library at The Dock is a stand-out achievement, although it should be remembered that the council contributed only about a third of the funding for this project.

The community and boating hub, Melbourne City Marina, the addition of some sports courts and the renovation of Docklands Park can be attributed to the council but, beyond that, it’s hard to think of many more positives.

On the negative side of the ledger, the story is not just about what the council has failed to achieve but also whether its involvement was premature and has acted as a brake on development.

Before 2007, the state’s development arm VicUrban was the sole Docklands authority. VicUrban was to become Places Victoria and, more recently, Development Victoria.

By 2007, the state had started to lose focus on Docklands. VicUrban itself resulted from a merger between the Docklands Authority and the Victorian Urban Land Authority.

Bureaucratic restructures have cost Docklands dearly over the journey – the latest example being the paralysis of Harbour Esplanade works, despite money sitting “in the bank”.

It’s fair to say that, with each of these administrative upheavals, the development of Docklands missed a gear. Since the turn of the century, final population predictions have been in reverse while the final completion date has blown out. 2025 is the current prediction. When the project started, the prediction was that we would just about be winding things up by now.

Much of this slippage can be attributed to market forces. Developers have only been able to build in response to demand – both for residential and commercial.

But the power-sharing arrangement between the State Government and the City of Melbourne was perhaps the most significant brake on development.

The 2007 decision to let the council back into the tent was a minor concession. At that time, the council’s role was pretty much limited to collecting rates and garbage.

An Act of Parliament was passed to protect Docklands from the very foreseeable danger that the development would stall if the city assumed control.

The primary reason for this is because, politically, it could not (and still can’t) treat Docklands any different to any other of its many suburbs. That legislation no longer exists.

The council’s “no special treatment” mentality continues to this day. Fortunately, Docklands’ needs in 2017 are not as great as they were in 2007 and Docklands has made progress despite the council’s position.

The council was never satisfied with the crumbs it picked up in 2007.

It continued to apply pressure and, in 2012, picked up pretty much all it was seeking from the state, which brought Docklands into line with the rest of the Capital City Zone (CBD and Southbank).

But, with Development Victoria still controlling new developments in Docklands, the council’s involvement could be seen as merely a complicating factor. Docklands continues to be burdened with an extra layer of governance.

The years immediately following 2007 were largely wasted as council and their state counterparts struggled to understand their respective roles and overcome the hostility that had defined their relationships.

And, while the old animosities have abated, the level of complication remains. Watch how the AFL’s plans for Harbour Esplanade play out (or don’t play out) in the near future!

In line with Capital City Zone rules, the council has never had planning control over buildings greater than 25,000sqm – pretty much everything ever built here.

The council has also never been told or shown the agreements struck in the 1990s between the state and Docklands’ developers, which still continue to define what happens here.

It is reasonable to ask: What was the point of letting the council back in before completion? The City of Melbourne has raised tens of millions of dollars more in rates than it has spent in Docklands. How much? It won’t say.

Docklanders have been able to vote in municipal elections since 2007. This is a big plus. But, with the City of Melbourne making almost all of its decisions in secret, the local political franchise is limited.

The council talks of retrofitting fine-grain into the suburb. But has anyone actually seen any “fine-grain” here?

Asked by Docklands News on June 20 what he thought the council had achieved in the last 10 years, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said: “In the last six or seven years, most Melburnians would now say Docklands has turned the corner.”

“There was an element, I think particularly in the media, of derision of Docklands. I don’t hear that anymore,” he said.

One of the reasons the media has stopped deriding Docklands is because Cr Doyle himself has stopped deriding Docklands.

As part of the council’s campaign for control, he would regularly criticise the suburb, with the claim that the City of Melbourne would “fix” things.

As reported in this paper in May 2011, be said on 3AW: “I have a real fear that the planning in traffic (in Docklands) was so wrong that it can’t be fixed.”

“The present management at VicUrban is doing the best they can. But I think the management of VicUrban, going right back to the very start, has a lot to answer for in terms of the design and the urban planning that they have now visited on us and the businesses down there.”

In his June 20 answer, Cr Doyle also mentioned the library and events to support businesses here. It has perhaps gone unnoticed at town hall that Docklands has been a graveyard of broken dreams for hundreds of small businesses.

My view, as I have said many times in the past, is that Docklands would be finished now had the state had held its nerve and kept the council out until completion.

Looking across the river at the Fishermans Bend urban redevelopment, there are two local councils involved – the City of Melbourne and the City of Port Phillip. It also has a plethora of advisory committees, taskforces and government authorities.

Based on the Docklands’ experience, my advice to government (had I been asked) would have been “good luck with that!”



May 4th, 2022 - Abby Crawford
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