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My Opinion Pieces

The Age - A fiasco for heritage protections

   Wednesday, 5 June 2019

The Corkman Hotel fiasco illustrates just how weak the Andrews government, and particularly its Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne, has been in one of the most outrageous and egregious breaches of planning law in recent memory.

If I was the planning minister, I can absolutely guarantee Victorians that the developers who destroyed the Corkman Hotel would not make a cent from their unlawful conduct.

I would compulsorily acquire the site at its present undeveloped value and build social and public housing.

The developers, Raman Shaqiri and Stefce Kutlesovski, have pulled off the deal of the century with the Andrews government and the City of Melbourne. This deal will allow the partners to develop the former site of the Corkman to the height of 40 metres, or 12 storeys.

Despite the significant fines these men have received, almost $2 million, they are still likely to make substantial profits when construction is concluded on such a sought-after location so close to the University of Melbourne, the CBDand public transport.

As magistrate Richard Pithouse said during one of their court appearances, ‘‘If jail was available, I would impose imprisonment for such a blatant breach.’’

He said that both men had ‘‘acted with complete disregard to the law for their own financial betterment, and that they have a cavalier disregard [for] the law’’.

The developers took a punt on the weakness of the system and those who lead it. It seems their punt may have paid off, handsomely.

Richard Wynne said three years ago that the government was determined to rebuild the Corkman Hotel.

He said in Parliament on November 24, 2016: ‘‘I reiterate today that the clear determination of the government is that the Corkman Hotel will be replaced as a hotel.’’

Unfortunately he failed. The developers wrote to Wynne in October 2016 giving an undertaking to rebuild the historic hotel.

History now proves the letter was complete nonsense.

We all know that Melbourne is suffering from a homelessness crisis, and it seems wrong that these developers who vandalised such a cultural and historical icon could go on to generate huge profits from their outrageous conduct.

That’s why I am proposing the site be compulsorily acquired by the state and used to provide appropriate housing for some of our homeless. There has been very little growth in public housing over the past two decades, and I would remind readers that Labor has been in office for 16 of the last 20 years.

Public housing has remained at or around 65,000 units since 1997.

A recent Productivity Commission report found that Victoria spent the least of any Australian state on social housing.

The commission said Victoria’s expenditure equated to just $82.94 per person, compared with $173.35 in NSW.

The national average in 2016-17 stood at $166.93. Victoria’s per person spending on social housing has also fallen each year since 2014-15, down from $95.92 per person. There are about 80,000 people in Victoria on the public housing waiting list, including 25,000 children.

I wouldn’t usually be calling for such unilateral actions from government, but surely the state of our homeless must be a higher priority than rogue developers’ profits.

This fiasco also calls into question Victoria’s entire heritage regime. The Labor government and the City of Melbourne cut a sweetheart deal with the developers, but what of Heritage Victoria?

This organisation seems to be like the fielder in a cricket team that no matter where you put them on the field, the ball inevitably follows them, and they always drop the ball. Heritage Victoria must do more to protect gold-rush era examples of our built form heritage like the Corkman and save what remains of ‘‘Marvellous Melbourne’’.

Some may argue it’s just a hotel, but I, like thousands of former and current students of the University of Melbourne, have some wonderful memories from that lovely old pub.

That old pub had been on that site for virtually the entire time Europeans have lived in Melbourne and it represents that optimism and dynamism of those early and fledging years of the city that has become the intellectual heart of the nation.

If I am ever the minister for planning, the protections in place for buildings that represent the years of ‘‘Marvellous Melbourne’’ will be far safer than they are at the moment from the wrecking ball.