Anger over planning minister’s Mirvac apartment intervention

Outgoing planning minister Richard Wynne has left residents of Melbourne’s inner north confused and angry by fast-tracking a contentious apartment development as part of Victoria’s COVID-19 economic recovery, just hours after seeming to announce he would not do so.

Last Wednesday, residents in the Brunswick South, Parkville and Princes Hill area received an email from Wynne in which he said he would not intervene in the approval process for a $147 million apartment project proposed by property giant Mirvac.

An artist’s impression of the proposed building near Princes Park.Credit:Mirvac

“I consider the council is best suited to resolving the planning issues relating to the proposed development,” he wrote.

Hours later, residents and Moreland Council received another letter from Wynne announcing that he referred the application to the government’s priority projects standing advisory committee.

The government established the committee to fast-track planning approvals, bypassing council processes to boost the post-lockdown economic recovery.

The state’s planning department insists the first letter was an “administrative error”.

Richard Wynne referred the $147 million development to the government’s priority projects standing advisory committee.Credit:The Age

The ministerial intervention comes as the construction industry struggles with labour and materials shortages, raising questions about the merits of bypassing standard planning procedures if construction is not to start immediately.

Local property owner Giuseppe Ganci said if the Mirvac scheme went through the “right process” – through the council and community – planning approvals might take two or three years to finalise.

He said that given the labour and materials shortages, construction on the scheme could take years to start anyway, even if planning was fast-tracked.

“The COVID recovery is a not valid excuse to approve something like this at the expense of building something agreeable to everyone involved that actually meets the minimum standards,” said Ganci.

Earlier this year Mirvac lodged plans with Wynne for its project on the site of the Princes Park Motor Inn – including towers up to 10 levels overlooking Princes Park – despite it being opposed by residents and the Moreland Council.

A previous proposal by developer JWLand for a 13-storey tower with 333 apartments on the same site was opposed by a large group known as Protect Park Street Precinct and rejected by both Moreland Council and the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

The residents argued the towers would overshadow Princes Park running track.

Mirvac then bought the property from JWLand and sought to bypass the council by applying to have approval fast-tracked by the state government through its Development Facilitation Program, introduced during the pandemic to speed up projects and stimulate investment.

New Planning Minister Lizzie Blandthorn and (inset) her brother John-Paul Blandthorn, who heads the prominent Labor-linked lobbying firm Hawker Britton.Credit:AAP

On Sunday, Moreland Mayor Mark Riley said the Mirvac plan was even “less favourable” than the JWLand scheme. He said the inclusion of 17 “affordable” dwellings did not justify state intervention. In April, the council resolved that the Mirvac scheme had failed to respond to VCAT planning guidance including design, height and the overshadowing of Princes Park and its running track.

A final decision about the Mirvac scheme now rests with new Planning Minister Lizzie Blandthorn. Her appointment last week led to controversy about potential conflicts of interest given her brother John-Paul Blandthorn is a director of Labor-linked lobbyist firm Hawker Britton, which represents big names in development, planning and infrastructure.

Among Hawker Britton clients listed on the Victorian lobbyist register is Mirvac.

In a written statement to The Age, Mirvac stressed it has had no “recent engagement with Hawker Britton” and “we are not working with them on any of our projects”.

Mr Wynne did not respond to queries from The Age. In a statement responding to the conflicting ministerial letters to residents last week, a department spokesperson said: “An administrative error occurred where the wrong letter was sent, but was corrected on the same day.”

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