Save Our Station SOS Ballarat has been a vocal critic of the Andrew’s Government’s proposal to sell more than half the land at the Ballarat Station for non-transport uses. Last week, the Government announced heritage and development approvals for the building of privately owned serviced apartments, a conference centre and some shops at the Station. The Miner questioned SOS advocates John Barnes and Ron Egeberg on whether this announcement spells the beginning of the end for their campaign.
Miner: Now that the project has been given the green light, isn’t it inevitable it will go ahead? RE: With an election looming late in 2018, the Andrew’s Government is vulnerable still on this project. Public opinion is still a strong influence. I would say it is not inevitable, though getting a better outcome for Ballarat has just got a whole lot more complex.
JB: The construction is proposed to see the three-level multi-deck car park built first. Only when this is completed, will works commence on other parts of the site. The order then is for the yet-to-bedesigned bus interchange to be built, then works on and in the Goods Shed and the 5 storey serviced apartments as the final act. It is possible that only the car park will be completed by the November 2018 state election. Who knows what will happen if this becomes a hot election issue or if there is a change of government?
Miner: What gives SOS Ballarat the right to challenge the proposed redevelopment? Isn’t the $32m being offered by the Andrew’s Government a welcome investment in Ballarat?
JB: SOS Ballarat are not arguing just on their own behalves. A Courier survey in March this year showed over 90% of respondents did not want Station land sold to private developers either for a hotel or for broader economic uses.
They want the $32m to be spent on improving the Station as a transport hub -more and better arranged car parking, sympathetic reuse of heritage buildings for undercover and safe bus facilities, easier and safer access for people of all ages and abilities. They want a facility that will meet Ballarat’s growing demand for public transport for the next 50 to 100 years.
RE: Let me assure you that SOS is pro-development.
We think it is crucial that we have a fully integrated, all-abilities-accessible 21st century transport hub. The survey showed that people welcomed the investment in the Station by the Andrew’s Government.
But again, more than 90% wanted it spent on improving public transport and commuter experiences, and on preserving Ballarat’s unique rail heritage. In our opinion, the Government is spending the money on the wrong priorities. More than this, they are compromising the future capacity of the Station to grow as commuter numbers grow.
Ballarat is a key regional city within Victoria. It needs to have first rate public transport services -good links to Melbourne and to other regional centres in western Victoria.
$32m spent on this would be a good start.
Miner: Will SOS Ballarat keep campaigning, even when works commence? RE: Of course we will.
We may do it a bit differently, but there are still so many unknowns. For instance, the Government has refused to explain any of the details about the contract they have entered into with the developer, the Pellicano Group. We believe freehold title to the land should not be transferred until Pellicano have built all of the things they have promised. If for any reason they fail to deliver all of what is expected, the land should remain in public ownership. We will be seeking assurances from the Government on this and other technical and contractual matters.
JB: To date, the Government has failed to respond to a number of FOI requests either at all, or with serious delays of nearly a year beyond their due dates. So too, they have failed to assure us they are meeting all the legal requirements legislation and regulation places on them. This includes the sale of public land and Disability Discrimination Act compliance. We will not rest until we have satisfied ourselves that these issues are being dealt with appropriately.
They could be potential game stoppers.
Miner: Why do you think the Government is unwilling to redirect the $32m toward improving the Station for commuters?
JB: It’s hard to comprehend, isn’t it? The public want the money spent on redeveloping the Station for improved commuter facilities and services. Local accommodation and conference providers are upset that Pellicano appear to be getting a subsidy of around $15m (mainly on refurbishing the Goods Shed, before it is handed over to them as part of the sale) to compete against existing local businesses which get no subsidies. The Government claims that they have an economic assessment of the value of this development yet are unwilling to make any details public. They have repeatedly ignored SOS Ballarat’s offers to have an independent third party, like Infrastructure Victoria, do a comparative assessment of the proposed development and the alternative prepared by SOS, to see which gives the better return to Victorian taxpayers. Even they don’t appear to have much belief in their own project.
RE: I think they are embarrassed by the original decision by VicTrack to declare land at the Station surplus to future transport needs. There appears to have been no estimation of future demand as a result of population growth or commuters opting for public transport as their preferred mode of travel. Another reason is that Regional Development Victoria seem to have declared dibs on the land for economic development and steamrolled the 2014 Master Plan, Ballarat City Council, and anyone else in the way, with this outcome in mind all along. I think Dan Andrew’s is worried that he will be seen as weak if he doesn’t deliver on his pre-election promise, whereas a change in response to overwhelming public sentiment would show real strength. These are just my best hunches. It is a pity the Government won’t explain in simple terms why it is so.
Miner: Has SOS Ballarat had much support from other key advocacy groups such as Ballarat City Council, the Committee for Ballarat and the Chamber of Commerce?
RE: In a word -NO. Local hospitality businesses have reformed the Ballarat Accommodation Group (BAG). They have been the most active and vocal peak group advocating to the Government. It needs to be remembered that the previous Council and the Committee for Ballarat advocated for Government to fund a high-end hotel and conference centre at the Station. We believe that they should bear much of the blame for the position we now find ourselves in. They didn’t follow the steps they spelt out in their own 2010 CBD Strategy.
JB: Councillors expressed to us that they were reluctant to advocate to the Government. They were afraid it might see the $32m being redirected out of Ballarat, to another economic development project elsewhere in Victoria? Unless we could guarantee that the money would be retained in Ballarat, which of course we were in no position to do, we could not expect the majority of councillors to support an approach to the Andrew’s Government. We are disappointed that they haven’t shown leadership on this issue. We were even more disappointed that they were prepared to see the heritage and transport future of the Station permanently compromised.