Pentridge process highlights lack of transparency

The fight against a 19-storey development at the former Pentridge Prison in Coburg was strengthened this week, with Councillors at the City of Moreland voting to make a submission to the Minister for Planning requesting a review of the 2014 Masterplan, which is incorporated in Moreland’s planning scheme, and provides the blueprint for development across the northern part of the site purchased by the Shayher group in 2013.

Many residents have been left wondering why this is the first time they have been able to have their say on a major development which will have a significant impact not only on the heritage of a state-significant site, but also affect the surrounding community. The reason is outlined in the detail of the masterplanning process contained in the Council officers’ report prepared prior to last night’s vote.

According to the report, the last time Moreland residents were consulted on the future of Pentridge was in 2009, when two masterplans were approved and incorporated into the planning scheme through Amendment C125. Records show that the then Minister for Planning successfully sought an exemption for public exhibition under the Planning and Environment Act, and that, therefore, no third parties were able to make submissions. The notice of decision for the exemption indicates that “third parties have been given an opportunity to be heard, by way of the targeted consultation process which was conducted”. No information is readily available on the public record which outlines what consultation was in fact conducted, and how it was incorporated into the masterplan, if at all.

The Shayher Group, who purchased the site in 2013, sought further amendments to the 2009 Design Guidelines and Masterplan, primarily relating to changes in building height and placement. Once again, the former Planning Minister exercised his powers under the Planning and Environment Act 1987 and gazetted the revised masterplan (Pentridge Design Guidelines and Masterplan, February 2014) through Amendment C154, without providing an opportunity for public review. Further, in reviewing the 2009 Masterplan, the former Planning Minister referred the revised masterplan to a Design Review Panel (DRP) conducted by the Office of the Victorian Government Architect. Council’s record indicates that the DRP had serious concerns about the proposed revisions – “We question what is driving the placement of form and mass in the 2013 Masterplan, and suggest that this requires further consideration in a broader city and neighbourhood context.” Council has indicated that the 2014 Masterplan was approved without changes, despite the DRP’s reservations. Once again, this documentation is not readily available on the public record.

Through this exercise of ministerial power, the former Planning Minister has severely curtailed opportunities for the community, and for heritage advocates such as the National Trust, and even the City of Moreland itself, to have input into the future of Pentridge through the planning process. Through the planning scheme, decision-makers are now bound by the masterplan. Under the Moreland Planning Scheme, (sub-clause 7.0 to Schedule 1 of Clause 37.08) there is also an exemption from public notice for an application to use or construct a building at Pentridge it is generally in accordance with the Pentridge Coburg Masterplan (February 2014) or the Pentridge Village Design Guidelines and Masterplan (August 2009). This is not only a disservice to the community, but to the developers, who are following the plan that was approved, and face strong community opposition now that they are trying to implement it. 

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Plan showing proposed building envelopes, Pentridge Design Guidelines & Masterplan, February 2014, p 26.

Essentially the only avenue for public submissions regarding proposed developments at Pentridge is through the provisions of the Heritage Act 1995, which requires permits to be sought for works and alterations to places on the Victorian Heritage Register. In the absence of any other avenues for public submissions, Heritage Victoria is now bearing the brunt of community concern about the proposed development. Recognising the level of community concern, Heritage Victoria took the unusual step of extending the period of submissions for the most recent advertised permit by one month. But Heritage Victoria is only able to consider the impacts of the proposal on cultural heritage, and not other planning issues. They are also required to consider “extent to which the application, if refused, would affect the reasonable or economic use of the registered place, or cause undue financial hardship to the owner in relation to that place”. And, crucially, if Heritage Victoria does issue a permit, there is no third party right of appeal. 

So what is the way forward? The National Trust is joining the City of Moreland’s call to request that a Development Review Panel is appointed by the State Government’s Office of the Victorian Government Architect to review the 2014 Masterplan. We are calling for the recommendations of the DRP to be implemented, and for comprehensive public consultation to be undertaken through the appointment of an independent Planning Panel. Until transparency is provided, and the community is involved in the planning process, decision-makers and developers will continue to face a backlash every step of the way. That is no way to achieve a good outcome for an important place.

If you have any comments or queries feel free to email Felicity Watson, Senior Community Advocate. The 2014 Pentridge Design Guidelines & Masterplan can be viewed on City of Moreland’s website here.

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