"VCAT unelected, unaccountable and system has lost all respect from community." VCAT is Victoria's Civil and Administrative Tribunal. (Australia)
There was an impressive turn-out of Victorian community groups at the VCAT Community Forum between 4.30 and 6.00 pm on 13 October at Room 2.1, Level 2, 55 King Street, Melbourne from 4.30pm to 6.00pm. The forum had been advertised as "a series of consultative forums with stakeholder groups during 2008."
The seriously undemocratic nature of Melbourne's planning and environment policies and laws is reflected in the rise of so many suburban protest groups, no longer able to rely on the system and the government to oversee moderate fairness.
Groups came from Broadmeadows, Darebin, Carlton, Southbank, Maribyrnong, Seddon, Hobsons Bay, Bayside, Stonnington, Malvern East, Carnegie, Boroondara, Whitehorse, Doncaster, Kingston, Mt Eliza, Camperdown, Daylesford and several other suburbs. More registered but were unable to be there for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, a wide spread of Melbourne was directly represented.
Some groups probably stayed away because because they feel so disillusioned with VCAT.
The chairs of the "Community Consultation" meeting were the VCAT President, Justice Kevin Bell, and Deputy President Helen Gibson. Gibson was reported to have initially seemed reluctant to allow community group representatives to speak.
Eventually Gibson seemed to respond to pressure and spokespersons from most of the groups present spoke -- often eloquently -- of the problems that the State development policy and the VCAT system were inflicting on the people of Melbourne.
Complaints that VCAT-Justice is only for the Rich
Issues raised included the unfairness of professional developers being able to afford top barristers and expert witnesses when many councils are no longer able fund the community right to oppose unwanted developments.
Two suggestions for solutions to this problem came forward. One was that a blind bank of experts be set up and applicants would take whichever was available. The second suggestion was that the barristers and experts be cut out of the VCAT hearings completely, with a return to a level playing field. In this case the developers, residents and councilors would represent themselves.
Brookland Greens, Casey Methane gas scandal
An attempt was made to raise the case of how VCAT had overturned Council objections to developers going ahead with building a new suburb, Brookland Greens, on a landfill. Justice Bell, however, arbitrarily ruled out discussion of individual cases, causing resentment among resident group members present.
This scandal concerns hundreds of residents of the new estate who have been told they may have to leave their homes for at least a year because of explosive levels of methane gas in a nearby landfill. Casey Council subsequently froze rates for Brookland Greens, costing that city $1m. The council fears massive compensation claims. A Herald Sun article said that,
"The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal must accept responsibility for approving the housing development so close to the landfill.
Casey Council and the Environment Protection Authority rejected the developer's original plans, but still the controversial housing estate went ahead. "
Community consult no real dialogue
The Malvern East group told of how they had written in advance about a number of issues to be raised and had been told they were not suitable items. They said that they had then written to Justice Bell asking what would be suitable, but had received no reply before the meeting.
Justice Bell admitted that he had not replied.
The subjects that the Malvern East group had been discouraged from raising were, nonetheless, all raised by other groups at the hearing.
The Seddon group claimed that VCAT only uses the policies from M2030 (Melbourne 2030, Victoria’s State development policy) that support development and ignores the policies that protect neighbourhood character.
Change the role of VCAT to serve electorate better
The argument was put, in a variety of ways, that VCAT should no longer have the role of a planning authority. It should instead become a review board with the task of ensuring that councils follow their own policies.
VCAT rewards developers for bypassing councils
The community groups felt that developer should not take their amended plans for review by VCAT. They should bring them back to the councils concerned. And, if they did bring amended plans to VCAT they should be told to take them back to council to be looked at again.
VCAT spokespersons response was that they were trying to save councils time and money.
But many see the role of VCAT as a rubber stamp for State policy which is no longer democratic and prioritises steamroller developments over Victorians’ human rights to self-government and control over their environments.
Developers abuse 60 day periods for review and VCAT approves
A sixty day review period is being abused by developers, in the view of numerous community groups. They say that developers delay getting information to councils and then rush off the VCAT because they know they have a better chance of getting it approved by VCAT.
"VCAT unelected, unaccountable and system has lost all respect from community"
VCAT President, Justice Kevin Bell, and Deputy President Helen Gibson were told that VCAT was unelected and unaccountable and the community has lost all respect for the system.
The issue was raised that councils often pass an inappropriate development because they say VCAT will approve it so residents are wasting time and money to oppose it. Many bad development proposals don’t even get to VCAT, because councils have no confidence in VCAT.
It is a cause of resentment that the local people and local councils usually know better about their area than VCAT, yet they are overruled by VCAT the majority of times.
The significance/outcome of this VCAT community consultation
Members of the community groups that attended this VCAT meeting wondered if President Bell or Deputy President Gibson either listened or heard the residents’ views on this occasion. One activist wrote, “As an optimist I hope so, as a realist, I doubt it. They have heard from the community [before] and as usual they will ignore it.”
Despite this many remained prepared to go on fighting.
Mary Drost said that she felt proud to be there with “so many really great people who are trying to keep the Marvellous in Melbourne, as well as coast and country.”
It is important to document these reactions to the VCAT Planning ‘Consultative’ forums. These are historical civil steps in an increasingly serious battle by Victorians to regain democracy for their city and State.