Wind back twelve months and the City of Melbourne was alive and kicking.
Throngs of workers, international students and visitors packed restaurants, pubs and bars. The arts scene was alive and well. The city was known internationally for its culture. The economy was booming. Demand for office space was running hot.
Now, nine in ten offices are empty; many shops, restaurants and bars are closed (though outdoor dining will reopen soon), streets are empty and many businesses are on the brink.
In response, the city has launched a recovery plan which involves extensive cleaning of hotspots, extending outdoor trading, delivering new bike lands and transport options and supporting small business.
A centrepiece of this was the announcement in September of a $100 million City Recovery Fund. This aims to kickstart the economy through:
- grants of up to $10,000 to small business to adapt their premises and operations to support COVID safety
- supporting COVIDSafe events and attracting visitors back to the CBD when safe
- CBD streetscape improvements such as bollards, wider footpaths and planter boxes.
Still, much remains to be done. And with the election for Lord Mayor scheduled for this Saturday, the city is at a crossroads.
This raises questions about who the candidates are and what strategies they will adopt.
In other words, who will make Melbourne Great Again?
On October 9, the Victorian Division of the Property Council of Australia invited all candidates to make their pitch. Below is a summary (in order of speaking) of each candidate’s policies and their pitch about why they should be offered the job.
(1) Sally Capp, Current Lord Mayor
Formerly Victorian Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia. Capp took over as Lord Mayor two years ago following the resignation of Robert Doyle.
In her pitch, Capp points to her record over the past two years, including:
- approval of more than $6 billion worth of new construction projects and 14,000 development applications
- an increase in the annual level of economic activity throughout the municipality to $94 billion per annum to $104 billion per annum
- commencement of the $250 billion redevelopment of the Queen Victoria Market
- the $100 million City Recovery Fund referred to above to kick-start the economy.
If re-elected, Capp says she would:
- Streamline approval process to make assessment and approval of development applications faster, clearer and more certain
- Set target approval times for development applications
- Establish a specific development and construction facilitation unit to fast-track significant projects.
- Work with industry and government to resolve outstanding concerns with the C270 planning amendments which was introduced in 2016 to address concerns about excessive density within the Melbourne CBD.
“I want Melbourne to be a city of ‘yes’,” Capp says.
“Yes to thriving businesses and jobs of the future … yes to world class events and attractions … yes to green space and liveability … and yes to all us feeling safe and confident about a future right here in Melbourne.
“Being the Lord Mayor of Melbourne is a big job and a serious job. I am a Lord Mayor who understands business and understands that jobs drive our city’s prosperity. I am a Lord Mayor who can make decisions, drive outcomes and deliver results, and I am seeking your support for me to deliver the sort of leadership that Melbourne needs.”
(2) Kath Larkin, Victorian Socialists
As a dedicated socialist, Larkin acknowledges when speaking before an audience of Property Council members that there would be, ‘many differences between my vision for the city and yours’. When speaking before the audience, Larkin said she would appeal not to bankbooks but as human beings.
Her party’s vision involves Melbourne being ‘a capital city for all, not a city for capital’.
In her view, large business and the development industry had exercised too much influence over council at the expense of ordinary people who live and work in the city along with marginalised and vulnerable residents.
As well, she says decades of privatisation has been disastrous, with aged care residents being forced to endure substandard conditions and the private housing market having ‘a lot to answer for’ in failing to cater for low income residents. Despite a boom in construction, she says waiting lists for public housing continue to grow.
Specific policies include:
- Scrapping the ‘business vote’ in council elections and extending voting not only to residents but also those who work in the city (unlike other local councils in Victoria, commercial entities operating in Melbourne vote as part of council elections).
- Replacing the current Lord Mayor’s platforms of industry advisory bodies with bodies which comprise marginalised voices such as public housing tenants.
- Bringing more community services back into council continuing to advocate for public services and amenities across the state to be brought back into public hands.
- Adopting measures to promote affordable housing such as expanding inclusionary zoning, offering council rate relief for homeowners who are experiencing housing stress, opposing state government sales of public housing and advocating for more social and affordable housing, a state-government takeover of long-term vacant dwellings for use as public housing and a five-year freeze in housing rents.
(image via: Roy Morgan Resarch)
(3) Gary Morgan, Executive Chairman of Roy Morgan Research
A well-known businessman and extensive owner of property including owning or partly owning six major buildings in the Melbourne CBD, Morgan is campaigning on a program of Opening Melbourne Up Again.
This includes immediately opening the Melbourne city area to Stage 2 COVID restrictions including opening up businesses and shops – ‘obviously’ in a COVID safe manner.
He would also:
- Work with the private sector to approach the state government to buy and pull down the 22 high-density government high-rise apartment complexes in Melbourne and work with the Brotherhood of St Lawrence to develop the areas surrounding the towers.
- Get a public and private secondary school into the Docklands’ precinct. (As things stand, the Docklands precinct has no secondary school. A new vertical primary school topped out in January, but there is no secondary school. A lack of education facilities has long been a criticism of the precinct.)
- Link Docklands and North Melbourne with football fields and soccer grounds.
- Implement tourism related measures such as heritage trains between Melbourne and Warrnambool.
Whilst being strongly in favour of development, Morgan also supports heritage and attempted to prevent the demolition of the MCG Hotel in East Melbourne.
“Let’s get Melbourne going. I am happy to do it with the Property Council. I ask you for your support for the Morgan Watts team.”
(4) Phil Reed, Labor for Melbourne
Representing Labor for Melbourne (affiliated with the Victorian Labor Party), Phil Reed has held senior roles in two state governments including having been the Chief of Staff for the Office of the Premier in Tasmania and the Head of Community Relations at the Transport Accident Commission in Victoria and also runs a private consultancy which helps business to navigate dealing with government. He was the lead public consultant for the revitalising central Dandenong project.
On specific policies, Reed did not give detail during the presentation but says Labor for Melbourne does have a detailed policy platform.
Rather, he talks about wanting to change the Melbourne City Council from being just another local government council into a true capital city government that provides leadership through vision and executes granular detail that creates character and liveability.
Further, he wants government to go beyond imposing obligations on stakeholders but also to adhere to similar guidelines, standards and constraints in its own operations as is asked of stakeholders including the development sector.
On specific policies, Labor for Melbourne’s focus involves improving housing affordability and creating opportunities for those who work in the city to also live in the city. Toward this end, its centrepiece policy involves long-term rate concessions for developments which comprise 30 percent or more social and affordable housing.
“We talk about quality of developments a lot, but we need to talk about affordability. Councils need to use the levers they have got to improve affordability,” Reed says.
“We have seen through the pandemic who the workers are to run our city. We need to be creating opportunities for those workers to live in the same city that they work in.”
(5) Nick Russian, Bring Back Melbourne
Nick Russian is a diversified business owner and investor and has owned businesses across events, labour hire, cleaning, education and property investment/development. This experience, he says, positions him to understand the needs of business in Melbourne including in the development sector.
On specific policies, Russian says many regulations which impact building and development in Melbourne are set at a state-based level. Accordingly, much of his effort will involve advocating for state-based change rather than making specific directions at a city level.
This includes advocating for the state/Commonwealth to:
- Encourage investment by abolishing foreign taxes and off the plan stamp duty, providing tax and land tax incentives for developers and removing the vacant residential land tax.
- Improve affordability and enable teaches, nurses and others to get back into the city by pushing for developers to be afforded greater densities in exchange for delivering projects which are environmentally sustainable and which include affordable housing supported by NRAS.
- Devise a plan to get university students back into Australia.
On specific actions, Russian is committed to allow international students back into Melbourne by January 2021 and to work with universities to promote Melbourne as a safe destination.
(6) Apsara Sabaratnam (Melbourne City Greens)
“I’m standing for Lord Mayor of Melbourne because young people families and workers are being priced out of the inner city and our homelessness and affordability crisis is out of control.”
So began Sabaratnam in her pitch, which made clear that making the city affordable and liveable with quality development is her most important priority.
Sabaratnam says Melbourne faces a crisis in 1,725 people experiencing homelessness (Melbourne City Council data, 2019), gaps in emergency accommodation and a shortfall of 5,500 safe and affordable homes – problems she says have been further exacerbated by COVID.
Whilst acknowledging the importance of development and construction in the COVID recovery, Sabaratnam says buildings must be constructed which are affordable, well-designed and cost and energy efficient.
Indeed, the Greens’ ‘Homes for Everyone’ policy which she launched during the session, includes:
- Building 256 affordable homes over her term
- Establishing a Melbourne Housing Office
- Working with the state government to amend the final version of the Arden structure plan to include 938 new public housing units by 2025
- Supporting a mandatory inclusionary zoning policy which would involve a lower rate of mandatory inclusionary zoning for new developments across suburban Melbourne coupled with a higher rate of mandatory inclusionary zoning for urban renewal projects in the City of Melbourne. At the beginning, new developments across metropolitan Melbourne would need to include a minimum of five percent social/affordable housing in 2021. For urban renewal, the figure would be 10 percent. These percentages would then increase incrementally to ten percent in the suburbs and 20 percent in the CBD by 2031.
During her presentation, Sabaratnam criticised advocacy positions taken by the Property Council on several matters.
These include efforts to:
- Remove obligations upon property owners when developing land in relation to inclusionary zoning, central city built form control or urban design control.
- Abandon sunlight provisions for park access under Amendment C278; and
- Asking City of Melbourne Lord Mayor candidates to commit to an agenda which ‘abandons controls relating to design quality and setback along with affordable housing provisions’.
Speaking of the second point, Sabaratnam says Property Council arguments that the amendment would compromise opportunities for office development in the CBD and misguided as the amendment does not apply to the CBD.
On the last point, she says the Property Council’s efforts will serve as a barrier in solving the affordable housing crisis and ensuring quality of housing stock.
(7) Wayne Tseng (Team Zorin)
Went Tseng adopts a different approach and is focusing his pitch for improving Melbourne on a platform of technology.
At the core of this would be a new app through which citizens would connect with council services and convey their wishes to council.
That same app would also be used to improve traffic congestion and parking availability by redirecting traffic around the city and preventing bottlenecks from occurring.
Tseng would also look at how the PayStay app could be made smarter to free up unused carparks and is talking to investors about carpark towers.
On the city’s economy, Tseng would look for opportunities to boost industry training and transform Melbourne into a high-tech hub which will attract smart industry.
On small business, he would like to extend beyond the night-time economy and give the city a ‘daytime economy’ as well. He would advocate for extension of eligibility criteria for the $10,000 business grants provided under the City Recovery Fund referred to above to cover businesses with a turnover of $60 million or less (currently, businesses with a staff of 50 or less are eligible).
On property, Tseng would reform the calculation of council rates which are applied to commercial property to account not only for property value but also the rental yield of a property – a move he says would enable businesses who are struggling to obtain a rates discount.
On residential property, he would look to make CBD living more affordable by examining what can be done about what he says is a hike in body corporate fees and would seek to reduce losses which occur on property resale by approving apartments only on public demand.
Finally, to better accommodate residents living in the city, Tseng would advocate for more GP essential services along with a free tram zone (there is already a free-tram zone in the CBD) and would set up not only CCTV but also ‘butt buster’’ local pandemic inspections.
(8) Councillor Aaron Wood
An environmentalist, consultant and Deputy Lord Mayor, Wood talks about a five-point plan to reinvigorate Melbourne after COVID.
At the heart of this is a plan to get workers back into the CBD in a COVID safe manner. He advocates for an immediate return of the city workforce and has been working with the Business Council of Australia, Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Australian Industry Group to devise plans to bring workers back into the city.
This, Wood says, is doable. Perth has already brought around half of its workers back into the CBD. Accounting and advisory firm KPMG in other states (apart from locked-down Victoria) has 75 percent of its workforce back into the CBD.
Complimentary to that, Wood would also advocate for measures to bring students back into Melbourne with COVID safe protocols under a phased return. This, he says, is happening in South Australia.
Next, Wood would also pursue a 20 percent reduction in council rates for commercial landlords who qualify for the Victorian Government’s scheme for reductions in commercial land tax.
On planning, Wood says he will double the capacity of the planning department, set targets for turnaround times on development applications and review all decisions made by Heritage Victoria over the last three years.
Finally, he would bring forward expenditure on public infrastructure. This includes smaller works which the City of Melbourne controls such as those on parks, gardens and community services as well as advocating for larger projects such as a rail line through to the new Fisherman’s Bend urban renewal precinct.
“We are the food capital. We are the arts and cultural capital. The culinary capital,” Wood said.
“All of those things are in danger. We need a strong advocate as lord mayor. That’s what I will do if I am in the chair after October.”
9. Jennifer Yang, Back to Business
Jennifer Yang leads a team called Back to Business, which includes business leaders, property investors and people involved in property and construction.
Believing that Melbourne is at a crossroads and faces significant challenges including the potential for years of empty shops, Yang said the property and construction sector would play a critical role in Melbourne’s revitalisation and the importance of quality spaces to underpin startups, innovation and investment should not be underestimated.
In her speech, Yang unfortunately ran out of time before presenting her full policy agenda.
Nevertheless, she said her team would avoid any further excessive restrictions or red tape on the development sector and promised that those submitting development applications would not be subject to ‘nasty surprises’.
The team will also avoid efforts to apply new heritage overlays of buildings which are more than ten years old as a means of preventing redevelopment.
As well, all new council policies would be subject to an assessment of their impact upon business recovery.