Friday, April 26, 2024

Council decision-making let community down, says Ombudsman

The Victorian Ombudsman has today tabled in Parliament her investigative report into allegations of collusion with property developers at Kingston City Council.

Corruption was not the only explanation for poor or incomprehensible decision-making in planning, in which communities feel let down by those who are supposed to act in the public interest, Ombudsman Deborah Glass said in concluding her investigation.

The Ombudsman looked into Kingston City Council’s planning approval processes for the Patterson Lakes marina area following concerns from residents and allegations a senior planning officer and two former councillors had corrupt and improper dealings with property developers.

The investigation did not substantiate that the trio had engaged in corrupt or improper conduct as alleged.

Planning started in 1988 for a marina-based mixed-use area to be used for boating, residential, commercial and entertainment, as well as greater public access along the riverbank.

Further evolution of plans showed restaurants, car parking, offices and residences with heights of two to four storeys, plus access to open space.

But the Ombudsman, who tabled her investigation in Parliament today, said the reality was quite different.

“What the community ended up with is bigger, higher and less accessible. Little wonder then that some locals were suspicious, even to allege corruption by councillors and council staff,” Ms Glass said.

Witnesses told the Ombudsman that bribes and kickbacks were “common knowledge”, and “coffee talk” around the marina, but acknowledged they had no evidence.

Conflict of interest perceptions increased after the council planner dined with the developer at up market restaurants, without declaring the developer’s hospitality.

“What my investigation found was poor or absent records of decision-making, poor strategic decision-making and a lack of transparency and recording of meetings with developers and council,” Ms Glass said.

She said changes to the earlier vison were gradual and uncoordinated, and errors prevented the council being able to consider the full picture including height controls, the impact on visitor parking and traffic flow.

“Mistakes have consequences – as a result of approvals being given on incorrect information, later approvals were given to increased height levels,” Ms Glass said.

“Council’s lack of strategic oversight effectively allowed the area to develop in line with the developer’s objectives rather than the original plan.

“But corruption is not always the explanation for changing development or over-development, depending on your perspective.”

Planning approvals for the development were done under a Comprehensive Development Zone, meaning planning permits are not required and consent is exempt from public notice provisions.

Ms Glass said Kingston City Council’s original contract with the developer allowed him to satisfy the open space requirement by making a monetary contribution based on the value of the land, so land identified as public open space on the original plan was in effect sold in 1990.

“In the end the community appears to have had the worst of both worlds: neither the adherence to the original plan nor the chance to object,” she said.

“Development may always be a contentious issue for councils and their communities, but with transparency and good governance it should not be seen to undermine public trust.

“I am tabling this report not to expose any serious misconduct but because the community deserves answers, where possible, about what has happened in their neighbourhood and why.”

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