Closed-door decisions beg question: what’s in it for ratepayers, existing businesses?
TWO YEARS AFTER QPRC interim Administrator Tim Overall approved an exclusive in-principle agreement to sell multiple council sites to a single consortium without a public tender, details are finally starting to emerge about the arrangements, raising questions about who the real beneficiaries are.
The scale of the deal is immense. In early 2017, the council estimated the financial value of the redevelopments at $400 million over a decade. The projects that the deal encompasses, if all are realised, will change the face and feel of Queanbeyan’s city centre forever.
• Finding: Administrator overstepped in land sales approval
It’s no secret the CBD is struggling and changes are needed to attract new businesses and customers. But details of the deal with Downtown Q P/L (the consortium that proposed the land sales and redevelopment plans to the council in early 2016) were never exposed to public scrutiny before Tim Overall approved the arrangement.
In October 2018 council approved the sale of the first parcel of properties, along part of Crawford and Rutledge streets.
Council assets ‘given’ to a developer?
According to the council’s November 2018 newsletter, the developers won’t have to buy the land they intend to turn into a residential hotel, townhouses and a restaurant/cafe. Instead, they will provide ‘public domain and other civic works to the equivalent value of the Council-owned sites’. If there is any shortfall, the developers will need to make up the difference with a cash payment.
Exactly what these works are is unclear although they will likely include some kind of civic square. Likewise, details of the proposed developments are not available as the council decision was made in closed session. A development application will be lodged with the Joint Regional Planning Panel.
Nor has a case been made to residents, ratepayers and existing traders why this financial arrangement is in the best interests of the city.
Plenty of questions:
- Why isn’t there a public process to sell or otherwise dispose of the council land?
- Will the title of the land be transferred to the developer consortium?
- Exactly what do ratepayers and residents get from this arrangement?
- Did the council consider the pros and cons of selling the land on the open market and using the proceeds to pay for the ‘public domain and civic works’?
- What are the financial and other risks with the approach the council is taking?
- Do the consortium’s plans align in any way with existing Queanbeyan CBD vision or strategies?
- Was the consortium’s project plan for the CBD sites assessed for its impact on the heritage values of buildings and streetscapes in the city centre?
- Is there sufficient demand in the CBD for another restaurant/café?
One of the chief shortcomings of dealing exclusively with a single consortium without testing the market is that we don’t know what other ideas for the sites might have been put forward.
Doubts ratepayers will benefit, transparency missing
Ann Rocca who served as councillor on the former Queanbeyan Council for 17 years (to 2012) said there did not seem to be any evidence of any benefit for the community of Queanbeyan and the residents and ratepayers of QPRC.
She noted the exclusion of other potential but unknown interested parties and the acceptance of a bid from Downtown Q P/L without any master planning, which would include community consultation.
“There is a lack of transparency around this multimillion-dollar proposal. Council and the community could be substantially worse off financially under a deed of agreement to exchange council land for civic works,” she said. The community cannot assess the risks and benefits without consultation.
“It is preferable for council to do the public works so it can be assured they are done properly, and where they are only necessary because of the development, the developer should pay for them.
“The council took years of prudent financial management to amass its property portfolio and now it seems it is being given away to a developer with no explanation of the benefit to the people of Queanbeyan.
“If the current council had taken a more conservative position on debt-financing and spending on non-essential projects, there would be no need to consider ‘selling the silver’ to upgrade the CBD.”
STAY TUNED — Future report: The full scale of the CBD land sales and the implications