Don’t laugh, you’re next

TIM CHAMBERS is an East Fremantle resident concerned about a 21-storey tower block being proposed for the Royal George Hotel site. He says people living elsewhere should pay attention, because their suburb could be next.

THE proposal to build a 21-storey apartment tower on the site of the historic Royal George Hotel in East Fremantle should concern residents of any suburb.

The owners of the hotel, Saracen Developments, publicly touted the skyscraper as part of ‘revitalising’ the Royal George.

The mammoth high-rise would dwarf the heritage hotel into insignificance, as well as compromising amenity with overshadowing, increased traffic and parking-related issues.

East Fremantle council has responded by passing a planning amendment to cap any development to six storeys.

However, this scheme amendment is not effective until signed by planning minister Rita Saffioti.

At this stage the minister has not signed the council’s scheme amendment and it is possible that the WA planning commission, which advises her, may recommend no height limit at all.

Residents of East Fremantle are outraged and have presented a 2200-signature petition, close to half the adult population of East Fremantle, opposing the tower.

For it to come to this, should concern the residents of any suburb.

First is the manner in which Saracen Developments have come to own the site.

Transparency

The hotel was sold by government to the developer for $570,000 plus tax, without being publicly listed for sale.

The lack of transparency and extraordinarily low price have outraged local residents.

The developer claims the low price offsets the cost of restoration, but then uses the same financial argument to justify the construction of the apartment block.

As Fremantle Society president John Dowson pointed out, the Guildford Hotel, the National Hotel and numerous other historic hotels have been successfully restored without the need for financial or planning concession from the government; never mind two concessions.

Mr Dowson also asserts that the heritage council has become dominated by development interests, and notes that the heritage minister, David Templeman, has declined to be involved.

Second is the process whereby a planning minister can override a council zoning scheme.

The sequence is as follows: a council passes a planning scheme or amendment, however the scheme is not effective until it is signed by the planning minister.

The scheme is submitted to the WAPC who advise the minister.

Both the WAPC and the minister are permitted to reject or alter the council’s scheme.

Further, even after the minister has signed the planning scheme, a developer may request variation to the scheme by taking the matter to the Development Assessment Panel, or if still dissatisfied the State Administrative Tribunal.

As such, there exists multiple opportunities for a developer.

As Scarborough MLA Liza Harvey said, in relation to the 43-storey Oceans Development in Scarborough, “the planning scheme is somewhat irrelevant”.

By comparison, the opportunity for community representation arises when the WAPC invites ‘deputations’ to present their concerns with a time limit of five minutes.

I was part of one of such community deputation and, believe me, the stopwatch was running as we spoke.

When deals happen behind closed doors, when councils have no ultimate authority over planning decisions, when developers have multiple opportunities to argue their case, while community groups have five minutes, when documentation between the WAPC and the minister is confidential and when politicians such as the heritage minister offer no commitment; it can only be said that the system is weighted in favour of development over local community.

There are numerous recent instances in which the demands of developers have overridden those of local communities, notably in Scarborough, South Perth and Melville.

Ms Harvey noted the potential domino effect by pointing out that “(other developers must) now be kicking themselves for not pushing the envelope further and enhancing the profitability of their sites”.

So if you think the Royal George is too far from you to be of concern, think again. Your suburb could be next.

Please join the Friends of the Royal George Facebook page to offer support.

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