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Thursday, 4 February 2016
Page: 603


Mr KELVIN THOMSON (Wills) (16:29): The former Her Majesty's Prison at Pentridge, with its grim and imposing bluestone walls, is the best known landmark in Coburg and one of the best known landmarks in Melbourne. It is heritage listed by the National Trust of Australia and is also on the Victorian Heritage Register. For a time it housed two of Australia's most famous political prisoners—John Curtin, imprisoned in 1916 for refusing to be conscripted, and the suffragette Adela Pankhurst, imprisoned in 1917 following a women's anti-war demonstration—and also the Indigenous artist Ronald Bull. The hanging of Ronald Ryan for murdering a prison warder in the course of escaping from Pentridge galvanised the anti-capital punishment campaign under the leadership of a former distinguished member of this House, Barry Jones, and led to the abolition of the death penalty in Victoria. Its heritage significance is not unlike that of Port Arthur or the Tower of London.

When the jail was closed and the site sold off to private developers, elaborate promises were made about the attention that would be given to heritage preservation. In January 2000 the then Victorian government said that a museum would be built on the site. It has not happened. The Heritage Act provides for property owners to enter into covenants with the National Trust for the conservation of a site or parts of it. No covenant has been entered into. The approach of the various developers to the Pentridge site has been one of incremental destruction of its overall heritage values, with ever-increasing ruptures to the outer bluestone walls to make way for roads, demolition of the bluestone walls of the H Division exercise yards, and cheek by jowl apartment blocks right next to existing bluestone buildings with scant regard for the aesthetic and heritage consequences. And while this has been happening, successive Victorian governments and Heritage Victoria have done precious little. They have not covered themselves in glory. In 2009 the then planning minister obtained an exemption for public exhibition so no third parties were able to make submissions. As a result we have a Pentridge master plan prepared without community input.

On Christmas Eve I was contacted by local resident, Professor Michael Hamel-Green, who informed me that the developers had applied to build a 19-storey apartment tower on the site. Submissions were to close at the end of December. Springing this on us at Christmas was a breathtakingly cynical abuse of provisions designed to ensure proper public consultation. There was no notice in the local paper—there should have been—and the permit application was hidden away in a window. It was a farce, and I immediately wrote to both Heritage Victoria and the planning minister calling for the consultation period to be extended till the end of January. I am pleased that they responded positively to that request.

I also initiated a public protest meeting which took place on Saturday, 16 January and was attended by well over 100 people. Local residents do not want a 19-storey tower, for good reason. It would be the tallest high-rise residential development to date in Moreland. Moreland does not have the transport or other civic infrastructure to accommodate population growth on the scale of this and other proposed developments in Moreland. The surrounding buildings are low rise, but if this project gets through every other developer will say 'Why can't I build one' and we will end up with Shanghai. Indeed if the Pentridge master plan were ever to be put into effect we would get not one high-rise tower, but six—two 19-storey, two 18-storey and two others of 13 storeys or more! Nineteen-storey towers are the slums of the future. They will create a soulless concrete jungle. You would think we would have learned something from the Housing Commission debacles of the 1960s. All people and no vegetation is a recipe for crime, drugs and mental health problems. It is ironic that we close a jail and property developers want to replace it with a breeding ground for crime.

This proposal will dwarf the bluestone walls, is recklessly indifferent to the heritage values of the prison and will erode its heritage significance. Heritage Victoria should reject this application, just as it recently stopped a developer from demolishing the Nylex silos in Richmond to build 20-storey high-rises. That decision was spot on, and the issues are the same here. This application should not proceed. Furthermore, as the National Trust and the City of Moreland have proposed, the Pentridge master plan should now be reviewed, this time with full and proper public consultation. When someone says 'You can't stop progress', I say 'This isn't progress, and we can stop this.'