No doubt today there will be a knees-up or three with some decent vintage French champagne flowing in one of Melbourne’s most well heeled areas, East Melbourne. The cause for celebration? A 2 to 1 victory in the Victorian Court of Appeal for East Melbourne residents against a Bracks/Brumby government plan to allow a redevelopment of the Hilton Hotel, the historic MCG Hotel and a historic house, Mosspennoch House.

One East Melbourne resident in particular, pollster Gary Morgan, who is running for Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, is delighted with the win because his East Melbourne residence lies within the vicinity of the proposed development.

The Hilton Hotel redevelopment case is, unfortunately, another exemplar of the fact that the full suite of planning law processes are only available to the rich and powerful. You need the deepest of deep pockets to challenge developers and if you and your neighbours don’t have such pockets then you can forget about preserving your area from over sized developments.

The first application by the developer to redevelop the Hilton Hotel and adjoining properties was made way back in 2001 and the fight has been raging ever since. When, in late 2004, former Bracks government Planning Minister Mary Delahunty allowed the development which included a 15 storey block of apartments, partly on the basis that it would provide increased accommodation and amenities for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, East Melbourne residents swung into action.

A four day trial in the Supreme Court of Victoria, involving no less than six silks and their junior barristers and instructing solicitors, took place in May 2005 and Justice Stuart Morris handed down his decision two months later, which the East Melbourne residents lost. They then went to the Victorian Court of Appeal which has handed down its decision this morning blocking the development. While it is a complex legal argument, the bottom line the Court of Appeal found was that Ms Delahunty made an irrational decision because there was no way the proposed development could be finished in time for the Commonwealth Games.

The expense to the residents of East Melbourne must surely run into the millions of dollars in legal fees and experts. Planning appeals are a rich person’s sport.

As the East Melbourne residents quaff their champagne today perhaps they might care to think of those low income earners in suburban Australia who will never have any chance of playing the planning appeals game because the expense is way out of their league.

Appealing against developments and government decisions to radically alter the amenity of a neighbourhood is a fundamental right that each citizen in our community should be able to exercise. But today’s Hilton Hotel decision shows just how unreal the exercise of that right is for all but those who live in wealthy enclaves.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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