planning laws
Site of the demolished Corkman Pub. Image credit: Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Next week will mark an important moment in the political life of Victoria: on October 31, the citizens of this proud state will find out whether they have a planning system or not.

For October 31 is the date that a two-year ban on development of the Corkman Pub site, on the fringe of Melbourne’s CBD, will expire.

The Corkman, or Carlton Inn, as it was for decades, as many will remember, was a Victorian-era pub in South Carlton.

It was illegally demolished by its owners, Raman Shaqiri and Stefce Kutlesovski, who then left exposed asbestos on the site, before transporting it somewhere else and leaving it exposed on a site near a primary school.

Shaqiri and Kutlesovski didn’t simply flout the law; they trashed it. The illegal demolition of the pub began on a Saturday. Council inspectors were called and halted it. So they came back on a Sunday and demolished the rest.

The outrage was unanimous. The CFMMEU banned the site. Then-mayor Robert Doyle called for the pub to be rebuilt. And Planning Minister Richard Wynne slapped a two-year ban on it. The demolishers expressed contrition, etc, promised to rebuild.

The last of these was bulldust of course. Soon, the builders were suing the planning minister for the right to build a 12-storey tower on the site — plans for which predated the Corkman demolition.

They’re doing so in the confidence that the weak provisions of the planning law — which makes it possible to get planning permission even if you have committed illegal acts to make the site buildable — and taking the fines accruing as the costs of doing business.

Should planning minister Wynne not renew the ban, they’ll be raring to go.

Should that happen, then Victoria simply has no planning system. You can demolish whatever you like, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the day, take the fine, and carry on. It’s a ticket to urban mayhem.

That’s the choice Wynne faces. There’s only one way that even the limited powers of planning in Victoria are preserved — and that’s if Shaqiri and Kutlesovski never get the chance to develop the site, as anything other than a two-storey approximation of the pub, and take a solid financial loss on the site.

Will Wynne — with a 50/50 record on urban heritage — take this chance to stand up for the most basic values (not even purely Labor, simply civilised) before the November 24 election? If not on principle, then with an eye to his Richmond electorate? He’s more likely to retain that than most inner-city Labor members.

But by now, after the Opera House and Apple Store/Fed Square, even the thickest Labor members are starting to realise that these issues matter a lot to progressive voters that they need to swing victory.

The other player in this is the CFMMEU, and the ETU, who banned the site — and should continue a permanent green-blackban on the site for anything other than a two-storey pub building. The issue is one of industrial safety and complementary to the planning issue: if Shaqiri and Kutlesovski are allowed to financially profit from leaving exposed asbestos sheeting in two locations — one a busy inner-city precinct, the other a suburban site close to a primary school — then industrial health and safety doesn’t exist. Any employer can do anything, take the fine, and carry on. Beyond that, we need such unions to stand up for basic civilised values, when the bourgeoisie won’t.

Shaqiri and Kutlesovski have already been fined half a million dollars for the asbestos dumping, by a magistrate who said he would jail them if he had the power, and hoped their names would be widely known, and publicly shamed for their actions. They had to be cautioned for smirking throughout the hearing. No wonder; the half a million will be small change, if they’re permitted to build a tower. Having pleaded guilty to the charges, they are now appealing the amount of the fine.

Come next week, we’ll find out if the smirk will be wiped off their faces, or if Richard Wynne will de facto authorise open slather on Melbourne’s heritage.