Socialist Alliance councillor Sue Bolton spoke to Dave Holmes about her work as a local councillor in Moreland, a municipality in Melbourne. This is the third of a series of interviews with Sue Bolton. You can find the whole interview at Links: Online Journal of Socialist Renewal.
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Is there a tension between getting involved in the here-and-now and local issues, and balancing that off with our engagement with national and global issues and vision for a new society?
Some of the other councillors and (and some residents) are opposed to the council taking positions on issues that aren’t seen as local council business. When I tried to move a motion condemning the bombing of Gaza in 2014, the right-wing Labor councillors, the DLP and the Liberal Party were all absolutely outraged and got together to put forward an alternative motion which was completely ridiculous and toothless.
As a socialist, you have to propose that the council takes a position on broader issues. The council doesn’t exist in a bubble; it’s affected by state and federal politics. And the residents are affected by all sorts of issues. For instance, some residents are asylum seekers on bridging visas with no right to vote; we have residents who are homeless; we have residents who are under the watchful eye of ASIO; and so on. So it is important that councils, just as trade unions and churches, take a stand for human rights and justice and against neoliberal policies which affect us at all levels of society.
Let’s discuss the campaign against inappropriate development, especially against the notorious Coburg Plan. You played a very prominent role in this fight. There have been wins and defeats. The final result seems to be a very bad one. Was it all worth it?
Despite the fact that the Save Coburg campaign lost the campaign against high-rise in central Coburg, the struggle was absolutely worth it. We had to take up this campaign because we stood for election on the slogan of “community need not developer greed”.
Since the collapse of the Communist Party of Australia, the left hasn’t really been involved in campaigns around urban development, and the Greens have a pro-development viewpoint. Socialist Alliance doesn’t have a formal position on planning and development issues, however we do believe in democracy and residents’ involvement in decisions that affect them and we are opposed to developers being able to ride roughshod over residents.
If we hadn’t backed the residents and helped them organise this campaign, we would have effectively been saying that we think it is fine for developers to decide how our cities and communities should look.
And if we are to be honest about our slogan of “people before profit” and if we’re honest about democracy — and that’s a core part of socialism — then we have to be involved in and support campaigns against inappropriate development.
It is true that in some areas you can get right-wing elements in some of the anti-development campaigns. In the eastern suburbs the Save Our Suburbs movement has some anti-migrant populationists involved. The local federal Labor MP for Wills, Kelvin Thompson, is also a populationist, which leads to a right-wing, anti-migrant dynamic. However this wasn’t true of the Save Coburg campaign.
The Save Coburg campaign began when a resident (Sally) approached me and asked what I thought about the 10-storey buildings planned for the end of her street. She said she and the residents around her all voted for me in the council elections because of our “community need not developer greed” slogan. I had to be honest and stand up for the residents.
The council plan was a planning amendment to allow the council to convert central Coburg into a mini-CBD with a six-, eight- and 10-storey buildings. The current council carparks would go underground with 10- or eight-storey buildings on top of them. There would be very little green or open space. This would be very much a concrete and high-rise affair.
The 10-storey buildings would abut buildings that are single storey on the northern side of Bell Street. The area the Bell Street buildings back onto is the old Pentridge village, where the old Pentridge Gaol guards used to live. These are all one-storey cottages.
So I got involved. The public consultation period was over Christmas when people are away so no one knew about the council’s plans. The letters notifying residents were also so legalistic that residents didn’t realise the impact of the council’s plans on their lives. This meant that hardly any residents objected.
I suggested to Sally that we organise a meeting of residents to see what people thought. I drafted a leaflet and photocopied it for letterboxing. Sally organised the letterboxing; I did some emailing. We got more than 50 residents to the meeting. People were pissed off. Some of the residents who follow what is happening in their local area said they had no idea this was being planned.
I got a call from a man who said he was a lawyer. He said that even he found the planning documents difficult to get through, let alone someone who’s not trained to read boring legal stuff.
So Save Coburg came into being and we leafletted hundreds and hundreds of houses and the number of objections went from about 10 to about 250 and there were lots of emails and phone calls complaining to councillors. We fought for and managed to win an extension of the public discussion time.
You were the only councillor present at a demonstration outside a council meeting at Coburg. No other councillors associated themselves with the action and then the protest filed into the gallery at the council meeting. There were several other council meetings where there were more than 100 people in the gallery because of this issue.
Save Coburg made a difference and we did bombard the councillors. We forced them to agree to an extension of discussion. We did not succeed in forcing them to agree to a public meeting but they did concede to an information day where people could meet individually with planners. This was not as democratic as a public meeting, where everyone hears the same information and there can be collective discussion.
The campaign also had a big and successful public meeting in the middle of 2013 and then in December the councillors agreed to lower the building heights, to six and eight stories. I still voted against the amended plan because it didn’t go far enough. I put in an alternative motion that didn’t get debated so I had to try to amend the Greens' motion. Bits of the Greens' motion were voted up so there were concessions won.
Then that recommendation went to the planning panel, which is appointed by the state minister and they came back in October 2014 with a report recommending to go back to the original proposal. I had to fight with the planners to release that to the public: they were going to keep it secret.
I didn’t start that fight quickly enough. I thought we could delay the decision until the December meeting and so we’d have a full month to have residents' discussion. Then I discovered that the proposal would be rammed through at the November meeting, with residents only having a short period to come to grips with it. I fought to have it released and eventually discovered that there was no legal requirement for council to keep it secret.
I managed to force the council planners to release the report. Then I tried to get the decision deferred to a later council meeting to give residents an extra couple of weeks to work out what was being planned. The councillors rejected that, on the vote of the mayor. Council then voted to go with all the recommendations.
Even though all the amendments had been stripped out?
There were four who voted against the planning amendment for Coburg: myself, the two Greens and Lita Gillies (from the ALP left). The main reason the Greens opposed it was that it also removed some things that the council officers had recommended in the original version. The planning panel made it worse than the original. It stripped the rating from six green star to four, it stripped out affordable housing, accessible housing and the minimum size of units requirement. Also, there is no right of residents to object to anything.
So, after two years of struggle, an appalling result got up.
It is an appalling result. But there was still value in the Save Coburg campaign coming together. There have been a lot of residents’ campaigns in the south of Moreland. Save Coburg is not as solid a group as the Brunswick Residents Network but it starts to put the council on notice that there are residents who are unhappy about what is happening in Coburg and want to do something about it. It awakened an interest among residents in what is happening in their local area.
It was a dreadful decision, there’s no two ways about that. It was a defeat although a couple of small concessions were won. The planning panel recommended that the setbacks from neighbouring houses for the 10-storey buildings on the northern side of Bell Street be bigger than the council was recommending. And the council has accepted this. That meant that 10-storey buildings won’t fit on the northern side of Bell Street.