Disputes fail to quash $52m dream
THE proponent of the $52 million Walkerville Village proposal is still hoping the 88 lot subdivision will proceed, despite being embroiled in disputes with South Gippsland Shire Council.
That includes a matter with Cr Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks that could escalate into legal action.
The proponent, Jeremy Rich, has called on the Victorian Ombudsman to investigate his claims of poor governance within council that led to council refusing to approve his Walkerville Village proposal.
Asked if he felt the village would still proceed, Mr Rich said, “Yes, if it was evaluated on its merits.”
He said he had asked his family to invest in the project and “I feel that pressure”.
In October 2015, council rejected Mr Rich’s proposal for a planning permit for the village on the grounds it was not consistent with local and state planning policy that specified Walkerville could not expand.
Mr Rich said he was told by council staff a third recommendation had been included in the report to council that stated council could alter local planning policy to allow the village to be considered.
But Mr Rich said that third option was removed from the report and council was instead given the option of either supporting or rejecting the village.
Council CEO Tim Tamlin said he had removed the third option.
“If we review our strategies every time a planning permit application came up that did not meet our strategy we would be reviewing our strategies all the time,” he said.
“To rewrite the strategy would cost ratepayers a heap of money.”
Mr Tamlin said Mr Rich could have achieved the same outcome had council referred the permit application to the Victorian Planning Minister.
Mr Tamlin said he supported the Walkerville Village proposal.
“From an economic development point of view I thought it was a wonderful proposal but unfortunately it does not meet our policies,” he said.
Mr Rich has contacted the ombudsman and is awaiting action by that office, but is yet to submit a report to the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate regarding his concerns about the planning permit outcome and Cr Hutchinson-Brooks.
He said he has also asked the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate what he sees as “inconsistencies” within council’s decision making. The commission was unable to comment “for legal and operational reasons”.
Mr Rich said, “I’m not allegedly anyone has broken the law at this time but there are inconsistencies there.”
Mr Rich claimed planning consultancy Key Infrastructure Australia (KIA), of which Cr Hutchinson-Brooks is a director, offered to undertake consulting work with the Walkerville Village the day after Mr Rich presented to council about the village in August 2013.
KIA did have discussions with Mr Rich regarding possible improvements to the original proposal, but was not formally engaged to work with the project and later ceased all associations due to dissatisfaction with the project.
The Star has seen an email from Mr Rich to Cr Hutchinson-Brooks, sent to his councillor email address, that asked him to work personally on the project, but Cr Hutchinson-Brooks said he did not respond.
Cr Hutchinson-Brooks said that email created a conflict of interest for himself as a councillor and as such he had always declared that at council.
Cr Hutchison-Brooks said the initial discussions between himself and the Rich family arose from his past association with the Walkerville Village architect, Peter McIntyre. Cr Hutchinson-Brooks said he believed Mr McIntyre initiated contact in relation to Walkerville Village.
“I spoke to him and said some issues need to be addressed,” Cr Hutchinson-Brooks said, adding he suggested KIA talk to the Rich family about those issues.
The parties had a series of conversations but Cr Hutchinson-Brooks said KIA was never paid, nor invoiced, for services.
Mr Rich said he was encouraged by KIA to lodge a new planning application with council. Cr Hutchinson-Brooks said that was because the original application contained flaws.
Mr Rich emailed Cr Hutchinson-Brooks before the December 2015 council meeting at which Cr Andrew McEwen wanted to call for council to receive a report on the options available to council to amend the Local Planning Policy Framework to provide support for the Walkerville Village.
Mr Rich said, “I told him (Cr Hutchinson-Brooks) to ensure that he stayed within the rules otherwise I would go to the media and here we are.”
Cr Hutchinson-Brooks was incensed by the email and will now refer it to the police.
“I have never done any of the things he has accused me of doing,” he said.
“It’s not about me. It’s about an elected official. They should not be threatened to have their reputation damaged when everything that has been alleged can be proven as incorrect.”
Cr Hutchinson-Brooks said he was able to operate as a planning consultant and a councillor, and that conflicts of interest could also arise in relation to association with friends proposing projects he would consider as a councillor.
“The conflict of interest is when you don’t declare it,” Cr Hutchinson-Brooks said.
“Councillors are advised that if in doubt, come out.”
Mr Tamlin said Cr Hutchinson-Brooks had always declared conflicts of interest where appropriate and said he was entitled to earn a living.
“Nigel can’t influence anything because he has to leave the room because of conflicts of interest and can’t discuss the matter and can’t participate in a vote,” Mr Tamlin said.
Mayor Cr Bob Newton said to the best of his knowledge, council had “done nothing wrong” and neither had Cr Hutchinson-Brooks.
“He has just had a conflict of interest in everything,” Cr Newton said.
The village also proposes a general store, cafe, restaurant, post office, petrol sales and a community meeting space.
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