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Tribunal criticises planning minister's 'formulaic' approval of lease changes for clubs

The government's treatment of the steady stream of clubs wanting to change their concessional leases to allow development has drawn criticism from the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal, which accuses authorities of not properly considering the public interest.

The planning minister is supposed to ensure the public interest is protected when community groups change their leases, but the tribunal said in a July judgment that all 13 leases "deconcessionalised" since late 2010 had been approved. None had been rejected in the public interest, and planning authorities appeared to have "adopted a formulaic approach, since all the minister's reasons were couched in roughly similar terms", it found.

An artist's impression of the new Raiders building in Braddon.
An artist's impression of the new Raiders building in Braddon. 

Most of the 13 are in the hands of clubs.

The government grants low-cost leases to community groups for clubs or other activities of benefit to the community. If they apply to have the concessional status removed so they can develop the site, the minister must consider whether the change would disadvantage the community.

The tribunal was considering a challenge to the Raiders' plans for the prime inner-city site on Cooyong Street, the former Braddon Club. The Canberra District Rugby League Club plans an $80 million hub of shops, restaurants, offices and  apartments

Former planning minister Simon Corbell allowed the application for "deconcessionalisation", but the decision was challenged by the North Canberra Community Council, which disputed the value put on the land, and raised concerns about the loss of community facilities. Its challenge was rejected by the tribunal, which upheld Mr Corbell's decision.

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But in its judgment, the tribunal raised serious questions about the way deconcessionalisation is handled.

It said the social impact assessment submitted by the Raiders group was inadequate, as was the department's evaluation of it, which simply paraphrased the Raiders material. But despite its misgivings, it was not persuaded the minister would have been misled by the material, it concluded.

The Combined Community Councils have called for an overhaul of concessional leases. Convener Gary Kent said the Brumbies had paid $270,000 to deconcessionalise their lease, and sold their inner south land for more than $11 million. Half the fee had been waived, along with the $7.5 million lease variation charge – in effect "a reward for not maintaining the lease that was granted for a lawn bowls club".

A group should not be able to make windfall profits from a concessional lease at the expense of the community by changing the land use to something completely different, he said.

"It was never the intention that lessees should have the right to pay out the lease and then sell it for other purposes and make a substantial profit," the councils said in a letter to Chief Minister Katy Gallagher. 

The Liberals have also chased the question, with Alistair Coe so far stymied in attempts to find out how much money the Labor clubs, set up to fund the Labor Party, have made from deconcessionalising leases. One of the 13 refered to by the tribunal was the Weston Creek Labor Club at Stirling, deconcessionalised in 2012. Mr Coe asked Treasurer Andrew Barr what lease variation charge was paid, but Mr Barr refused to give the figure, saying he could not disclose taxpayer information.

Mr Coe has also asked under freedom of information laws for documents on dealings with the Labor clubs in Stirling, Charnwood and Belconnen, but was told he would have to pay $6169 for the cost of processing the 14,800 pages of material.

In her response to Mr Kent, Ms Gallagher said new laws in 2010 made it easier to identify concessional leases. They also impose a five-year ban on changing the lease.

Ms Gallagher said owners must pay the market value of the new lease.

This, though, was another issue questioned by the tribunal. The information that went to the minister valued the block at $625,000. It put the  original value in 1998 at $570,000 and the concessional pay out at $315,000. The community council disputed the valuation, especially given parking income from the site, and claimed also that the valuer, Colliers, had a conflict of interest since state chief executive Paul Powderly is a member of the Raiders board. 

The tribunal said it was left puzzled by the purpose of the valuation, with no one able to say what purpose it served, given the planning authority would get its own valuation before the land was handed over.

The planning department said each application was considered on its merits and the minister was apprised of all information which might impact on his decision.

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