Howard Smith Wharves – the debate in the Council Chamber

by Dave Reeve

Introduction

I posted the following piece to the ACAQ Facebook page as part of our investigation into the proposal by Brisbane City Council to grant a 99 year lease over the Howard Smith Wharves precinct to HSW Nominees Pty Ltd.

The Debate in the Council Chamber

This is the last piece in my analysis of the HSW Development Proposal, and what it means for the climbing community. The debate in the chamber is of interest in that it sheds light on the position of individual Councillors. Well it should shed light, but for the fact that Council is dominated by a large majority of the one party, and the need for debate is minimal. Such debate as there is, is pretty much a formality that leads up to the foregone conclusion of the vote.

However, we do see the independent Councillor Nicole Johnstone raise most of the issues we would raise, so we know we are not totally off-beam with our assessment, unfortunately HSW is not in her ward, and she quite rightly has local issues to attend.

The LM introduces the proposal very briefly, having spoken at length on the subject during Question Time. He affirms that “concept and delivery”, rather than “financial return”, were the deciding factors in the choice of proposal. Remember this is a political debate, never take anything spoken at its face value. Think peas and thimbles, and you have the idea.

[Lord Mayor]
……. but importantly, Madam Chairman, as part and parcel of this, we saw the setting that was made right at the very beginning of this, in terms of its assessment, was that the major scorecard was around concept plan and the capacity to deliver. They dominated over any returns to Council, Madam Chairman. This is a unique site and we needed to look at it in that context. It was a decision that the cabinet firmly made, that we wanted to make sure that the concept and that the delivery were the priorities in terms of this proposal.

Cr Dick, takes a scatter-gun approach to his role in opposition. It lacks the forensic probing that is really required, but the targets are worth noting.

[Councillor Dick]
…. Just finally, Madam Chair, on the Stores Board submission, which is the Howard Smith Wharves Revitalisation Project, as the LORD MAYOR outlined in question time and also in the E&C debate. The HSW Consortium is a partnership between Elisha Bickle and Adam Flaskas. The Howard Smith Wharves Consortium and, as the LORD MAYOR confirmed, they’ve sold the hotel development right to Asia Pacific Group. I note in the report that the Howard Smith Wharves Consortium have taken on the maintenance of locations with the parkland.

Now this is one area where we haven’t heard a lot of information about the project. Now, as people will recall and we were in the old chamber when at one council meeting the LNP decided to use its majority to take the money out of the Central Ward Park Trust Fund, remember that one?

[interjection]

To pay for the redevelopment of Howard Smith Wharves, to deliver the parkland which is the real reason that we’re debating this issue because the community have been promised for a very long time new parkland in that area. Forget the bodgie figures around 80 per cent that they go on about when they include the cliff face as part of the 80 per cent, all of that nonsense.

[interjection]

That’s right. When you can throw a frisbee against the rock wall. But, Madam Chair, we’ve received very little information about this and this is something that I know local residents and people who have been following this issue way back from years ago. We then saw the rezoning change onto that site, so residents wouldn’t get a chance to object to that, remember that change came through Council as well?

[interjection]

They shot that one through so we could actually see a change there. So residents would be shut out of the process. Now we’re seeing the hotel redevelopment, commercialisation of that site without any attention today by the LORD MAYOR regarding the flooding issues which I know have been raised continuously. Now it’s been emerged that the family or the parent group of that developer are also LNP donors as well, which I raised in question time today as well.
Well there may be some—

[interjection]

I take the interjection, Madam Chair, that Councillor ABRAHAMS is suggesting it may be a pattern. I certainly hope there is no pattern involved because we want to see the highest quality development in Brisbane across the city with no connections to donors as well, but we’ll be debating that a little later today where those questions have been seriously raised regarding other developments. So I certainly hope some of those issues will be raised in today’s debate. We’ve had very little information about what that will mean for the broader Brisbane community, about what we will be receiving there on that site.

It’s an incredible opportunity for us to get this site, to make sure we deliver for our city.

The Deputy Mayor rises to bat back most of the points raised by Cr Dick. The problem with a scatter-gun attack is the response is even more scattered. Make of it what you will.

[Deputy Mayor]
… So we will see this city really—once this development rolls out—really come to love this precinct, I’m confident of that. Now, in relation to the documents that we have here and the arrangement that is being entered into with the HSW nominees, is a good outcome for the city in a number of ways. As the LORD MAYOR said, if Council was just looking for financial returns from this, there would have been a different outcome. We wanted something, though, that was best for the city, best for the people of the city and would be that iconic precinct that I mentioned before.

It’s really disappointing to hear Labor’s contribution to this. All we hear is negativity and carping. Particularly with something so important to the city and something which I know Councillor DICK will be down there at the cafes and bars when it opens, enjoying it. We know he will be, he’ll be running along the riverfront there, he’ll be enjoying a drink at the craft brewery, no doubt about that.

The way that he has approached this has been really disappointing, I think. It’s a pattern of behaviour that we’ve seen on a whole heap of different things. Might I add that Labor opposed free Wi-Fi in parks? Another example, there are so many examples where they get up here and they make negative comments yet it turns out to be a great thing for the city, and this is another one of those examples.

The suggestion that the 80 per cent includes the cliff face is just wrong. It’s just wrong. That was a line that David Hinchliffe was peddling years ago. So they’ve obviously dusted off the old notes from David Hinchliffe and recycled them. It is not true; the cliff face is not included in the 80 per cent. The suggestion that there’s been nothing done to deal with flooding, once again, not true. Not true.

The development has to be built in the same way that any other development needs to be built when there is a potential flooding issue. So all of the floor levels will be built with the flooding issues in mind and we will see that incorporated into the assessment process when a DA is lodged. So once again, ridiculous claim.

The claim that Central Ward Park Trust Fund funds were going towards this park project is actually not accurate. It’s not accurate. Once again, a little bit of twisting of the truth. What those funds will be used for is improving the top of the cliffs, which are not part of this project at all. So those funds have been corralled for the time when this project occurs so that we don’t have a situation where the bottom area will be great but the top area would be old and tired.So those funds are still sitting there ready to be put into work to improve the top of the cliffs which, as I said, are not part of this project.

Finally, I just wanted to say that the suggestions that have been made about the HSW Consortium and particular individuals and comments about donations are just completely inappropriate and wrong. The people that are involved in this consortium have other projects across the city. Those projects are very successful, and might I add, they have been in the past awarded tenders by the previous Labor Administration.

So it was okay for Labor to award those people a contract that involved Victoria Park Golf Course, but suddenly now they’re raising those outrageous suggestions. They know it’s not true but they just love to throw it in there. They love to throw the mud and hopefully they think some of it will stick. Well nothings going to stick here because this is a great project for the city of Brisbane and these are respected, experienced providers of great entertainment precincts in other areas and including our own Victoria Park Golf Course.

So I am confident they will do a great job, looking forward to this project rolling out to the benefit of Brisbane residents. As I said, very disappointed that Labor’s not coming on board with something that is really good for the city.

Cr Johnston rises to ask some very pertinent questions. It is good to see that we are not the only ones that see a problem with accepting a proposal in the absence of certain key information. However, no other Councillors take up the argument and her critical points are lost.

[Cr Johnston]
Now I would like to make some comments on the Howard Smith Wharves Revitalisation Project. I am really in two minds about this. Activation of the space down there would seem to be very important and it can be of great benefit to the city. The issue I have is, I’m not sure that the LORD MAYOR and this Administration have quite got the design and the scope of this right. I think given the importance of the space and the seriousness of the issue that we’re looking at here today, that is a lease for 102 years to a small Brisbane private company that there does need to be a high level of scrutiny both within Council itself and by this Council with regard to the contracts being awarded.

What I note is when I went to look at the files, there is very little information on the files. There’s a few post-market submissions and so forth but there is a lot of information missing that would help us make an informed decision as a Council today. I don’t, Madam Chairman, just trust the LORD MAYOR and trust that they have done the right thing here because time after time we see mistakes and problems with the contracts that this Council enters into.

So this is one of these areas where, trust us; it’s all okay, is not going to work. Now I note that in the Council papers before us today, the purpose of this project was—and this is paragraph 44—a developer is being procured to fund, construct, operate and maintain the finished development in return for long-term leasehold rights over the site at minimal cost to Council.

Now that’s what we’ve been asked as the core mission of the revitalisation of this space. I note that several companies came forward with varying proposals and the proposal which is described in the papers variously as the A&E submission and the HSW submission is the one that Council is proceeding with today.

I guess I question a couple of core issues around this. Firstly, I note that this Council will invest $4 million into the revitalisation of this space. That is due to occur after a minimum amount of some $13 million has been invested by the proponent. That does not seem minimal to me, $4 million is a lot of money and I am, I guess, a little confused as to how a project of this size and capacity is not self-funding and why it is that this Council is contributing $4 million when we would normally, I think, here see more commercial terms.

I guess I’m just questioning why this Council is subsidising what is going to be a major economic investment for a private company in Brisbane. I note that there is a hotel going on the site, there is a retail and restaurant precinct going on the site and there’s a small convention space going on the site. This Council is estimating that over the life of the lease, so three years for the commercial component and 99 year lease, that Council will receive $528 million in revenue from the project.

So I guess the question to me is, if it is this economically significant and viable, why is this Council investing $4 million? This is what I’m not sure about. Because I would want to see ratepayers’ funds going into projects that can’t be funded in some other way. I guess I would like a little bit more explanation of why this money is being put in by Council. I note that other proponents certainly were seeking some investment by Council into this but given the economic benefits that have clearly formed such a vital part of the assessment of this tender application, why is there a need for a $4 million subsidy from this Council?

That’s unclear to me. Particularly given the very substantial financial benefits that this Council expects to see flowing from the project. I think, Madam Chairman, that we really should have a little bit more information about this because the other concern that I have in the council papers before us today, there’s a summary, essentially, of the financial terms for the project. But on the files themselves there is very little information that you can read to actually look at the raw data, look at the material that’s been submitted.

I note in one of the few documents, which is a summary of the recommended proposal and transaction, there are a number of documents that form part of the project agreement. That includes the project agreement itself which outlines the rights and obligations of both parties. It is a construction lease; it is the base precinct lease, the building management statement, the precinct plan and all of the easements and access rights.

Now, none of those documents are actually on the file. So we can’t look at them. We’re being asked to make a blind decision today because the relevant documents that are referred to, which are the heart of this transaction, have not been publically made available to the councillors today to review. That is really problematic. I know that the LORD MAYOR will stand up and say, well it’s been recommended by the Council officers, and this is no reflection on them, but I would like to see the documentation that supports this deal and I would very much like to see some of the details around it so when I make a decision and vote in this place, I’ve done so fully informed.

That’s not possible because the files do not contain any of the essential legal agreements and they have not been made available for councillors to review in the normal way. That is really problematic. So I am very concerned about the lack of transparency around this particular process. The other concerns I have relate to access, public access. The artists’ impressions seem to provide access both along a new riverfront component and also along the pathway behind the back of the existing heritage buildings.

Now one thing is true, I do run down there as well and I vary it up a bit; sometimes I do the bridge loop, sometimes I go the other way, and I’ve tested out the new boardwalk. But what I will say is, at the moment, it is extremely wide access down there in that area behind the old heritage stores. You get hundreds of people cycling, walking, dogs, prams, runners. I am very concerned that we don’t just see a standard three-metre path for community access through that area.
Because once you add in the retail component, you will have people milling around doing a very social activity versus the through traffic at the moment and that is a concern together with the flooding.

Cr Howard rises to add absolutely nothing of value, and one can only admire the strong stomach of those subjected to such oleaginous speech. “So, Madam Chairman, you will have heard me talk previously about ensuring that Central Ward has parks as beautiful as our children.” …… surely to hear once would be enough?

The Lord Mayor then rises to make a few concluding remarks before the submission is put to the vote. Interestingly, he singles out connectivity as a major benefit of the development. One wonders how he imagines putting this connectivity node into private ownership is going to help matters.

[Lord Mayor]
Well, Madam Chairman, again, in regards to Howard Smith Wharves, I believe that in the fullness of time when it’s completed, I think it’ll be an outstanding addition to our city. Madam Chairman, to use words that have been used before, it is the missing link on the river. The connection that Howard Smith Wharves will give to the Riverwalk, to that of the CBD, I think that it will be, in the future, seen as an outstanding precinct. The whole connectivity through there, I think, Madam Chairman, will really ensure its success.

 

The voting was as follows:
AYES: 18 – The Right Honourable the LORD MAYOR, Councillor Graham QUIRK, DEPUTY MAYOR, Councillor Adrian SCHRINNER, and Councillors Krista ADAMS, Matthew BOURKE, Amanda COOPER, Margaret de WIT, Vicki HOWARD, Steven HUANG, Fiona KING, Geraldine KNAPP, Kim MARX, Peter MATIC, Ian McKENZIE, David McLACHLAN, Ryan MURPHY, Angela OWEN-TAYLOR, Julian SIMMONDS and Andrew WINES.

NOES: 5 – The Leader of the OPPOSITION, Councillor Milton DICK, and Councillors Helen ABRAHAMS, Peter CUMMING, Kim FLESSER, and Victoria NEWTON.

ABSTENTIONS: 1 – Councillor Nicole JOHNSTON.

 

The minutes for the meeting of 21st October 2014 are archived here