It’s 10 months since Redlands2030 started to investigate the Redland City Council’s Development Industry Reference Group. We’ve uncovered a tale of regular closed door meetings between senior council planners and major developers so secret not even the names of those present were ever to be publicly released.
The conversations were just as secret until Council was forced to release meeting minutes by a Right to Information Request. It’s now clear that these Development Industry Reference Group meetings coincided with the period when Council was drafting the Redland City Plan 2015.
Rules set out in the new planning scheme will govern how $billions worth of real estate investment and building will happen in Redland City over the next ten years. So major developers were in closed rooms with senior council planners at this time, while the public was never invited to consult or contribute to this vital vision of the City’s future.
Councillor Julie Talty said, at the 3 September Council meeting about City Plan consultation, that RCC “has taken on board input over the past three years from a wide range of stakeholders.”. Really? How ‘wide’ was the range of stakeholders that were consulted?
When Cr Paul Bishop proposed in early 2014 that the community be consulted about the new City Plan, his motion was resoundingly rejected by a majority of councillors. Had they already decided that the main stakeholders Council needed to consult with were the City’s major developers?
Just operational matters?
The existence of the Development Industry Reference Group (DIRG) became widely known following its discussion at a Council meeting on 22 April and subsequent media coverage about “secretive terms of reference”.
Soon after this, Mayor Karen Williams responded to a post on Cr Paul Bishop’s Facebook page with many comments stressing the innocent ‘operational’ nature of the discussions – using words like:
“… group set up to deal with operational issues…”
“This group was COMPLETELY operational”
“…it was an operational group…”
A month later, having had plenty of time to double check her facts, the Mayor reiterated her earlier claims, saying: “It is an operational technical working reference group to seek feedback on process and performance.”
What would a reasonable person expect to find included in discussions about “operational” matters?
Perhaps drains, dust control and traffic management. Maybe the process for submitting development applications and ideas for making the process more efficient. Possibly, new building codes and standards. Fairly routine, technical stuff that would only be of interest to professionals in the building development industry.
Well that may have been inferred from the Mayor’s persistent use of the word “operational” but it seems that the DIRG may have had a different and more substantial agenda.
Please show us the minutes
Redlands2030 has been pursuing information about the activities of the Council’s covert interface with major developers since November 2014. In February, after making many enquiries and receiving no response, Redlands2030 published an article: Industry Reference Group kept secret.
Cr Wendy Boglary raised the issue a few weeks later, at the Council’s meeting on 22 April. After some heated discussion in the Council chamber (including a period when the public was excluded), the Council resolved to publish the terms of reference and a “summary of the minutes” by 30 June.
Soon after, Council CEO Bill Lyons issued a news release refuting claims that that an industry reference group working with Council was “secret” and formed without the knowledge of councillors. He said:
As CEO, I cannot stand by and allow the professionalism and integrity of dedicated Council officers to be impugned by suggestions this reference group operated in secret. The Development Industry Reference Group is a group of development industry professionals working with Council to improve our processes.
Redlands2030 then published an article, The Council crisis we had to have, which questioned:
- whether all councillors had really been fully informed about the DIRG’s establishment and scope (as suggested by the Mayor and CEO) ; and
- the value of Council providing a “summary” of the minutes instead of the full documents
After Redland City Council published on its website a summary of the Group’s meetings, Redlands2030 submitted a Right to Information Request for the full DIRG minutes. The Council has now provided the DIRG minutes to Redlands2030 and made them available, in full, on the Council Website.
Most of the DIRG minutes provide a summary of matters discussed but, strangely, the minutes for the meeting held on 21 October 2013 record the usual attendees, but no discussion – not a word, just blank paper.
What the minutes reveal
The DIRG meeting minutes (other than for 21 October 2013) clearly indicate that the Group’s closed door meetings strayed far beyond ‘safe’ operational issues. Prominent Redlands developers and senior Council planning staff were regularly discussing key planning assumptions, issues and policies over many months while Council was preparing its draft City Plan 2015. And all this time, the public was in ignorance of the meetings and locked out of the City Plan drafting process.
One of the DIRG’s first decisions was to adopt Chatham House rules to guarantee discretion to meeting participants. It’s inconceivable that such discretion would be required to discuss ‘operational’ matters, or ‘process’ improvements.
Over many months, the developer representatives attending DIRG meetings enjoyed privileged access to senior Council staff who were preparing the new Redland City Plan. They received regular updates on key assumptions, issues and policies. Meanwhile, the public was excluded from having any input to the draft City Plan. A few examples of matters discussed at DIRG meetings are mentioned below.
- The minutes for 20 March 2013 show that one well known Redlands developer discussed: “Opportunity for growth by extending the boundaries of the Urban Footprint, as opposed to remote locations separated from existing urban footprint.”
- In October 2013 the Group discussed “allowing greater number of units on blocks 1 per 200m2”
- In May 2014 DIRG members were invited to provide “preliminary feedback” and comments on confidential presentations about a Land Supply study and Economic Development Strategy which dealt with key assumptions underpinning the new City Plan. We don’t know what feedback the DIRG members may have given to the Council’s planning staff, and we don’t know to what extent this feedback may have resulted in changes to the documents that were subsequently made publicly available.
Other matters discussed at various DIRG meetings included: infrastructure charges (a key issue affecting developer’s profits), the SEQ regional plan, changes to planning legislation, the Priority Development Areas for Toondah Harbour and Weinam Creek, the Cleveland CBD revitalisation scheme and the Redlands tourism investment scheme. All very interesting topics for a bunch of major developers to chat about with senior Council planning staff but not really operational matters or process improvements.
You be the judge
The Mayor said many times that the Development Industry Reference Group was a forum for discussion of “operational” matters.
Now, the full DIRG minutes are available. Anyone interested learning more about Redland City Council’s interface with major developers can read the minutes and form their own view about the matters discussed.
Were they “COMPLETELY operational”, as Mayor Karen Williams has asserted?
Or do the minutes indicate a pattern of regular discussions which ranged well beyond what a reasonable person might describe as “operational”?
City Plan 2015 public consultation starts 14 September
On 14 September, the Council will finally begin consultation with the Redlands community about the draft City Plan 2015 for a period of 11 weeks. It is important that the community make the most of this relatively brief opportunity to find out what has been included in the draft Plan over the past three years.
Redlands2030 will be reviewing the draft City Plan and publishing articles about issues which may be of concern to the community.