Peter Clarke

By Tina Perinotto

17 November 2011  – Peter Clarke is struggling to see what the problem is. As  chairman of the new look, newly renamed Places Victoria – formerly VicUrban and for a while, the Urban Renewal Authority – Clarke is charged with the job of making sure  the  Victorian state government’s development agency can develop all the land it needs to.

It’s a big ask. With the help of the newly announced board and recently confirmed chief executive officer Sam Sangster who was previously acting CEO,  Clarke will oversee the development of an astonishing amount of Victorian Government owned land.

There is the completion of the $1 billion Docklands project at hand (and the issue of its lack of “soul”, an accusation levied most recently by no less than Medibank Private‘s managing director) 240 hectares at Fishermen’s Bend next door, the 128 hectare Defence site in inner western Marybyrnong, not to mention the odd few hundred hectares scattered in places such as Frankston, Nidree, Officer and Mernda.

Among regional areas is land at Wodonga, Hamilton, Swan Hill and Geelong.

But does Clarke think it will be a difficult challenge to realise the potential of this huge development agenda given  resident backlash against development almost on principle, the a sustainability agenda, and the hypersensitivity of private developers to the perceived competition from government on their patch?

Not really. Clarke, an architect and developer, goes back a long way in politics and none of these challenges faze him much.

In fact you could say he’s steeped in politics. His background included a long stint as councillor at the City of Melbourne, including as chair of the planning committee, executive director of the Property Council of Australia Victoria and of the state chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects.

Clarke is also a former vice president of the Liberal Party in Victoria.

So how does he intend to deal with the resident backlash against development? In Sydney this has forced many developers to declare a moratorium on infill multi-unit development unless it comes with pre-approvals.

“Tell them to come here,” Clarke says. Yes, residents can create some planning angst, he says, but in Melbourne, not so much.

“There are always people who are concerned but if you set the strategic framework and bring the council with you, we’ve not found that to be the case.”

On the issue of sustainability Clarke says: “It’s an ingredient, but not the main ingredient. Affordability is at the top.”

What about the agency’s development methods? Will it tread lightly in the way it structures development, much in the same way of other state development agencies in order not to appear to compete directly with the private sector and so focus on preparing consents and parcelling land to sell down, or develop directly or joint venture?

“We’ll be doing all three,” Clarke says.

Some will be in joint venture with local councils.

Clarke says this will give local councils the ability to unlock the potential of their balance sheets which, because  of the limitations on their ability to borrow, means they can’t effectively use them ?

Peter Clarke (left) with Sam Sangster

“The advantages of a partnership with us means that we can bring that balance sheet to the table.”

It could be a huge car park, ripe for redevelopment, Clarke says.

The Fifth Estate wonders if there could be a role for Places Victoria to help bring about the proposed $1 billion Coburg redevelopment after the recent spectacular and acrimonious falling out between Moreland City Council and its erstwhile partner the Grollo family’s Equiset group.

It could be on the cards.

“That’s not an area we’ve looked into. They haven’t spoken to us so it’s not a priority. We’ve got a lot on our plate already,” Clarke says.

“Moreland can talk to us if they wanted…We’d be more than happy to talk to them if they want to talk to us.”

Local councils also figure in the choice of a new name for the agency.

Clarke says the name change to Places Victoria is a signal that place making will be key to development ethos.

“The idea is to emphasise that this organisation is not focused on property development, although clearly property is central to what we do as the state’s property developer,” Clarke says.

“But whether it’s places for residential or industry or pleasure pursuit, it’s the place making that’s important. And often that’s part of an urban renewal agenda.

“It’s not so much about a residential medium rise building, but about how we think of the framework of that development.”

By framework, Clarke refers to the plans and strategies that the local council has. The emphasis is about fitting in with the existing blueprint and if there is no strategy, to help the local authority develop one.

“We will be working very much with local government,” Clarke says.

“We will be looking more strategically at the planning within their sites and to ensure that what we are looking to design on? fits within that strategy.”

Clarke has a lot of faith in the ability of the local councils to come up with strategic plans. “Local government is up to this challenge.”

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