Profit versus People in Melbourne’s suburban sprawl

Posted on Friday, 28 April

Jerome Small

From the leafy streets of Melbourne’s inner suburbs to the outer fringes, a profit-fuelled development boom is transforming our city. 

In established suburbs, the demolition of much-loved community assets like the Preston Market or the overdevelopment of former industrial sites leave long term residents aghast. In the outer suburbs, it’s rapid growth without any of the promised services and amenities which generates heat.

There’s a common thread in all these controversies: development priorities where the profits of the developers come first.

Victorian Socialists members doorknocked the growth suburb of Mickleham for the first time in 2018. We got a rapid education. “The real estate agent pointed out the bus stop”, one resident told us: “It was only after we bought and moved in that we discovered there was actually no bus service!”

A Victorian Socialists member in Mickleham was delighted when the developers of a new estate on the north side of Donnybrook Road put on a bus service. Then he discovered that his family couldn’t use the buses. This was a private bus service, laid on by the developers – but only if you lived in their estate, not those on the other side of Donnybrook Road. 

Since the end of 2019, there’s finally a bus service down Donnybrook Road to the Donnybrook V/Line station at Kalkallo. After expanding services from April this year, the 525 bus runs just three times an hour in the morning peak. For the vast majority of people, there’s no alternative but to drive.

An ABC news item recently highlighted what this means: traffic congestion is so bad that a morning drop-off in Kalkallo – to a school just 3km away – takes at least 45 minutes. Residents are stuck in traffic for an hour just trying to get on to the Hume Highway to start their morning commute.

It’s clear who pays for this approach to development, and who profits from it.

The land on which Kalkallo is built was bought by a Melbourne business family for $1 million in 1979. Thirty years later they sold it to the giant Stockland corporation, the main developer in Kalkallo, for $300 million. They say the final value of the land will be $4 billion. Stockland reported $1.4 billion in profits this year, and paid their CEO $3.3 million. Their assets total $15 billion.

Developers like Michael Buxton of MAB Corporation, developer of the nearby Merrifield development in Mickleham, enjoys his profits in Brighton, Portsea, or his private yacht. The mainly working class residents are left stuck in choking traffic, racking up enormous bills for transport.

Campaigning in the outer suburbs, stories like this are commonplace. Letterboxing in Greenvale during this year’s federal election, I stopped to chat with a woman in her front yard. I gave my standard pitch about how the billionaires had doubled their wealth in two years. How the rest of us are getting left behind. How we’re committed to building “people power” to reclaim that wealth and power.

“Ah, just like here” the woman says. I’m a bit surprised. The suburb of Greenvale is generally one of the better-off suburbs in Melbourne’s north.

Maria points to an empty paddock opposite her house, and to an enormous sign: “Providence Village FUTURE SHOPPING CENTRE”.

“I moved here when my husband died, seven years ago” she explains. “I’m getting older, but I knew I’d have shops right across the road. Every year, they promise ‘next year’ for the shopping centre. Every year, nothing happens.”

Instead of walking over the road to shop, Maria explains, she has to drive down (she crosses herself) a stretch of Mickleham Road without any footpaths. Like most arterial roads, the infrastructure lags far behind the population explosion, and far behind the profits of the developers. In this case, the sign has the logo of the Pask Group, whose billionaire founder bequeathed a fortune to his descendants in 2018.

“Now they announced, they aren’t building the shopping centre at all” Maria tells me. “What can you do?”

In my time as a construction worker I’ve built plenty of shopping malls – too many, in my opinion. But people who shell out their life savings to have a bit of security, and in the process enrich a billionaire property developer should, as a minimum, get what they’ve been promised.

“What do your neighbours think?” I ask. “Maybe you could get together and ask your local councillor to come down here and have a small protest. It’s hard to force a big company to do what they promised, but you can at least speak out about what’s happened, to warn others.” We’re a small party, I explain. I wish we could do more.

“No, that’s OK. Thank you” she says, searching for the right phrase: “your words have a power”.

A month or so later, the Sunday Age carried an article featuring photo of the sign in the paddock – together with a gathering of pissed off residents and the local Hume Council rep. Maybe Maria acted on my suggestion, or maybe someone else was already moving on it. 

It’s always worthwhile calling out an injustice in public, even if the next step – building real pressure to change the actions of massive corporations – isn’t so straightforward. A serious burst of “people power” is going to be needed to rein the developers in and put people before profit in the outer suburbs.

Development issues keep coming up for any candidate. Closer to the city, a candidate forum in leafy Alphington shows an impressive level of engagement, with lively discussion of the apartment buildings on the old paper mill site. 

In Kensington, a local resident raises an exasperated question about how we would tackle the sparse tree coverage in his street. “Start an agitation” is my answer. “Have you doorknocked the street with an open letter? Get a local councillor down. Tell the local paper, and start kicking up a fuss. I’d be happy to help.”