Legislative Council

GREENS MOTION: Public use of former Le Cornu site

July 5th, 2017

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: I move:

That this council— 

1. Notes with concern the fact that the land formerly occupied by Le Cornu in O'Connell Street, North Adelaide, has been vacant for over 25 years, despite numerous development authorisations being granted; and 

2. Calls on the state government to intervene to ensure that the land can be used for public purposes until a final development approval is secured and building work commences. 

We learnt this week that the owners of the old Le Cornu site in O'Connell Street, North Adelaide, have decided to abandon their development plans for a mixed-use retail, commercial, hotel and residential complex. The abandoned project is in fact the latest in a long line of developments that have been approved for the site over the last 28 years since the furniture store closed. The site has received local council approval, Development Assessment Commission approval, and even state government approval as a major project for various types of development, and yet it remains a vacant eyesore surrounded by ugly hoarding, and this situation looks set to continue.

The problem is that despite the owners of the site, currently the Makris Corporation, having been given approval to build on the site, for reasons known best to themselves they have decided not to go ahead. The Adelaide city council I think has been fairly clear and vocal over a period of decades that they want this site to be developed; they want something to happen there.

But the council has also said to the developer, the owner, 'If you're not going to use that land, could we have it and we'll turn it into a park temporarily until you are ready to go ahead with the development.' But, whenever those overtures have been made, the owners have declined. That, to my way of thinking, is what we refer to as a dog in a manger situation. They are not ready to proceed with their own development but they will be blowed if anyone else is going to have the use of that land.

In a system where the ownership of land is something that is fairly highly valued—we have all seen The Castle—we know that there are constitutional protections against arbitrarily taking land away from people, but we do in this state and in this nation have mechanisms for solving an impasse such as this, and that is what I want to explore in this motion.

In my view, if common sense prevailed, the Makris Corporation would say to the City of Adelaide, 'Look, we're not ready to go ahead with our development'—whether they don't have finance or there is some other cause, I don't know—'we're not ready to go ahead,' they could say, 'and we're happy for you, the council, to take responsibility for the land, to take the fences down, to lay some turf, to be legally responsible for what happens there, and the council on its part would put in some playground equipment, put some street furniture, some picnic tables—

The Hon. D.W. Ridgway: What about council rates?

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: The Hon. David Ridgway helpfully interjects—they could relieve the owner of paying council rates. There is all manner of arrangements that common sense would suggest might lead to a better outcome than a fenced, vacant eyesore on a prime city site for a quarter of a century. I think it really is quite remarkable.

If we go back a year to when this debate last hit the news, that is previous to this last week, we see in InDaily, under the heading, 'Lease Le Cornu site to the public, city council urges'—an article published on 11 August—councillor Anne Moran, who is never lost for a word on matters to do with city governance, is quoted as saying that it should be opened up for community use and that that would be good relations for the company. The article states:

'That would be a really good show of goodwill,' she said. 

'We could have a lot of fun with that site, using it for community [purposes]. 

'We could do with a few swings and some seats—we could have a 12-month community garden…' 

The article goes on to say:

She said the council w ould  be willing to pay insurance and associated costs if the Makris Group allowed it to temporarily lease the site ,  and would be able to vacate it quickly if construction began sooner than expected . 

She said she could not  ' fathom '  any reason the company would not allow public use of the site. 

The article concludes by saying that the council, in fact, voted to ask the Makris Group for a temporary lease of the site. That was a year ago. The headlines this week, including again from InDaily, 'Back to the drawing for Le Cornu site as Makris withdraws $200 million project', and The Advertiser, '$200 million Le Cornu development abandoned by Makris Group', once again outline that the debate about whether as a community we are happy to see this site remain a vacant, blighted eyesore for another quarter of a century has emerged.

Ideally, Makris would negotiate with the council. If they will not negotiate or if they will not agree, there are really two options available to the community. One is that we can throw our hands in the air and say, 'Well, we tried; it's their land and, if they want to keep it in a vacant, undeveloped, ugly state, then that's their right.' That is one approach we could take. I do not like that approach; I think we can do better.

A second approach would be that we could act in the public interest and we could push the issue by taking control. By taking control I am not advocating for one minute that the state government would need to compulsorily acquire the freehold title to the land, that the council or the state government would pay the presumably tens of millions of dollars to acquire the freehold. What I want the government to explore are options for acquiring a leasehold interest in the land, on a temporary basis, so that the impasse can be broken and the land can be used for community purposes until the developer finally gets another approval, they get the finance, and they are actually ready to start work. In the meantime, the community should have the use of that land.

There is one mechanism that leapt immediately to mind, and that was the use of the Land Acquisition Act 1969. Members are familiar with that act. It is an act that has been used to acquire properties along various road corridors. In this place, we have debated the fairness or otherwise of the terms of acquisition for properties acquired during the Torrens to Torrens project on South Road. We have also debated in this place compulsory acquisition of land along South Road at Darlington for the roadworks there.

One thing I think the government should explore is whether that act can be used to acquire less than a freehold title, on a short-term basis, for the Le Cornu site. In my view, I think they probably can. Looking at the definition of land in the Land Acquisition Act 1969, it refers to an interest in land. That is broader than just freehold. I think that is certainly an avenue that the government could explore but, wait, there is more.

In times to come, people will stop their colleagues in the street and ask them where they were when Mark Parnell in the Legislative Council uncovered the secret, hidden act of parliament that no-one has ever heard of, and this is the moment. I refer honourable members to the Lands for Public Purposes Acquisition Act 1914.

I mean no disrespect to other members of the chambers who I asked if they had ever heard of this act. I will not name anyone, but I have not had anyone who has said they have ever heard of this act. I will come clean with you, Mr Acting President. Until I happened to stumble across it in the hard copy of the legislation, I was not aware of it either, but it is relevant to the matter in point.

The title pretty much explains what the act is for: it is the Lands for Public Purposes Acquisition Act. It establishes a mechanism for the Crown to be able to acquire interests in land where it is in the public interest to do so. Whilst the language of this 103-year-old act is somewhat dated, the mechanism seems to be pretty clear. If the Governor believes that there is some work or undertaking that the government of the state is empowered to carry out, but for which there is no other power, except this act, to acquire the land, then a mechanism can be put in place for that acquisition to occur.

I am very grateful to the parliamentary library, who have tracked down the Hansard from 1914, which I have now read not quite from cover to cover, but I have read the relevant bits. I originally thought it was probably a wartime measure, given that it was 1914. I do not know if it predates the declaration of war, but it was in August 1914, which I think is around the time that the First World War kicked off. Anyway, it was more to do with the government acquiring properties on Victoria Square that were needed for government offices.

Regardless of that original purpose, this act has stayed on the statute books for the last 103 years. The clincher I think for this chamber is that the act is committed to the Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, so minister Hunter is responsible for this act of parliament, which distinguishes it from the Land Acquisition Act 1969, which is committed to the Attorney-General. He is responsible for that act, but minister Hunter, in this chamber, is responsible for the Lands for Public Purposes Acquisition Act 1914.

I expect that his staff are listening closely to these proceedings because we do have other question times coming up in coming weeks, and the minister may or may not get a question from me on this topic. I am also grateful to the Parliament Research Library for their quite quick research. I posed the question: has this act ever been used? Whilst I did not give them all that long, their search of the indexes of the Government Gazette did not disclose that it has ever been used before. So, here we have a 103-year-old act still on the statute books, still committed to the environment minister and ready to be used, I believe, in cases such as this. 

It is a very roundabout way of saying, Mr Acting President, that the government has the power to break the impasse in relation to the Le Cornu site. If the Makris corporation will not come to the party and talk turkey with the local council about leasing that land, taking the fences down, allowing some turf to be laid and some playground equipment to be installed—if they are not prepared to do that voluntarily—then I think we have the mechanism to do it compulsorily. It really is a second option. I would far prefer negotiations to proceed and for a mutual agreement to be reached.

That is the intent, Mr Acting President, of the motion. The operative provision is that the motion calls on the state government to intervene to ensure that the land can be used for public purposes until a final development approval is secured and building work commences. So I will just say again: I am not calling for a permanent compulsory acquisition of the freehold title. I do not think that is necessary, but I would like the government to vigorously pursue whether the community could get some benefit from this land which will otherwise, perhaps for another quarter of a century, sit idle, unused, ugly and barren on one of the most prime pieces of real estate in the city of Adelaide. So I commend the motion to the council.

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