On your walks around Ashburton in the past year (or today), you may have noticed a large, fenced off tract of land next to the sporting oval on Markham Avenue, down on the Alamein side of town. This land represents a battle that has intermittently raged since 2014. The battle is not over yet.
The land is one of the last remnants of the Alamein Housing Commission site. In 1944, the Victorian Government’s Housing Commission purchased it to build public housing for the overwhelming number of families of returned service people and immigrants. Apartment style dwellings were added in the 1950s, including nine concrete blocks on this land. The 56 apartments on Markham Avenue became the Markham Estate.
Over the next 50 years, Victoria developed a legacy for spending less on social housing per person than any other state or territory in Australia. By the 21st century, the state faced a major housing crisis, with virtually no private rentals being affordable for Centrelink recipients. The lack of stable, affordable and healthy housing remains associated with increased healthcare and criminal justice costs for government, poorer health outcomes in individuals, and poorer educational and developmental outcomes in children.
In 2006-07 the State Government, led by the Labor Party’s Steve Bracks, made refurbishment works for Markham Estate a top priority. The Government arranged to replace exhaust fans, carpets, pathways and sewers, and painted the apartments with anti-mould paint – a persistent frustration for residents. This managed to extend the life of the apartments by a few years but it was increasingly clear Markham Estate was becoming unfit for habitation. Richard Wynne, the Minister for Planning noted, ‘This was a disgraceful and disgusting estate by any measure.’ By 2014, most residents had moved out.
After winning the 2014 State Election and returning the Victorian Government to the Labor Party, Daniel Andrews announced in September 2015 he would honour a campaign promise to demolish Markham Estate by the end of the year. In its place, he proposed around 240 units would be built; with sixty used for public housing, and the rest to be sold to private individuals. In the press release, he gave no explanation of why the site would be split this way.
Why did the Ashburton community object to this proposal?
From the outset, absolutely no-one went on record to object to the demolition of Markham Estate. There is also no record of anyone objecting to the need to replace it with more public housing.
According to Ashburton Community Newsletters (now defunct but available at the State Library), objections to the proposal dated to the Andrews’ 2014 election campaign. There were five key issues:
The risk that Boroondara Council - who had authority to grant permits over developments, including on state-owned land - would be side-lined in the planning process;
Objections to the significant escalation of the number of units from 56 to 240;
Objections to the significant increase of the height of each building that would result from accommodating the 240 units;
Objection to why the public/private ratio did not weigh more in favour of public housing; and
The perceived lack of any consultation with residents about the re-development.
Even before Andrews’ won the election, residents began to mobilise. The Ashburton Residents Action Group (ARAG) quickly formed. Suggestions emerged for the land to be preserved as parkland, used for an Artists’ Studio, rebuilt as a nursing home for young people, or converted into shared private/public usage with two story terrace style homes. A petition objecting to the re-development attracted 1,400 signatures.
ARAG quickly established that the residents’ had no objection to the re-building of public housing on Markham Estate. They just wanted to know more about what the plans contained. In November 2015, ARAG wrote in the Ashburton Community Newsletter that the Government had not responded to any requests for further information on the re-development. ‘The Andrews Government is using its planning powers to avoid the scrutiny of its proposal,’ the article’s author said. According to Hansard [the record of parliamentary proceedings], the silence was because there was not yet any plans to go with the announcement.
Was there consultation with the community and residents?
Kind of. There was certainly promises of consultation from the State Government. By 14 April 2016, the Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne confirmed ‘the plans will not be finalised until after the local community, Boroondara City Council and other stakeholders have been consulted.’ Housing Minister Martin Foley told the Progress Leader in September 2016 ‘there will be consultation. The council, the local community, and most importantly Markham residents will get to have their say.’
In early November 2016, the Government unveiled its plans for the Markham Estate.
It wished to build 252 units, not the 240 suggested. The blocks of units would be five or six stories high. The 60 public housing units remained but the rest would be sold off to fulfil a pledge that the State Government would build new public housing units at no cost to the taxpayer.
The consultation problem came from the fact nobody liked what the Government was proposing or the way they were going about it. The Progress Leader was full of letters complaining about how the new plan ignored residents’ concerns and the arbitrary consultation process.
One correspondent wrote that, ‘the only consultation I have received so far was a representative from Places Victoria [now Engage Victoria] door-knocking on 8 November. The representative showed me the proposed plans for 252 units which are supposedly cost neutral to support the cost of 60 public housing units. The representative told us they are expecting an average of $700,000 per private unit. So do the maths – that’s 192 units multiplied by $700,000. I get a figure over $134 million. I didn’t realise building costs were that expensive for public housing.’
‘Martin Foley, the Minister of Housing, appears to have an unusually high level of contempt for the people of Ashburton,’ wrote another correspondent. ‘Places Victoria is now organising community engagements and community input might be used to ‘refine the design’ but the number of units is ‘not likely to change’. It is good that the Government wants to save taxpayers from paying for new public housing. However, the Markham Estate will not be cost-free for the people of Ashburton. We will pay by having multi-storey buildings at the end of Markham Reserve, extra pressure on emergency services including police and health centres, and a massive increase in traffic along residential roads.’ 
The State Government strongly rejected the notion it did not consult residents. The Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade, Philip Dalidakis claimed, ‘I met with both the CEO and the mayor of Boroondara. The Minister for Planning met with the CEO and the mayor of Boroondara. Development Victoria prepared concept designs for the proposed redevelopment on behalf of DHHS. The engagement program was developed to allow for the views of local residents and stakeholders to be sought and understood. In October and November 2016 there was an engagement program that included community information sessions. There was a letterbox drop to residents in the immediate vicinity of Markham Estate, and there was also advertising in local media as well as online engagement. There was consultation between the Office of the Victorian Government Architect and again Boroondara City Council in order that stakeholder consultation be undertaken at each and every opportunity.
We must be careful not to conflate consultation with tacit approval and agreement to what is asked for and requested. They are not one and the same,’ he said.
Minister for Major Projects at the time, Jacinta Allan also weighed in. ‘We understand very clearly the need to talk to communities about a range of different projects; however, that does not mean people necessarily always agree with those projects. No amount of community consultation will stop some people from protesting against particular projects.’
As each reiteration of the project appeared, so did accusations at the lack of consultation with the local community.
Did the state representative for Burwood side with the community?
Yes. The Liberal MP for Burwood at the time, Graham Watt, first raised the Markham Estate re-development issue in the Legislative Assembly on 11 June 2015 when he tabled the residents’ petition of 1400 signatures and summarised residents’ objections. Nothing much came of the objection.
Over the next few years, Mr Watt sporadically raised the issue in the broader context of objecting to high density housing in residential areas and the community position that the Government was failing to take residents’ objections into account.
‘It was information, and it was very limited,' he said in November 2016. 'It was a one-way conversation. It was not consultation. My community expects that there will be consultation going forward, not being talked to or directed by her [MP Jacinta Allan] or the minister sitting next to her [MP Robert Wynne]. It is disgraceful behaviour. The government have tried to shut the locals out, shut the council out and shut the Parliament out.’
Every time Mr Watt raised the issue of Markham Reserve, the Government generally claimed in response that he was against public housing. Jacinta Allan responded that Mr Watt was ‘using those concerns for his own political purposes to campaign against the government.’ A search of Hansard for 'Markham' reveals the re-development did generate considerable discussion in the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council over several days.
For the record, there are no Hansard records discussing the disintegration of Markham Estate and replacing it while the Liberal Party was in power. This includes when Jeff Kennett, the Member for Burwood from 1976-99, was Premier.
Graham Watt’s resistance to the Government’s plans for Markham Estate continued until 2018, when he lost his seat to Labor’s Will Fowles.
Did the State Government sideline Boroondara Council over the re-development?
This is a question that is still finding an answer today.
Boroondara Council objected to the re-development from the beginning and continues to do so today.
However, the problem for the Council is that the Planning and Environment Act 1987 gives the Planning Minister, Richard Wynne, powers to direct a Council to exercise a power or discretion, or perform a particular function. Should the Council refuse to comply with a Minister’s direction, the Act allowed the Minister the power to perform the function and override the Council.
All this legalese means that it is perfectly legal for the State Government to override Boroondara Council as the planning authority on this matter. And, knowing that the Council would never approve its re-development plan, Planning Minister Mr Wynne now faced a choice. Either he could invoke the Act, override the Council, push the plan through, and piss off the local residents while still managing to honour an election promise to replace desperately needed public housing on Markham Estate. Or, he could take the chance that modifying the plan would eventually satisfy the Council sufficiently to issue the planning and building permits.
To date, Mr Wynne has provided plans to Boroondara Council that are repeatedly rejected. You can read the Council’s position on these plans here, here and here. He has also made three unsuccessful attempts to assert the Government’s authority over the Estate that have been revoked by Victoria’s Upper House, the Legislative Council. Each attempt related to different modifications of the re-development plan, including modifying the plans to accommodate the ARAG’s desire for less apartments in the re-development.
Said Mr Wynne about the situation on 8 December 2016,
‘We want to get the model right. We want to be in a position where we can ensure that in any of the redevelopments that we do we are not only getting the redevelopment of the existing public housing stock but that we are getting an uplift as well, with a minimum uplift of at least 10 per cent.’
By 2014, land value in Markham Avenue had skyrocketed to over $900,000 per 600 sqm block from around $300,000 in the early 2000s. Today it is over $1.2 million.
In relation to the inclusion of private dwellings in the site, Mr Wynne invoked an example of a housing estate that abutted an affluent area in Flemington called Flemington Hill. ‘It is quite an expensive area, and to be able to lever off that in terms of the inherent value of the land that is there for redevelopment strikes me as being an extraordinary opportunity to recycle these assets in a way that provides a great social outcome.’
The idea was that the profits from the sale of the units would not only pay for the public housing but generate funds to build more elsewhere.
So just how many re-development plans has there been for Markham Estate?
At the time of writing there have been five since the initial announcement in 2015.
252 units with 60 for public housing in November 2016;
250 units with 62 for public housing in February 2017;
225 units with 62 for public housing and the retention of the mixed tenure approach in August 2017;
A plan released on 1 February 2018 that showed 200 units with one third used for social housing, one third for affordable housing, and the final third for private housing; and
The current plan announced on 30 October 2019. It revised the number of units down to 178 with at least 60 per cent of the new build public housing.
Screenshots of how the Markham Estate is envisaged today
So what does ARAG do?
In the first instance, ARAG's advocacy against the State Government's plans for a massive increase to the housing stock on Markham Estate has directly contributed to the drop from 252 to 178 and the ratio increase in public housing. At an ARAG organised protest in March 2017, one attendee said, ‘it’s an absolutely ridiculous development [that] will completely ruin the neighbourhood. We do not want that site exploited for profit. We want more public housing, we want more families. They want to put up this huge monolith... it’s just cashing in on million-dollar views for the private sector.’
ARAG also worked tirelessly to ensure that planning permission for the development stayed with Boroondara Council.
At the present time, ARAG provides in principle support for the current plan. They have been part of the consultation process with Homes Victoria over the re-development. However, the lockdowns of 2020-21 inhibited their efforts. ARAG still has its concerns, particularly about car-parking and the height of the new buildings.
According to a 20 April 2021 Facebook post, ARAG’s primary concern at present is that the use of undercover car-parking, rather than underground would increase the height limit of the building. They also believe ‘the traffic engineering analysis relied on by Homes Victoria to justify not widening Markham Avenue contains a fundamental error. The failure to plan for and undertake localised widening of Markham Avenue will lead to unreasonable traffic congestion and unsafe road conditions adjacent to the site.’
They also recommend a Car Parking Management Plan be prepared to set out how the allocation of car and bicycle parking facilities would be managed for residents. A community meeting was organised and held on 15 May to update the community on the situation.
If you are interested in following ARAG’s work, they regularly update their Facebook page on their efforts.
So is Boroondara Council still in charge of planning authority?
At the present time, no.
In short, the 2018 landslide win of the Labor Party gave the State Government a much firmer mandate to assert its authority. The Andrews Government also ramped up its public housing policies for its second term. In November 2020, it announced it would pump $5.3 billion into public housing. The state government – rather than local councils – will now assess and approve all projects. One of the first ‘fast-start sites’ was Markham Estate.
Boroondara Council continues to reject the current plan for Markham Estate.
As of May 2021, David Davis has again raised the State Government’s decision to override local council planning responsibility in the Legislative Council. ‘This is the third attempt by the government to develop that site, and each time they have come back with too intense, too many dwellings and too tall, in this case in an area that is right next to parkland with one- or two-storey properties around. There is no traffic management plan. In that area everyone supports public housing, and they do in this case too, but they do not support the intensity of development, which is effectively a 4½-storey development—massive—across that site.’
A vote is still pending.
Isn’t the Government just trying to maximise profits for their developer mates?
Argh, well ... that’s for you to decide and adjust your voting preferences accordingly.
The consultation period for the current plans for Markham Reserve is now closed but they are available here: https://engage.vic.gov.au/markham-avenue-ashburton-redevelopment and
Requests for tenders:
Update: November 2021
The State Government overruled Boroondara Council's objections and work on the new Markham Reserve apartments began in August 2021.
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Progress Leader articles are available only through the State Library's Proquest service.
 For stories of life in the post-war Alamein Estate, see Alamein Community Committee, The Alameiners: From Mud to Palaces : Stories from the Early Residents of the Alamein Estate (Alamein Community Committee, 2004). Available from Ashburton Library.