Monday, 6 June 2016


On Tuesday night in Launceston, a public meeting will take place to challenge Launceston Council’s decision to gift land valued something in the order of $5million to the University of Tasmania (UTas).

UTas is planning to relocate its Launceston campus from Newnham to Inveresk and occupy the land.

The meeting follows a ‘citizens petition’ with well in excess of the require 1,000 signatures calling upon the council to rescind the November 2015 transfer of the Willis Street Car Park and Old Velodrome at Inveresk. 

The petitioners are calling for the land to put the4 land up for sale on the open market with a reserve price of $5million to determine its market value.

Council has not tested the market to establish the value of the land by tender or any other means and it is relying upon a so-called independent valuation. Interestingly the valuer notes that the market for such land is volatile. In fact it could realise significantly more or even considerably less – its an open question.

Yet The Examiner tells us that “any piece of land is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.” And they ask “if no one is willing to pay anything for a piece of land, does that in fact make it worthless?” They do however admit to themselves that this sort of rhetoric takes “things a step too far.”

'Value' is never a simple matter and when it comes to public land in the end money tends to be a rather poor ‘measuring stick’. Various people/communities will imagine such land differently giving it layers of value – cultural, social, fiscal, recreational, aesthetic, heritage, etc.

The notion that a valuer from somewhere else can truly imagine a piece of land in multi-layered contexts that match the ‘vales’ the community does, and communities within it do, is challengeable. At least it is without asking them!

Here the council has used the services of an outsider to do what they, as a representative governing body, should have done themselves. The fact that council didn’t seek to do so makes for all kinds of unwelcome speculations.

The fact that council hasn't required UTas to present it with a Development Application poses many questions.

The claim is that, albeit gifted “the land will in fact be of considerable value to the city and its residents.” Maybe, but what is forgone? Moreover, where is the plan with the modelling and case studies to back up the assumptions UTas is making?

The Examiner’s editorial, on behalf of the council(?), begs its readers to “consider the value of the proposal itself.” They also make this rather large leap of faith that government will stump up $300 million for capital works. Alongside that there is this blind faith that the university has done the research and the modelling.

But has it? If it has where is it? There are assertions and assumptions, but is that enough to win the kind of ‘public investment’ the institution is looking for? Will the investment deliver the speculated upon dividends? In fact does the community trust UTas enough to grant it the social license to spend its money and use its land in this way? If so on what evidence?

Yes, the money the workers might earn and spend during the development phase the city may well see something of an economic boost. However, the assumed ongoing benefits of the assumed future university students living and studying in the region are just that ,assumptions. The study paradigm worldwide ahead of us is quite, quite different to the past or even the present. Already students are quite often 'attending'  online, thus any assumption that they'll be on campus in Launceston is a questionable assumption.

Students once could be expected to add up to $30K a head to the local economy but no longer. Students no longer need to buy things in the communities in which they live except for food and rent. In fact in many instances they no longer need to reside in the communities their chosen university is located. Indeed why should, or would they unless there is a benefit? There are so many assumptions here and so little evidence to back them up.

The notion that “the region gains no benefits from an empty stretch of land” discounts the layering of values people have invested in the places being offered up. Currently the “community values” attributable to this land are significant, it is just the case that nobody has actually asked anyone what they are.

Whatever, it is entirely the business of UTas if it aims to shift campuses at an enormous cost. Therefore, it’s also entirely up to UTas to convince those with the funds available to invest in their plans to do so. At best that is a work-in-progress.

As Malcolm Turnbull says, paraphrased, if you are to invest in infrastructure you need both a plan and a purpose. His purpose for public transport is to put people within 30 minutes of where they want/need to be. That’s pretty much the case for the Launceston/Tamar region already and in the most parts it would be 15 minutes. This would seem to discount the geography imperative that UTas is relying upon.

So what is the purpose of UTas moving 4K? Where is the evidence that it is indeed the geography that is the issue? Why hasn’t the nature and relevance of programs UTas offers been considered as the reason students are voting with their feet?

The associate degrees being touted as ‘the answer’ to the course offerings so far lack any evidence that they’ll be taken up. Where is the risk assessment that UTas has done? Where is the demonstrated demand? How has it been tested?

Clearly UTas needs to lift its game. However, does that need to happen at the expense of Launceston’s ratepayers given the ongoing infrastructure implications that in all probability will fall to them if the plan is realised?  

Council amalgamations would need to proceed somewhat urgently if the inherent risks involved in giving UTas a blank cheque are to be mitigated or diluted. Launceston’s ratepayers already bear too heavy a burden meeting regional needs delivered by council’s non-core cost centres. Council amalgamations might just dilute the ongoing cost implications for the kind of "gift" Launceston Council has contemplated.

The Examiner’s support of Launceston Council’s follies is one-dimensional. And yes as they say “it’s time to be progressive and look to the future”.  

Government, Local, Sate and Federal, need to be much more measured and demand substantial evidence of institutions begging gifts to enable them to get out of the holes they have dug themselves into.

Those attending Tuesday night’s meeting must keep in sight the big picture – something that seems to be lost sight of thus far in this whole debacle.

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