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Westbury Prison – Part 1

23 May 2019 – Elise Archer MP, Minister for Corrections – 2019-20 Budget: Strengthen the Tasmania Prison Service

“The 2019-20 State Budget’s record infrastructure spend includes major investments in new prison infrastructure as part of the Hodgman Liberal Government’s Plan to keep Tasmanians safe. Included in the Budget is funding for the first stages of the 270 bed, $270 million new Northern Prison…

These projects will not only meet future capacity needs within the Tasmania Prison Service, but will maintain the momentum and create new jobs in our building and construction sector. The expression of interest process to determine a site for the new Northern Prison has now been successfully completed, with the identified sites being assessed for suitability and short-listed. This year’s Budget funds the first four years of work on the project. An announcement on the final location is anticipated in coming months, once the due diligence process is complete.”

———-

Archer and her Liberals have allocated the money for a prison at Westbury while more than 1000 Tasmanians sleep rough and over 1700 are homeless suggesting that the comfort of the Convicted is more important than the comfort of the Free.

Westbury Prison sketch

visual used by Minister Archer for the 1 October 2019 prison announcement

Introduction

There is a fight ahead for the community in and around the village of Westbury defending itself from the Liberal state government who has served up a prison without consultation.

The Tasmanian Liberals are making a second attempt to legislate mandatory jail time for protesters working to save the lungs of the planet. Shot down by the High Court at their first attempt, draconian new laws are before parliament that will jail those who dare to protest. Penalties for a first offence is up to 18 months, a second offence could attract a four-year term plus a $10,000 fine and under the criminal code, a court could impose a penalty of up to 21 years in the slammer.

It is an interesting thought that by protesting over a prison adjoining your own village you stand every chance of becoming a long time truly local resident! Mandatory sentencing under the Liberals has increased the Tasmanian prison population by 30 per cent in less than five years, a figure set to increase under the new protest laws even now before the Parliament that make virtually any form of dissent a serious crime.

Background to the proposed Westbury Prison site

On 11 August 2009, the Meander Valley Council and Glen Avon Farms Pty Ltd, the owners of the proposed prison site, signed a deed of agreement, regarding an industrial area at Westbury on the Birralee Road.

Under the Deed, the Meander Valley Council would fund and perform preliminary infrastructure works to the industrial precinct over land then owned by three different entities:

  1. Glen Avon Farms;
  2. Ian and Elizabeth Gatenby;
  3. DJC, LM, AJ & RC Cunningham.

These works were defined as “spine works” and included:

  • acquisition of a sewer easement;
  • installation of a sewer pipe to the Westbury Treatment Plant;
  • installation of a stormwater mains;
  • installation of road and roundabout stubs;
  • installation of street lighting and power;
  • installation of gas and optic fibre conduits from gas out take point to through to the roundabout and including two crossings to service Glen Avon Farm’s land.
Sublots

The spine works were the necessary precursor to the development of the industrial precinct into smaller industrial sublots, which was the Council’s vision for the area as set out in its Outline Development Plan in the then Meander Valley Planning Scheme 1995The deed, as it relates to Glen Avon Farms and the Council, ensures that the infrastructure works were “provided to the land and paid for.

The end vision was that smaller industrial sublots facilitated by the spine works could be sold by Glen Avon Farms and other participating landowners to small industrial businesses over the following decade. The intent was that ‘sublots’ would be steadily taken up by industry and a thriving industrial precinct would gradually be created.

Glen Avon Farms and the other participating landowners are required to repay the Meander Valley Council for the cost of the infrastructure works performed by the Council on their respective parcels of land. Repayments could be made from sources which included the sale of the industrial sublots. The Meander Valley Council undertook the spine works during 2010/2011.

It is understood that Glen Avon’s financial contribution to the infrastructure works performed by the Meander Valley Council was calculated at approximately $600,000. This debt sits as a ‘charge’ on Glen Avon’s land in much the same way as a mortgage. It could simply be considered that the Council is effectively another mortgagee over the land owned by Glen Avon Farms. They have a vested interest and could not claim to be at arm’s length from the proposed prison, which would neatly solve a financial problem for Council.

Over the past decade Glen Avon Farms has attempted to sell sublots on its land. Only one has sold. The debt under the Deed becomes immediately due and payable on 31 January 2022. Interest is payable on any outstanding amount and is calculated at 10% per annum, on a compounding basis. The clock is ticking!

The Council’s vision for the small sublot industrial precinct at Birralee Road has failed to materialise to the extent that it needed to sell the sublots in order to repay the debt. This debt is a potential financial millstone around the neck of Glen Avon Farms.

The development is also becoming a millstone for the Meander Valley Council and a noose around the neck of the Hon. Mark Shelton MHA who signed the deed with Glen Avon Farms on behalf of the Meander Valley Council in August 2009 while he was Mayor. 

Announcement of prison site

After the announcement by Minister Archer on 1 October 2019, an immediate public meeting was called in Westbury to address local concerns over this project. Some three hundred very cross people attended. Mark Shelton MHA, the promoter and defender of a prison at Westbury, spoke on behalf of the Liberal party. He failed to allude to or even disclose his connections with the Deed he signed as Mayor ten years earlier.

I suggest that this Deed links Shelton with Glen Avon Farms and the debt of $600,000. Is this murky business arrangement is being secretly unscrambled using political power to dump a prison on the peaceful, historic, rural township of Westbury?

When the State Government was “looking” for a site for its prison in 2017, Shelton was clearly aware of land in the industrial precinct owned by Glen Avon Farms. He also know of their almost complete lack of sales, the size of the debt and that time was running out. By using a targeted “Expression of Interest” Shelton was in a position to sort out this fast approaching problem between the Council and Glen Avon Farms by ensuring that a prison in Westbury became the bullseye.

It would therefore not be unreasonable to suggest that the State Government’s request for Meander Valley Council to investigate sites at the Westbury industrial precinct may well have its origins with Shelton. This in turn tracks back to his connections with Glen Avon Farms and importantly a lack of sublot sales.

At $35,000 per hectare for a prison site in Westbury this form of high stakes targeting promoted by the local member with a lot to hide may yet prove to be the reason that Westbury is the slated site for a prison.

The Tasmanian Government and its timeline for developing a Northern prison

timeline of Westbury Prison

Prior to the issuing of this timeline chart the government had been pushing the Westbury prison barrow as is suggested by the following leaks and press releases orchestrated by their spin doctors as they fought to keep Tasmanians safe by maintaining the momentum:

Examiner 12 December 2017: Meander Valley Council to lobby for Northern Tasmanian ...Ashley Detention Centre would be the perfect location

Examiner 14 December 2017: Launceston lawyer says northern jail could create a more efficient justice system

Examiner 21 Jan 2018: It is understood the $270 million jail would be built somewhere near Launceston

Examiner 11 June 2018: Potential locations for Northern Tasmanian prison. The state government confirmed a project manager had been appointed

Examiner 12 June 2018: Northern prison would be welcomed by mayors

Mercury 20 September 2018: The Tasmanian Government is calling for expressions of interest from northern Tasmanian landowners who would like to host a new $270 million prison on their land. No mention of Targeted Councils, I suggest that only Northern Councils had been targeted to find the landowners.

Examiner 22 October 2018: The location of the proposed Northern Prison was a last-minute addition to last Wednesday’s George Town Council meeting. The Councillors voted not to apply as no suitable land was available.

Then there was nothing of substance until the following report in the Advocate suggesting the targeting was aimed at ten councils in the north who received the Expression of Interest (EOI) form.

Advocate 11 September 2019: Coastal councils have bids for new northern prison knocked back …Burnie, Waratah- Wynyard, Circular Head are hoping to reap the rewards but were unable to convince a government panel the prison should be built in their region. Central Coast Council chose not to bid and Latrobe and Devonport had no suitable land. Kentish Council gave the project a miss. Archer said the shortlist was developed by a “multi-disciplinary sitting panel” and provided to the government earlier this year “for consideration and due diligence”.

There was no mention of Meander Valley or that George Town Council had voted against a prison.

Expressions of Interest

The Tasmanian government’s process timeline chart commences with Expressions of Interest to begin in July 2018. This was delayed until 20 September 2018. This short time frame, seemingly coloured by local government elections, could have meant that only the mates were forewarned and applied through their local council, who if it suited them kept the matter shtum. The targeted EOIs were apparently sent to all northern councils but seemingly buried by MVC, perhaps because it would have alerted the residents of Westbury to this knotty problem before the Council election. I can find no evidence of a discussion in the Council minutes. It was important for the government to see how the cards fell after the election for they needed the numbers in Council to pass the land use change otherwise a prison will not be built.

How many elected Councillors knew what was at stake before the election and said nothing? Is it possible they were assisted financially in their campaigns for re-election by a Liberal government aiming to elect pro-prison councillors?

The Liberals put out a simple document that could not embarrass any council that applied on behalf of a local landowner when and if their application was disclosed under Right to Information (RTI):

The land size required: Size: A minimum of 13 hectares is required however the preferred size is 20 hectares or more.i

With Meander Valley (MVC) Mayor, Craig Perkins, retiring one can only assume that the Westbury application was submitted by the Meander Valley Council General Manager, Martin Gill with the agreement of the incoming mayor Wayne Johnston, acting on the behalf of the corporate owner of the land who is domiciled in the UK, at the instigation of Minister Shelton.ii

In the EOI the land area suggested is between 13 and 20 hectares. This should have ruled out the Westbury site as the prison could not be contained within the allocated 10.1 hectares available on the Industrial precinct, in one block, on one side of the road. Only by accessing both farmland and industrial land and then rezoning the whole using Council’s planning resources would it be possible.

Both Perkins and Suzie Bower, a current Meander Valley Councillor and runner up in the MVC mayoral contest, were required by their day job to work in the best interests of the Bell Bay community not the owners of blocks of land on the outskirts of Westbury. Councillor Bower must explain why she was not pushing for a prison site at Longreach.

The council voted to stop the rate rebate on privately owned conservation properties held for the public good with Councillors King, Kelly, Sherriff, Bower and Mayor Johnston voting for the motion and Synfield, Temple and Knott against. These groupings will I suggest vote for and against the prison.

Secrecy

The Minister must be made to explain the draconian wording of clauses 3.1, 3.2 3.4, 3.5 in the Department of Justice, Northern Prison Siting Project, Expression of Interest guidelines, aimed at keeping the submissions secret.confidentiality of EOI

Clause 3.3: …The Minister reserves the right to publish the names of each Proponent and the location of a Proposed Site put forward in an EOI Submission.

Each proponent who put their case through their local Council at the Minister’s instigation read in paragraph 3.3 that their submissions were being made for purposes of financial gain at public expense. The minister therefore under this clause has absolutely no right to withhold the names of the proponents and their sites targeted or otherwise. The documents behind the names and addresses are intended to be totally secret presumably to protect the mates over any corruption regarding due process.

I have checked the credibility of the Minister’s statements. I conclude that of the ten submissions solicited from councils by the Government, only four voted for a prison on behalf of their community: Westbury, Circular Head, Burnie and Waratah -Wynyard. The last three knew they were out of the running by 11 September 2019.

Similarly, the minutes of the meetings and who was present to discuss the ten EOIs held at an unknown date in October 2018 must have a direct bearing on the choice of Westbury as the prison site. These minutes should be obtained by the objectors by a simple request; failing that they must be supplied under RTI.

Labor, in Parliament, revealed four sites on Crown land that were shortlisted for the new prison following a Right to Information Request. The names of organisations which submitted proposals under the expressions of interest process for a prison site were withheld due to commercial-in-confidence protocols.iii

This secretive Liberal state government seems to have a lot to hide.

i https://www.justice.tas.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/446453/Northern-Prison-EOI-Application-Form.pdf

Please also refer to the Introduction published previously. Note that the Premier has still not responded to the questions put to him in writing on 8 November.

Postscript: statements by Minister Archer and WRAP re community meetings are here. See also the WRAP protest action in Hobart.

See also the Introduction and Part 2 of this series about the Westbury Prison proposal.


John Hawkins has lived in Tasmania for 17 years. He has recreated with his wife Robyn a 19th century landscape over the Bentley Estate at Chudleigh. He is interested in the Tasmanian way of doing business. John was commissioned into the Diehards from Sandhurst in 1962.


 

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