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Justice for all

I'm not sure where I last left off. If this seems the posts are out of order, then I haven't fixed them up yet, but this is going in before the last one, because I wrote it at home on Tuesday and haven't been on-line at home since.

Anyway, Tuesday afternoon after I finished the various errands I had to run, and had done some work and railed against the evils which is microsoft, Rebecca came home and we started working on our submission to VCAT. Just to step back in time a little bit, I will just explain why we had to make a submission to VCAT.

Over 3 years ago, Rebecca and I bought our house in a heritage overlay area in Ballarat. The area is a relatively well preserved example of Victorian, Inter-War and Post-War buildings. Fortunately, it survived the cultural vandalism of the 1960s and '70s, although there have been some alterations done here and there, such as a block down the street from us was subdivided and a horrible little building put up totally out of keeping with the stretscape and feel of the area. If you remember previous posts on developers, that is the sort of thing which typifies what I am talking about.

Anyway, late last year, we received a letter informing us of a proposal to demolish the house across the road and stick up three units. Obviously, we were not ecstatic about the proposal and, along with our neighbours, John and Judy, we objected. We put in various reasons, such as the negative impact on the streetscape, etc. We would prefer that our street doesn't become higher density, but we accept that if a unit or two is stuck on the back, that is reasonable and not out of keeping with the heritage of the street.

We then had a mediation session with the council officers, Chris (the planning officer) and Vicki (the heritage officer) and the developer, Andy Sliwa and his representative. This was an amazing session. It consisted to a large degree of: us raising our concerns, Mr Sliwa yelling at Vicki, Mr Sliwa telling us that heritage is St. Pats', not our street and Mr Sliwa saying that if he couldn't pull down the building he would walk away.

Anyway, the council officers were all set to reject the application when Mr Sliwa requested that the matter goes before council. I was away for the first relevant council meeting, but I'm told Rebecca represented us and our neighbours beautifully, and council asked for an alternative proposal. Fast forward a couple of weeks, I got home and we went to the meeting where revised plans were presented, which we were unable to speak about because we had already had a chance to speak previously.

At this meeting, we got railroaded. It was like we had been hit by a train. Our "esteemed" "representative" councillor Herman Ruyg, got up and made statements such as "I reckon its not heritage" and "It is an eyesore and the residents across the street will thank him for it being demolished." Yes. That's why we are objecting. On a sidenote, if anyone is planning to run against him in the next council elections he faces and would like some encouragement or support, my contact email is at the top of the site.

More distrubingly, he had also had "six or seven meetings with the developer" and had been to see the site a few times, and yet, while there, couldn't bring himself to knock on the door and ask the people he is supposed to represent what their objections are. This is local council for crying out loud, that sort of disconnect isn't supposed to happen until further up the chain.

Anyway, long story short, despite sixteen pages of reasons why the demolition should not go ahead, council voted for it to happen. This was somewhat of a shock to us, to say the least. And it is a fantastic use of taxpayers money, isn't it? We pay for a heritage officer to make a detailed, well researched plan, just so the councillor can come along and say "I reckon its not heritage." With all his years and years of heritage experience. As a newspaper photographer.

Our next step was to launch an appeal with VCAT, who, as I understand it, have the final say in the matter. We did so, but, because the council had voted against us, we basically had to come up against the council and the developer.

Over the last couple of months, Rebecca has done an incredible amount of working preparing our submission, and it was of a very professional quality. We were also contacted by the son of the people who had owned it, and he gave us a lot of stuff on the history of the house. And we subpoenad the heritage officer, Vicki, to appear to speak about her report. Shortly before we left to go to do the last bits of printing and photocopying we had to do before the hearing, a guy who lives a couple of houses down the street, Darron, who is a grandson of the former owners, came and visited. Long story short, he gave us some photos and stuff and we invited to drive him down to the hearing. Disturbingly, he had not received a notice of the proposed developments or demolition. I suspect that that is also illegal, but I'm not sure.

Which brings me back to yesterday. We've got there and proceedings have started, and there was a question about whether we could call Vicki, and there was a question about whether Darron could join the hearing. On the former, there was some dispute, and it was eventually agreed that she could answer questions on what was in her report. On the latter, there were no objections raised.

Rebecca spoke for us and John and Judy, and Darron also spoke. Rebecca began by asking the tribunal member what happens, and the tribunal member expressed her surprise, because she thought we knew because we seemed professional. Chris spoke first for council, delivering the facts. I won't comment on his performance, partly because it is not relevant, and partly because it must be an extremely difficult job trying to defend the indefensible professionally when you disagree with it and are known to disagree with it. (I occasionally do it as a hobby, but that is not in any professional capacity.)

Rebecca then got to make her submission. She did extremely well. (Chris later said that she should be a lawyer. We're not sure that this is a compliment, but it was meant as one). The lawyer acting for the developer, in his cross examination of Vicki, was incredibly rude and arrogant. He kept trying to force misleading statements out of her mouth. (Asking someone "yes or no..." is an unreasonable question in some circumstances. "Yes or no have you stopped beating your wife yet?") He kept interrupting when she was answering, and kept berating her. Even though I was not speaking, I was very tempted to interrupt one of his outbursts with "Excuse me, Madame Chair, but I was under the impression that we were not to interrupt. Would you please ask the speaker for the planner to let the witness answer the question. And would you please ask him to not yell at the witness." Something like that. I don't think the rudeness from the lawyer would have hurt our side (and may have helped, because we certainly would have got any sympathy available from the tribunal member), but I still think that it was inappropriate. But, Rebecca was handling it, and so it is reasonable for her to do it her way.

Besides, she probably did most of the things better than I could have. It is easy to be an armchair critic, though. And fun, too.

For the morning session, we went through the council's submission, our submission and Darron's submission. Much of this time was spent with the lawyer sighing, clicking pens, looking at the clock (he did have a watch on his arm, so either it was a cheap watch and had the wrong time, or this was all a cynical, calculated ploy to distract. I'll bet the latter.) Darron did some things which we had been advised not to, such as talk about various things which were not related to the legal issue at hand, and the lawyer sighed, interrupted and said something along the lines of "Madame Chair, I know that they are only laypersons, so I'm prepared to extend a certain amount of latitude, but this is totally irrelevant." She did agree, and we had a break for lunch.

Our submission basically relied on two main objections (with heaps and heaps of evidence). The building was of the appropriate heritage, and was in a heritage overlay area. Demolishing a building to construct a new one in its place is inconsistent with environmental guidelines becuase you lose all the embodied energy, plus the energy cost of demolition, plus the energy cost of building a new one.

During lunch Rebecca and I went and had a bite to eat and a break and had a bit of a walk. Getting out of their certainly did her some good. Despite handling herself very well, it was still a very stressful situation.

After lunch, it was their turn to make a submission. This seemed like a good chance for me to eat a nice, crunchy apple. They quickly called upon the guy who had done their heritage report. He brought in large amounts of new evidence which weren't in his report. I will say something about his report. It was an atrociously shoddy piece of work. Poorly written, and containing numerous factual errors, even ones we were able to pick up. It is a good thing that he is not a nuclear engineer. Otherwise he would definitely have caused a Chernobyl or two. He also tried claiming at various times that it was a 1920s building, a 1930s building and everything as late as 1957. He then raised the issue of the former owners having taken out mortgages in the '60s and said that this could have been used to build the house!

Carrying on, the lawyer was much, much politer to his witness. Rebecca then started her cross-examination. Again, she did well. Particularly as it was her first time, particularly as she had all sorts of pieces of paper which she had prepared, and which Keith and I had written, to try to make sense of and ask in a meaningful order. And particularly as the witness was not being particularly helpful. I may (arguably) have done a better job asking the questions, but I would probably have hurt the case a little more by smart-arsed questions and responses (Me? Surely not?). That was one of the main reasons why I was not asking the questions. That and Rebecca knew the material so much better than I did.

Ultimately, Rebecca did get most of the points across. Those which she didn't feel like she got across, the tribunal member actually asked the relevant questions anyway, so we still quite happy. Unfortunately, there was more rudenessand aggression from the lawyer towards Darron, and he acted in a most unprofessional and inappropriate manner. Darron was getting quite upset about this. The lawyer went on more of his latitude to laypeople statements, and this had what I would take as the desired effect. Eventually, I got up and spoke quietly to Darron. I told him that the lawyer is just trying to push his buttons. Do not talk to him. Do not respond to him. Talk only to the Chair and be polite. He took my advice, calmed down and things were soon back and running.

For the rest of the summation, the lawyer attacked most of the points where Darron had differed from us, and he went back to trying to claim that the house wasn't heritage, and claimed that he had answered all our points. When he had finished, I meekly said something along the lines of, "Excuse me, Madame Chair, would you please ask him to clarify something. He doesn't seem to have mentioned anything about embodied energy." I appreciate that my words could have no official weight, and were quite cynical really, using the fact that it was my first time to make a mistake. But I wanted to make sure she left with the idea that he hadn't answered all our points. This is why I don't think Rebecca would make a good lawyer, (or politician) she is not cynical enough and will not bend rules for advantage.

So, to sum up the day's scorecard: Morning session, us convincingly. Afternoon session, them by a little bit. On points I think we won it, but it is always hard to tell. I guess I'll have to wait 3-6 weeks to find out. My bet is on 6, because she still has to go and look at the house before she can make a decision.

By the time we finished, it was almost 6PM. We went to the car and I drove us home (After a jumpstart). When we got home, Rebecca needed to go for a walk to unwind. We had dinner, watched some mindless TV and went to bed.

As I was coming in today, I was walking past large numbers of protesters going the other way. The unions had organised a huge rally against the Government's workplace changes. I won't say too much about it now, although I will make some statements about in the coming months. This should be an interesting campaign, because it will be based on large amounts of lies and disinformation on both sides. Lots of appeals to emotional arguments without resorting to anything like facts. Just like my site, really.

When I got into uni, there were a couple of people looking at a campus map (which wasn't new when I started my undergrad degree here in '97) and trying to find a building which had changed its name to that of the vice chancellor who recently departed for a far away university. Needless to say, it wasn't on the map. I took them for a walk as far as I was going, and then pointed them the rest of the way.

Today, I caught up on all the stuff I had missed not being in here the last two days. Lots of email etc. Did some stuff I had meant to do for a while, and, in particular, worked on my talk. This has been written as little breaks in amongst various practice runs. I'm nervous about it, but I think it is a better talk than it was last time I presented it. I'm scared about having to keep it to 15 minutes though.

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