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Councillors unconvinced about “88 O’Connell Street Rule”

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A proposal to slug owners of vacant land with higher council rates in the wake of the former Le Cornu site debacle has failed to gain the widespread support of Adelaide City councillors.

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Councillors noted an administration report at last night’s council meeting that concluded a proposal to change rating for long-term vacant land was unlikely to influence the progress of developments.

Under the proposal, owners of land that remained vacant for five years or more would be slugged with higher rates, with the dollar amount yet to be decided.

According to the council report, the higher rates would apply to 24 vacant parcels of land, however of those, 10 are less than 100 square metres and would likely be exempt from the rate changes.

North Ward councillor Phil Martin, who is in favour of the new rates scheme, told last night’s council meeting the proposal was “for all intents and purposes the 88 O’Connell Street rule (the address of the Le Cornu site)”.

“It is aimed at ensuring there’s never again the circumstances where a developer is able to hold the fate of a whole community in their hands,” he said.

“The loss of revenue to this council was such that for decades businesses and residents were forced to make a greater contribution to the cost of the operation of this city [and] by extension greater burden fell to our ratepayers.

“I do think this is a mistake to pass up this opportunity.”

Martin, who was the only speaker in support of the proposal last night, told InDaily this morning that he would seek to bring the proposal back to the council administration for consideration.

He said properties used as recreational or “legitimate” garden spaces sized under 200 square metres should be exempt from higher rates.

Councillors Houssam Abiad and Alex Antic rejected the proposal at last night’s meeting, claiming the tax would be “punitive” on landholders.

“This misunderstands the role of local government – this is not our job,” Antic said.

“There may well be very good reasons sometimes why people or businesses or landholders don’t develop their land and to hit them with a blunt instrument like this is in my view absolutely untenable.

“It is quite extraordinary to think we’ve even got to this point.”

Abiad said the council should focus on assisting organisations such as Renew Adelaide and “holding hands” with ratepayers rather than taxing owners of vacant land.

“This is Australia – if they (the developers) choose not to invest because they can’t afford it or there’s a problem with a dilapidated building, a problem with cleanliness, this is where the council comes in,” he said.

“I’ve been a long-term believer of using the carrot approach rather than the stick approach.

“We’re not here to push the envelope on development if it can’t be done.”

Martin said the proposal was designed to support small businesses.

“To those saying we need to be saying carrots not sticks – we have a basement full of carrots and it didn’t matter how much we offered to the owner of 88 O’Connell Street, it (the property) remained vacant for three decades,” he said this morning.

“There are some people on council who feel a lot less strongly than I do about supporting small businesses more than the big end of town.

“To put it bluntly we need to be doing less for the cigar chompers at the big end of town and more for the ratepayers.”

Councillor Sandy Wilkinson told the meeting the council should focus on preventing premature demolition and clearing of sites.

“That’s the real problem rather than trying to incentivise people to develop an already cleared site,” he said.

“In Waymouth Street there was an historic two-storey building there on the site that was approved, then they demolished the site and it’s now derelict with a tin fence.

“It makes Waymouth Street look like a s-hole.”

Councillor Anne Moran and Lord Mayor Martin Haese also expressed doubts about the proposal.

“I think effectively we don’t have enough vacant land outcomes in the City of Adelaide to warrant this,” Haese said.

“It is a relatively small number and I take the points about it being potentially punitive but it was worthy of the investigation.”

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