One of Tasmania’s highest-paid public servants has joined the call for Hobart City Council to approve a development in one of the city’s oldest suburbs — despite the proposal being twice recommended for refusal.
- The $55 million proposal is for an “integrated medical centre and hospital” including six operating theatres and a 24-hour bed ward
- Hobart’s Deputy Mayor says a letter from a top public servant urging the project be approved is an example of the increased lobbying councils are experiencing
- Tasmania’s Health Minister has previously voiced her support for the project
Deputy Mayor and Planning Committee chair Helen Burnet said “the extraordinary letter” from coordinator-general John Perry urging councillors to use their “discretion” to approve the private hospital was a clear example of the increased lobbying experienced by councils.
“Over the last two to three years, in my 15 years on council, I have seen a very concerted effort by PR companies, by hired lobby groups to drive home their position,” she said.
The position of coordinator-general — which attracts a remuneration well above that of the Tasmanian premier — was created in 2014 by the newly-elected Liberal Government as part of a key election pledge to be “the primary point of access to government for investors”.
In his LinkedIn profile, Mr Perry lists “red tape reduction” as one of his functions as coordinator-general.
The news of his letter to elected members comes a week after the State Government introduced its Major Project Bill which would allow it to declare large and complex developments as requiring special attention to have them assessed by a specially-convened panel rather than a local council.
It’s unclear whether the proposed Tasman Private Hospital development in New Town would qualify as a “major project”, but the Health Minister has voiced her support for the project.
The $55 million proposal consists of “an integrated medical centre and hospital” including six operating theatres and a 24-hour bed overnight ward. Other health services, including a general practice, pharmacy, radiology and pathology would be co-located with the hospital.
The company behind the development, Nexus Hospitals, owns and operates 15 hospitals across Australia and describes itself as “building Australia’s leading network of short stay hospitals”.
It wants to replicate its model in Hobart, but its first application was rejected by the council in December on multiple grounds including the operational hours’ potential impact on residents.
Council officers have once again recommended its amended application for refusal, writing that the proposed building height “is not compatible with the scale of nearby buildings [and] … does not contribute positively to the streetscape”
Mr Perry wrote to the council’s general manager Nick Heath in support of the hospital in August — ahead of the vote, but outside of the official representation period — and asked him to circulate it to elected members.
“Tasmania not only needs development to drive our economic recovery from COVID-19 but it needs this type of development to help build our healthcare capacity to provide backup to, and free capacity in, public hospitals,” he wrote.
He noted that Health Minister Sarah Courtney had voiced her support from a healthcare perspective, quoting her correspondence from June.
“The Government acknowledges the important role [that] private health providers play in providing Tasmanians with choice in healthcare, as well as easing pressure on the public health system”, Ms Courtney wrote.
Mr Perry then went on to write that Nexus Hospitals “has a strong record as a healthcare provider”, listed the ways the company had attempted to accommodate “the concerns of local residents” and pointed out councillors could approve it, despite their officers recommending against it.
His input came as a surprise to long-serving Cr Burnet who said she found it “extraordinary” and “worrying”.
“There needs to be a few questions asked around this,” she said.
Following the Planning Committee’s rejection, Lord Mayor Anna Reynolds took to social media to gauge her community’s support, posing the question “positive project, wrong site?”
“There’s been criticism from some circles that the project should be waved through,” she wrote.
“But the question on my mind is — perhaps this is not the right location for Hobart’s latest private day surgery / mega medical centre?”
‘New low for the anti-development brigade’
According to the council officer’s report, those supporting the development say it will provide employment “both in the construction phase and in an ongoing way” and argue it will “take pressure off the existing public and private hospitals”.
Master Builders executive director Matthew Pollock slammed the committee’s decision to refuse it, saying he hoped that would be overturned at full council.
“The rejection of the $55 million Tasman Hospital development by the Hobart City Council sub-committee is a new low for the anti-development brigade,” Mr Pollock said.
“I urge the Council, on behalf of the 6,000 businesses and 20,000 workers which make up the building and construction industry to use their discretion and approve this development application.”
Government Minister Elise Archer said the Government welcomed any project that provides significant investment and jobs into the state.
“It is essential for a strong public health system to have an equally strong private system that sits alongside it,” she said.
“The Government would like to see any project that provides significant investment, significant jobs into this state and of course if it’s into our health system that is very welcome.
“As long as it complies with planning requirements.”
Ms Archer said the major projects legislation was reserved for the most complex cases and she wasn’t sure if the development would qualify.
In a statement, the Australian Institute of Australian Architects said it was “supportive of the City of Hobart’s Urban Design Advisory Panel and would like to reaffirm the importance of the expert advice that is provided by this panel when assessing applications”.
The coordinator-general has been contacted for comment.