Wednesday, June 04, 2003

“Disinterested in the old-fashioned sense of the word” – a new-fashioned Fitzroy yarn

“The [City of Yarra] bureaucrats started operating as though they were a business … There needed to be a sounding board or some organisation that could speak out from a non-commercial point of view - disinterested in the old-fashioned sense of the word.”

So said president of the Fitzroy Residents' Association, Geoff Barbour, recently recounting the founding of the current incarnation of the FRA in the mid-90’s. Apart from being, quite naturally, a Fitzroy resident, Geoff Barbour describes himself as a consultant focusing on workplace issues, who has previously worked in broadcasting and social policy research. Indeed, with a bio like that, he could well deserve being made an honorary Life Fitzroy Resident, wherever he may choose to actually dwell.

Residents' Associations are fairly common creatures in Australia’s older suburbs. Particularly in the oldest suburbs their main brief has long been understood as restricting development. “Development”, in this context, connotes something quite different from its dictionary meaning – in an older suburb, “development” almost always means replacement of the existing old with: (i) something less aesthetic, and/or (ii) of substantially higher density.

It is rather a curious feature of the current Fitzroy Residents' Association then, that “development” concerns seem to be hardly on their radar – given that the backstreets of Fitzroy have been groaning and grinding with new building activity over the last five years. Confirming this, in the same interview, above, in which he discussed the founding of the FRA, Geoff Barbour highlighted its origins in terms of perceived problems with the granting of “large numbers of later and later trading licensed premises (in Fitzroy)”.

In contrast, on the development front (which the interview was directly about), the FRA was said to “act as a resource base for people who are immediately affected by a planning application”. The latter is, I think, consultant-speak, for fobbing-off those kinds of grievances. But perhaps this is just merely being realistic; challenging planning applications can undoubtedly be an expensive and draining process. All in all, then, a simple case of grass-roots lobbying organizations like so much else) not being as good as they used to be?

Actually, the answer is “no”. The FRA, or at least Geoff Barbour, has been a highly-effective lobbying force as of late. And the issue – noise coming from bands playing at licensed premises in Fitzroy.

This issue should be one able to be simply and amicably resolved, IMO. It’s just the classic old “buying a house under the flight path” scenario, only played out in miniature – in other words, the only grounds giving standing for a resident to complain about a noisy venue should be that they were there first. For whatever reason, though, Geoff Barbour and the FRA do not see things this way. Criticising the “Fair Go 4 Live Music” campaign, he says:

“The campaign focused too much on new developments when noise levels were also a problem for residents of older buildings … The solution could be as simple as turning the music down”.*

Aah, the “simple” word again – but this time, it leads to quite a different solution. In Geoff Barbour’s view, every Fitzroy resident has the inalienable right to complain, and the onus will then always be on the venue to take appropriate remedial action, even in the case of the most blatant “under the flight path” development.

The placements of such onuses can end in mass murder (even as the original complainants-cum-bargain-buyers wash their hands and snuggle up for a good and silent night's sleep). But then again, surely, Geoff Barbour – a workplace issues consultant, with a social policy background – would have realised, and so refused to countenance, such a one-sided outcome?

Well, no. It turns out that Geoff Barbour’s FRA (“speak[ing] out from a non-commercial point of view - disinterested in the old-fashioned sense of the word”) is not to be confused with his consultancy activities. In terms of the latter, he has been made chief advisor to Richmond MLA Dick Wynne, who has been charged with the responsibility of preparing a report on an issue of current debate**. That issue, of course, is the ongoing dispute between “under the flight path” developers, and live music venues.

* Fiona O’Doherty, “Live bands fight for life”, Yarra Leader 2 June 2003
** “Art of delegation” and “Man on a mission” The Melbourne Times 4 June 2003

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