Council bungled The Cottage process

By Myles Peterson

Rarely have I covered a more divisive story than that of The Cottage, an issue that split councillors and the community and transcended traditional political views and standpoints.

There was one point on which all involved agreed — Shepparton sorely needs effective drug and alcohol treatment and recovery services.

The debate was not about the what and why, it was about the where.

Now the dust has settled with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal ruling, the community is in possession of a drug and alcohol recovery centre with a planning permit that imposes strict conditions such as 24-hour staffing.

Nearby residents who opposed the facility are understandably devastated by the end result. They cite fears and concerns such as the impact of The Cottage on their own mental health and the effect on nearby property prices.

These issues cannot be dismissed lightly or smugly, they are legitimate concerns.

Nor can all the blame for what transpired be placed at the feet of The Cottage’s management. After hours and hours of interviews and discussion, I believe their motivation to help addicts to be genuine and heartfelt.

It can be argued that Rob Bryant and other members of the The Cottage board should have sought a planning permit and if they had opposing residents would have been given the chance to voice their concerns in the first instance.

It is both Greater Shepparton City Council and certain councillors who need to take the lion’s share of responsibility for the months of uncertainty and enormous expenditure on VCAT legal fees, reportedly running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

How is it that the council did not notice The Cottage for eight months? In August 2017, two months after it took in its first client, The News ran a front page article fully detailing its operations, backed up by a second article on page five. Yet it was not until February the next year that the council acted on the back of public complaints.

Following a site inspection, the council reportedly initiated a VCAT action in May last year to have the facility shut down, almost a year after it opened.

The council then backflipped on the spirit of that application and made a recommendation to councillors that they grant a planning permit with strict conditions.

A slim majority of councillors defied that recommendations and voted against granting planning permission, leading to twin VCAT hearings where the council found itself arguing against its own recommendations, a seemingly costly and pointless exercise.

The Cottage was reportedly able to use the council’s recommendations to help win the hearings. Debacle would be an apt term to describe this series of events.

For 11 months, from February last year through to last week when the VCAT decision was finally handed down, opponents and Cottage organisers, staff and clients have waited in a state of severe uncertainty.

It is impossible to gauge how much anguish was caused, how much potential funding was lost and how many prospective clients did not engage the services on offer.

Today I will sit down with four former clients who successfully engaged The Cottage’s services and are now getting on with their lives drug and/or alcohol free — four examples of what can be achieved not because of local government involvement, but in spite of it.

Myles Peterson is a News journalist.