The head of the Maribyrnong River flood inquiry has resigned after The Age revealed his previous role in supporting planning changes that led to a riverside retirement village building homes in areas swamped during last year’s disaster.
Nick Wimbush, a planning expert regularly used by the Victorian government, was appointed by Melbourne Water after October’s floods to run the government-owned authority’s review.
Karen McKay, whose Rivervue retirement village home flooded in October 2022, at her temporary accommodation in CowesCredit:Luis Enrique Ascui
In November 2015, Wimbush was the sole person on a panel after Melbourne Water requested that Moonee Valley Council change flood planning rules covering a portion of the Rivervue Retirement Village site next to the Maribyrnong River.
Melbourne Water’s amendment saw the one-in-100-year flood risk area moved closer to the river, leaving only a sliver of designated flood-prone land between the retirement village in Avondale Heights and the river.
Today, 47 of Rivervue’s top-end homes built closest to the river remain uninhabited as they undergo about $7 million in repairs for flood damage sustained on October 14 last year.
The residents of the properties, many in their 70s and 80s, have been left locked out of their homes. Some are living with relatives or paying their own money to rent temporary residences.
The Age sent questions to Melbourne Water and Water Minister Harriet Shing on Monday morning about Wimbush’s role. On Tuesday, the Opposition and the Greens called for Wimbush to be stood down as chair of the flood inquiry.
On Tuesday evening, Melbourne Water issued a statement saying Wimbush would not continue in the role.
“Mr Wimbush’s appointment met all probity and appointment criteria and he was eminently qualified to undertake the role,” a spokesman said.
“Melbourne Water is determined to demonstrate the integrity of the review process, we have taken this step mutually with Mr Wimbush. This is necessary so as not to distract from the important work of the review.”
The Age attempted to contact Wimbush directly and via the state Planning Department, but he could not be reached by deadline.
Shing on Tuesday night declined to comment.
Following the planning changes backed by Wimbush, the exclusive retirement village – which was first approved in 2006 after an application by an earlier owner of the site – began its construction on the land that was no longer considered a floodplain.
Melbourne Water appointed Wimbush in December to chair its review of the October flood, which includes examining the flooding at Rivervue.
Chair of the flood inquiry Nick Wimbush
Wimbush had sat on several expert panels for major government development projects including the West Gate Tunnel, the North East Link and the East West Link. The Age does not suggest he would not act independently in his role as chair of Melbourne Water’s review, only that his previous recommendations on the Rivervue land may give rise to a perceived lack of independence.
On January 24, in Melbourne Water’s first information session for its review of the October floods, engagement officer Liz Nairn confirmed that Rivervue would be part of its inquiry.
“We certainly are aware of the concerns that are starting to be raised about the Rivervue development in Avondale Heights,” she told the meeting.
The planning amendment approved by the Andrews government in 2016 – after Wimbush backed it – meant that incoming residents did not have to be made aware of the property’s former flood overlay, and after the October flood, Rivervue management assured residents no homes were built on a floodplain.
In January, Melbourne Water managing director Nerina Di Lorenzo told The Age that Wimbush would be “a very good independent chair, and has a lot of experience in this space”.
“We’ve got probity auditors over the top of the process to just make sure it’s clear and transparent,” she said.
The flood seen from Rivervue: 1) On the night before the flood, the river lies way beyond the pond; 2) At 6.43am on the day of the flood; 3) At 7.08am
Avondale Heights is two kilometres west of the suburb of Maribyrnong, which garnered strong attention after 525 homes were hit by a wall of water in the early hours of October 14.
At Rivervue, most of the flood-damaged homes’ lower levels have had to be totally stripped back.
Their residents – some of whom paid close to $1 million to take out a 99-year lease on the top-end villas – expect to remain without a permanent home until at least April.
Plans for the Rivervue development were originally rejected by Moonee Valley City Council but the decision was overturned at VCAT in 2006. The VCAT member noted concerns about the development’s suitability for aged people. “The proximity of the land to the flood plain has some risk. However, all accommodation would be above the 1:100 year flood level.”
Moonee Valley Council went on to approve several minor changes to the development’s planning permit between 2009 and 2022.
Ron Sutherland is a civil engineer, and for 12 of his 20 years at Melbourne Water was manager of land development. He left the authority in 2002. He said the flood overlay on Rivervue should never have been changed. “The overlay was changed incorrectly. The developer wanted it changed so they could build more units.”
He said in his opinion it was “completely and utterly inappropriate” for Wimbush to be selected to chair of the inquiry.
And he said the homes at Rivervue that flooded should ultimately be removed. “Those houses should never have been built.”
Devastated residents of the village, which sits on a 7.4-hectare parcel of land, have been left questioning why their homes flooded, destroying most of their belongings.
Karen McKay, 76, sold her long-term home in Maribyrnong and moved to a $550,000 villa at Rivervue with her late husband, Jim, in 2019, specifically to escape living on a floodplain.
McKay, who is now in temporary accommodation on Phillip Island, went to sleep on the night of October 13 never expecting floodwaters to pour into her home.
“I’m still looking at it in disbelief. Our biggest fear had come to us,” McKay said. “As far as [Jim] was concerned he picked the safest spot for us and that was so important to him.”
Rae and Colin Waters have been left devastated by the floodsCredit:Scott McNaughton
Rae and Colin Waters, both in their 70s, said they asked about flood risk before paying $825,000 for their home, located on the outer edge of the village with river views.
“We never worried,” Rae said. “If we’d have thought we had one chance of being flooded, we wouldn’t have gone or we would have gone higher.”
Another resident, Cheryl Korkliniewski, was equally shocked when floodwaters rushed into her home.
“I just did not think that would happen,” she said. “The next day when we went back, everything was just gone.”
Rivervue residents Cheryl and Stan Korkliniewski are now in temporary accommodation.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui
The Greens have proposed a parliamentary inquiry into the floods. Sandell said Parliament would more readily than Melbourne Water look at decisions made in the past “that potentially made the flood impacts worse”. She said the Government should “support the Greens’ motion for a proper Parliamentary inquiry that gets to the bottom of this mess”.
A spokesman for Tigcorp, the owner of Rivervue, said the retirement village was constructed according to approved permits and planning controls from the council and reviewed by Melbourne Water. “We did not, and never would, build on a floodplain.”
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