Bunnings vs Brunswick shows that corporations don’t make a community

The Stop Bunnings Brunswick campaign was more than a local planning dispute, writes James Conlan
Friday, May 13, 2022

LATE last month, Brunswick residents won a pitched battle against a multi-billion dollar corporation in defence of their neighbourhood. Locals banded together under the Stop Bunnings Brunswick campaign to convince the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) that a boxy Bunnings megastore on the already congested Glenlyon Road was a terrible idea.

The proposal was objectively bad because of physics. Bunnings’ ‘big box’ business model involves creating an enormous customer catchment area that forces people to drive long distances to get to the shop. Moreland Council is trying to encourage more trips by foot, bike and public transport, not by car. People aren’t exactly crying out for more traffic.

Locals proved that there simply isn’t enough room on the roads to accommodate a megastore at this spot. Eventually, the public would have been forced to pay millions for road upgrades that were unlikely to have worked anyway. The community lodged hundreds of objections refusing to pay for Bunnings’ traffic problem, which was supported by VCAT.

Moreland locals were thrilled with the result but some have tried to undermine their victory as selfish Nimby-ism. In this telling, residents become classist lefties who don’t understand regular Australians, while Bunnings features as a benevolent, cultural icon. This is an amusing if confused take on everyday people standing up to a corporate behemoth. 

The Bunnings store would have replaced this building in Glenlyon Road.

Big box retail crushes small businesses to create a monopoly. In 2016, Bunnings opened up a store in Brunswick which put a family-owned Mitre 10 out of business after 80 years of operation. People could shop locally and support local businesses without clogging up roads, if it was still there.

Big corporations put a lot of effort into curating a veneer of social responsibility. We all love a sausage sizzle, but a cheap bite at Bunnings is a branding exercise to create the impression that the company cares about communities. We shouldn’t let a few snags deflect attention from greasy business practices.

Bunnings is hardly some cute community group with a romantic influence over our lives. Just last year, its parent company, Wesfarmers, turned over $33 billion in revenue.

Every time a community fights back against any kind of building, urban planners and commentators pile on the NIMBY accusations. This is a reactionary, counter-narrative created by the property and real estate lobby to delegitimise any attempt to rein in corporate greed and ensure that development is done in the public interest.

The argument that ‘all development is good’ is just trickle-down economics in physical form, which seeks to unleash the ‘benevolent’ hand of the private property market by sidelining public-interest governing.

Parroting this narrative without question only serves to consolidate the property lobby’s hold over how our city is developed. As a former town planner, I’ve had to unlearn this rhetoric that dominates the field. Really though, it doesn’t take a degree to see whose interest all this private-led development actually serves.

The Stop Bunnings Brunswick campaign was more than a local planning dispute. It was a community-driven fight against the way in which our city (like many parts of our lives) is being penetrated by the interests of big business, destroying neighbourhoods in the process. The people of Moreland don’t want concrete, sterile speculation precincts that just make money for the ultra-rich.

Read more:

VCAT rules against controversial $21 million development in Glenlyon Road

VCAT rules against controversial $21 million development in Glenlyon Road

As for the people who led this campaign, they were motivated by a desire to ensure our city is built ethically and sustainably. They want more public housing, public transport, parks and open spaces. They want community infrastructure and services and real power in the decision-making process.

Dismissing these grassroots campaigns is a boring continuation of right-wing culture wars. Like any human-led movement, community campaigns can be misguided or messy.

But progressives dismiss the core sentiment of these campaigns at their peril, as they represent an opportunity to meet people wherever they are on their political journey which starts with their connection to their local park, street, and neighbours.

We don’t need retail giants to grow veggies, renovate our homes or foster community. The question at hand in these local battles is whether our neighbourhoods should be liveable, beautiful even, or if we should treat them like reservoirs of money for big business. Brunswick locals know which future they prefer.

James Conlan is a Moreland Greens councillor representing the South Ward, where residents rejected the proposed Bunnings. He has a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning and expertise in statutory and transport planning. He tweets at @JamesMConlan.