A heritage-listed former Townsville school will be converted into a $55 million private hospital, over objections from another private hospital operator.
Queensland planning and environment court Judge Tracy Fantin this week dismissed an appeal by Mater Health North Queensland against the development, ruling the new hospital was in the public interest.
Judge Fantin delivered her judgment in Cairns after a protracted hearing in November last year, finding the development application had “substantial merit”.
“Planning appeals involving heritage buildings or new hospitals are relatively uncommon. This one involves both,” she said.
The property in question, on Ingham Road in West End, was the former Townsville West State School, a 1930s-era three-storey brick building listed on the state’s heritage register but left unused for a decade.
The state government sold the property in 2014 to private owners, who also purchased property around the building.
Developers Geon Property then lodged the development application to convert the massive building into a 22-bed private hospital with four operating theatres, healthcare services and a pharmacy.
They wanted to create an additional building constructed beside the old school, linked by a pedestrian bridge.
Townsville council approved the application, as did the State Assessment and Referral Agency, but Mater Health North Queensland appealed the decision.
The not-for-profit Catholic private health organisation, which operates two hospitals in the region, argued the development did not comply with assessment benchmarks in both the Townsville City Plan and the State Heritage Code.
Judge Fantin noted Mater Health’s dominance in the Townsville health market as the primary alternative to the public health system, with 200 beds at two hospitals.
Mater Health argued the proposed new hospital would impact its own hospitals financially, saying it would have a “devastating impact upon the capacity of Mater to provide a full range” of healthcare services to Townsville residents.
The not-for-profit also argued such a financial loss would prevent it from going ahead with planned redevelopments to its own hospitals.
But Judge Fantin said potential financial impacts on Mater by the development were not relevant to planning decisions, and pointed out the 22-bed proposed hospital would only have 10 per cent of Mater’s total operating capacity.
She also noted the high proportion of Townsville residents who elected to use private health cover through the public system – significantly higher than the state average.
Judge Fantin said having such a high number of private patients choosing the public system was “not in the public interest” and increased the burden on public hospitals.
The heritage aspect of the building was also raised, with the development found to be thoughtful and appropriate to “breathe life into a heritage building that has lain vacant and deteriorating for a decade”.
Finding the development proposal had “substantial merit”, Judge Fantin said it was for a “well-designed building” at a site that was “generally consistent with the relevant planning provisions.
“It would facilitate the restoration and adaptive reuse of a significant heritage building,” she said in her decision.
“It would deliver greater access to health services to the people of regional Queensland. It would result in increased competition, choice and convenience, in the provision of hospital services for the Townsville region.
“It would provide a needed, state of the art medical facility in an appropriate location.”
Judge Fantin ruled the development should be approved, finding there were “no relevant matters” to warrant refusal of the development application and the public interest would be “considerably advanced” by its approval.