ANU covers up $146m construction fiasco

The SA8 project as of December 2020

The Australian National University (ANU) is embroiled in a residential construction project that has resulted in litigation, a land dispute with the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government, and millions lost in the University’s expected revenue.

Following initial inquiries into the University’s review of the Student Accommodation 8 (SA8) project, the ANU rewrote its public documents to erase all mentions of the review.

The ANU has claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the six-month suspension of and reduced bed capacity for SA8, valued at $146 million.

Freedom of Information (FOI) documents and previously public ANU Council agendas, however, reveal mistakes prior to COVID-19 causing delays and loss of at least 300 beds.

Troubles with land

Following a survey of four sites in 2018, the ANU decided to build the SA8 project on the south-western precinct of its Acton campus. Unoccupied with over 40,000sqm of land, the area would supply 1759 beds on campus and solve the University’s residential housing crisis.

In December 2018, the ANU noted advice it received from the ACT Government that the ACT Emergency Services Agency (ESA) would require 8,000sqm of the selected land. The ANU acknowledged that this “will reduce the number of beds provided in stage 2 of the project”.

Despite this acknowledgement, plans for stage 1 and 2 of SA8 continued. Three months later, ANU met the ESA for initial stakeholder engagement, which the ESA Commissioner noted was, “the first time the ESA became aware of the extent of planning the ANU had undertaken.”

A month later, the ESA wrote to the ANU to formally outline the ACT Government’s position. Due to the extent of the University’s planning, the ESA proposed a compromise which would allow most of the stage one development to continue, with the loss of one residential block (see below).

Figure 1: ESA Map of Options, 1 was the ESA’s preference, 2 the ANU proposal, 3 is the compromise.

The ANU initially rejected the compromise. A week later, the ESA wrote back noting that “as an agreement … has not been reached” that the ESA “cannot support” the University’s proposal for SA8. This resulted in the compromise and land purchase in August 2019, which removed Building C of stage one and drastically limited stage two of the SA8 project (see below).

Figure 2: Updated Architectural Drawings of SA8 provided by the National Capital Authority under the FOI Act

But the ANU Council continues to note “ongoing discussions” about the land and location of the ESA site as the cause of a three-month delay for stage one of SA8. In its December 2019 meeting, the Council further noted that events have delayed the project for a year.

Compounding these delays is the University’s dispute with Burgmann College, an ANU-affiliated residential hall. Site preparation for SA8 triggered a clash between the ANU and Burgmann College over its land boundary. Burgmann Principal Sally Renouf accused the ANU of and for violating its sub-lease.

Following a stand-off, Burgmann College sought an injunction and sued the ANU over the dispute. , court documents quote then Chief Operating Officer Chris Grange saying “we stuffed up here” when checking ownership of the land boundaries. Soon after, Burgmann College and the ANU “mutually resolved this matter”.

The cover-up

On 17 April 2020, the ANU announced that due to COVID-19, the University would be pausing “some” of its capital works, including SA8. During July 2020, the ANU commissioned Ernest & Young to conduct a review into SA8 for presentation in October 2020.

The ANU has blocked a FOI request for the review. Following this request, the public agenda and minutes of the October meeting were rewritten without explanation to remove all mentions of the review (see below).

Figure 3&4: Pre-Redacted and Redacted Public Council Agenda. The document was changed in December. Items 11 and 15 were FOI’d in October and November.

An ANU spokesperson has described the practice of redacting Council documents as “long-standing” and “common”. When pressed on why the documents were rewritten an email response stated, “my earlier comment re[garding] ANU Council remain.”

The spokesperson has confirmed that the loss of Building C points will result in “just over 700 beds” for stage 1. They note that stage 2 plans are “not finalised” and the ANU has yet to decide whether “to progress with them”.

The average weekly rent for the university’s newly developed accommodations is around $378.25 on a 45-week contract. The uncertainty of the SA8 project and the reduction in beds may result in a loss of revenue between $25 to $60 million over five years.

SA8 is “on track” to be completed by October 2022. An ANU spokesperson could not confirm the extent of the budget overrun, saying that the project will remain within the revised budget approved by ANU Council in December 2020.

Addendum: Following publication, an ANU spokesperson denies any attempt to cover up information regarding SA8. They have described the changes in the agenda summary as an error that was later noticed and corrected.

Honours student at the Australian National University