By Kirra Grimes

EDIT 26/08/20: A spokesperson for Vinfast told the Sentinel-Times on Monday afternoon, August 24, the sale was yet to be finalised. 

WITH the former Holden Proving Grounds at Lang Lang reportedly sold to a Vietnamese car manufacturer, Bass Coast Shire Council has abandoned its push to get the state government to take over the site, and will instead pursue planning control measures to protect its environmental and cultural values.

A motion at last Wednesday’s ordinary meeting saw councillors agree to a number of initiatives to support the protection of the site’s hundreds of hectares of native vegetation while it remained under private ownership and at risk of being cleared for sand mining like other properties in the area, including requesting that the Minister for Planning apply interim additional planning control protection measures over the site.

Council resolved to push for the HPG site’s environmental significance formally recognised under the state government’s forthcoming Distinctive Areas and Landscapes Statement of Planning Policy (SPP); and to seek an urgent review of Extractive Industry Interest Area mapping within Bass Coast with a view to having the HPG and surrounding areas excluded.

They also supported Bass MP Jordan Crugnale’s idea to form a working group – consisting of state and local government representatives, as well as a Bunurong Traditional Custodian, members of the Save the Holden Bushlands group and the HPG’s new owners – to determine the best option to protect the environmental and Aboriginal cultural heritage of the site; to pursue public acquisition of rear allotments of preserved bushland; and consider potential uses including offsets and “traditional first nations use”.

Bass Coast Council and community members are campaigning to protect one of the last remaining areas of West Gippsland forest, at the Holden Proving Grounds site at Lang Lang (Photo by Claire Davie).

Council officers said getting the site included in the SPP was “the most effective protection measure available to Council”.

Deputy Mayor and Western Port Ward Cr Geoff Ellis said with much of the area surrounding the site “set aside on mining leases that are being diligently exploited,” the suite of new initiatives represented Council’s “last, best chance” to provide an “immovable ark” for rare and endangered flora and fauna, and “help our fire ravaged, economically devastated state, Victoria, emerge from this state of disaster”.

“Given that Australian taxpayers party funded the HPG, and GMH [General Motors Holden] protected it, the HPG obviously has enormous national significance,” Cr Ellis said.

“Given the habitat that is preserved in there…the HPG has undoubted state significance- this has to be accorded the planning respect that it warrants,” he said.

With Council committed to “walking with” the traditional owners of the site, the Bunurong people, Cr Ellis said the HPG and surrounds could become a “jewel in the regional crown” and a “template for excellence” in reconciliation efforts, as well as in environment conservation and Australian engineering endeavours.

“The traditional owners have very little control over any of this coast, which bears hundreds of markers of their continued presence,” he said.

Sand mining in The Gurdies Conservation Reserve. (Photo by Claire Davie).

Council congratulated the volunteers of the ‘Save the Holden Bushlands’ group for the work they’d put into getting authorities to recognise the significance of the site and prioritise its protection over the past several months.

Save the Holden Bushlands spokesperson Tim O’Brien said the group was disappointed the Bass Coast and Victorian community had lost the opportunity to acquire the HPG site, but was “very heartened” by Council’s resolution, particularly the push to have the site and surrounding areas such as the Grantville Grass Tree Forest included in the Distinctive Areas and Landscapes Scheme.

Local conservationist Meryl Tobin admiring Grantville’s Grass Tree forest. (Photo by Hartley Tobin).

“The forest corridor running to Grantville is the last remaining significant stand of bushland in the whole of the South Gippsland region,” Tim said. “We remained determined to protect every leaf, every twig, every blade of grass and every forest bog in every square centimetre of that bush corridor from north of the South Gippsland Highway, to Grantville and beyond.

“Council recognises this, and we’re heartened that it intends to include this whole forest corridor in the Statement of Planning Policy.”

The group’s also welcomed the Extractive Industry Interest Area review, calling sand mining in conservation and remnant forest areas “nothing short of environmental vandalism”.

They’re hopeful there may still be an opportunity to acquire the high-value coastal forest habitat covering the rear allotments at the HPG site, such as through the new owner divesting these.

“The motion from council supports public acquisition, if available, and commits to working towards it… On this, we’re very pleased for the strong support of the local member [Jordan Crugnale], and of council,” Tim said.

Caradvice.com.au reported last Monday, August 17, that Vietnamese start-up Vinfast had purchased the HPG site for over $20 million, after it was listed for sale in earlier this year.

Recognising the employment and training opportunities it could provide for the region, Cr Ellis told the Sentinel-Times council would like to help the owners promote the site as a “centre for engineering excellence,” making the most of the facilities established by GMH, such as for the development of electric vehicles.

Although council couldn’t confirm the identity of the new owners last week, Cr Ellis said any changes in overall use of the site would require a “very lengthy” planning application to council, “so we’d be surprised if there is any major change in activity” from the testing and development GMH did there.