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Libs split over preserving Sydney’s heritage

NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes rejected an independent inquiry recommending Sydney Harbour Federation Trust continue managing historically-important harbour sites like Macquarie LightHouse, and not lease them to private commercial interests. Photo: Alec Smart

By ALEC SMART

A split has appeared in the Australian Liberal Party over preservation of Sydney’s heritage, with Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s NSW Government favouring commercialisation over the Federal Government’s plans for conservation.

NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes rejected the outcome of an independent inquiry into maintaining and caretaking historically and culturally important sites in Sydney Harbour. The inquiry recommends that their administration not be handed over to the private sector.

Joseph Carrozzi, Chair of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, which manages the sites, confirmed “the sites have to be retained within the Trust, and be open and accessible to the public.”

In Oct 2019 the Federal Govt commissioned an independent review on the future management of eight sites, most of them former defence establishments, that are under the administration of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust (hereafter Harbour Trust).

Released on 18 June 2020, the review made 21 recommendations, including, most importantly, that: “The Harbour Trust sites should remain in public hands. Existing protections to achieve this, such as section 24 of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Act 2001, should be maintained.“

Harbour heritage
The eight sites, encompassing scenic locations of indigenous, convict and military heritage, have provisionally been saved from private takeover, with stewardship likely to be controlled by the Harbour Trust beyond its legislated end in 2033.

The sites include:
* Cockatoo Island (known by the Aborigines as Wa-rea-mah, a former shipbuilding complex and UNESCO World Heritage Site at the junction of Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers)
* Sub Base Platypus (a former torpedo works and submarine base in Neutral Bay, North Sydney)
* North Head Sanctuary (dismantled military fortifications and the former Artillery School)
* Macquarie Lighthouse on Dunbar Head, Vaucluse (also known as South Head Upper Light, the first and longest-serving lighthouse site in Australia)
* Headland Park, Mosman (comprising Middle Head, Georges Heights, the Drill Hall Precinct and Chowder Bay)
* Woolwich Dock and Parklands
* The former Marine Biological Station in Watsons Bay (the first marine biological research institute in Australia)
* Snapper Island (a former sea cadets training facility succeeded by a naval museum, the island is currently closed due to asbestos in the buildings)

Independent reviewers Carolyn McNally and Erin Flaherty, appointed by the Federal Minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley (who provided a secretariat team to assist them), consulted widely and extensively over eight months, despite restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Their investigation included 200 public submissions plus discussions with around 500 stakeholders through four public forums and multiple one-on-one consultations.

NSW Liberals reject recommendations
NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes, dissatisfied with the review when it was released on 18 June, was heavily critical of the outcome, calling it “a backward step.”

Stokes surprisingly claimed his department only “found out by accident” that the publicly-announced review was released on the night of its publication when a member of his staff supposedly read a copy on the Sydney Morning Herald’s website. Stokes rejected its recommendations as “a cover-up of the lack of ambition” by the Federal Govt.

Mr Stokes further insisted he was “stone-walled on every step of the way” during attempts to influence the independent review, including the allegation that he was rebuffed for “a promised meeting” with Ms Ley to discuss its progress.

Perhaps anticipating the NSW Govt’s disappointment that they could not commercialise the eight sites the Harbour Trust manage, the independent review also recommended: “The Harbour Trust sites should remain with the Commonwealth. The transfer of any sites to New South Wales would be premature at this time,” because only the Harbour Trust “has the functions or powers to manage Trust land and has the requisite public confidence to take on the role.”

Ms Ley reinforced that caution when she added “people don’t want NSW to have control of these assets.. All I heard when I walked around North Head Sanctuary was ‘Don’t let the state government control this area!’.”

Instead of rejecting the NSW Govt’s involvement altogether, the independent report instead recommended cooperation between the statutory bodies: “The Review considers that collaboration between the two levels of government should be strengthened and welcomes the proposal from New South Wales that a significantly closer relationship between the Commonwealth, the Harbour Trust and the New South Wales Government is needed.”

Costs question
Whilst the independent review encouraged arts and tourism ventures pursuing commercial leases on the Harbour Trust-administered sites, its rejection of granting leases to private businesses that give them administration of an entire site effectively freezes NSW Govt plans to hand over management of Cockatoo Island to an arts consortium.

The consortium, Cockatoo Island Foundation Limited, made up of prominent businesses aligned with arts’ figures Tony Berg and Danny Goldberg, sought a 49-year lease to transform the entire Cockatoo Island into an ‘arts island’ with a gallery, cafes, restaurants and “other unspecified commercial uses”, likely a hotel.

Jill L’Estrange, President of the community-based Headland Preservation Group that monitors one of the eight Harbour Trust sites, warned that a long lease could easily be extended, and was therefore “dangerously close to privatisation of public land.”

Despite the inquiry recommending the Harbour Trust retain control of their harbour sites, the report raised the question as to how the much-needed (and in some cases well overdue) funds for renovations and restoration projects are raised.

$50 million has been earmarked by the Federal Govt for restoration of the historic sites, many of which are closed and rotting through damp, weathering and general neglect. $9 million was immediately allocated on 19 June, funds drawn from the Harbour Trust’s April 2004 auction of eight houses at Markham Close, Mosman.

However, Chair of the Harbour Trust, Joseph Carrozzi, revealed “The cost of us completing the work on all of our sites is in the order of $300 million.”

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Anxieties
NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes insisted that “There should be a single vision and a single narrative for the harbour. This is so important for the future of the city and the future of the country,” he implored, in order to avoid “costs, duplication and confusion.”

But it was the NSW Liberal Govt under Premier Mike Baird that rejected a ‘single vision’ for the harbour and stoked public anxieties over the sell-off of harbourside land in September 2015, when they announced that the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (SHFA) would be dissolved.

SHFA was created in 1998 by the ruling NSW Labor Govt to merge competing departments and layers of bureaucracy under a single entity. Among the SHFA’s mandate was a commitment to “protect and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the foreshore area.”

SHFA, the statutory authority that owned and managed around 250 of Sydney’s most significant harbour foreshore assets, was then consolidated with Property NSW, a branch of the NSW Govt’s finance department.

After the SHFA’s dissolution, management of the harbour and development finances were decentralised and split between different departments, some dedicated to construction projects, others managing events and expenditure.

When the NSW Liberal Govt subsequently stepped up its high-rise development program in Pyrmont and around the harbour and inner-city suburbs, the forcible amalgamation of local councils was also accelerated under the guise of ‘better budgeting’.

When cost-benefit analyses later determined that council amalgamations wouldn’t deliver those financial benefits, it was widely accepted by many that the real reason for the forced council mergers was to weaken administrative opposition to the high-rise schemes that had been planned for the harbour foreshore and beyond.

New skyscrapers sprung up around Barangaroo and Circular Quay whilst Pyrmont became the third most heavily-populated region in Australia. Meanwhile, more high-rise development is scheduled for Pyrmont when Sydney Fish Market is relocated to the southern edge of Blackwattle Bay, Glebe.

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A plague led to harbourside reclamation
Ownership of much of Sydney’s waterfront property and buildings remains with the NSW Govt after it was seized at the start of the 20th century when the bubonic plague arrived in Australia during a global pandemic. Infected fleas carried by black ship rats brought it into Sydney in January 1900 via wharves in Darling Harbour.

The first recorded infection on 19 January was a delivery driver for Central Wharf Company who lived in Miller’s Point. A few weeks later a Darling Harbour sailmaker became the first fatality, and thereafter over 1700 people were isolated in North Head Quarantine Station. By the end of August 1900, the plague had been contained with 303 cases, resulting in 103 deaths.

In the meantime, the rat-infested harbourside shanty towns at the plague’s epicentre that housed dockworkers, mostly tin shacks surrounded by garbage and sewage that spread over a century of unregulated building, were demolished and burned, their occupants turfed out.

During the plague clearances there was no recognition of the rights of tenants. People made homeless and driven deeper into poverty had no right of appeal nor replacement accommodation, despite the economic benefits of newly unrestrained access to the ports. The NSW Govt also used the opportunity to demolish lots of little wharves that were operating around the bays, to make it easier to regulate the larger wharves.

The NSW Govt compulsorily reclaimed ownership of almost the entire headland from Circular Quay to Darling Harbour including The Rocks, Millers Point and Pyrmont.

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Liberal with the truth
Fears that key sites around Sydney Harbour will be sold off to private investors and corporate interests – such as hotel chains and high-rise developers – have long troubled Sydney residents, not without merit.

At the 19 June 2020 announcement of the independent review’s recommendations that public property remain in public hands, NSW Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg, former Acting Federal Director of the Liberal Party, claimed the inquiry’s publication was “another great chapter in our party’s great record on preserving and conserving Sydney Harbour. It was our party that established the Trust in 2001, and it is our party that will assure all the residents of Sydney Harbour that these assets will be preserved for future generations…”

Unfortunately, Bragg’s claim that the Liberals have a “great record on preserving and conserving Sydney Harbour” isn’t true.

For decades commercially-driven politicians (some of whom were in the pockets of international real estate developers and organised crime, such as notorious NSW Liberal Premier Robert Askin) locked horns with the environmentalists and conservationists keen to preserve Sydney’s heritage.

They reached a peak in the early 1970s during the implementation of the Green Bans, with construction workers joining community groups to physically prevent demolition of historic buildings. These actions eventually led to legislation that brought in heritage protections to preserve Sydney’s history.

Despite the loss of Circular Quay and much of The Rocks to high-rise offices, the preservation of historic and culturally significant sites and buildings around the harbour created major tourism attractions. They now contribute to millions of dollars in tourism revenue to Sydney every year.

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