By WENDY BACON
The Minister for Planning Rob Stokes last week announced a new super agency for managing Sydney’s parklands. This is the latest in a number of controversial moves by the NSW government to concentrate and fast-track planning power since the COVID pandemic began.
The new Greater Sydney Parklands (GSP) agency will absorb 6000 hectares of land currently managed by the Centennial Park and Moore Park, Parramatta Park and Western Sydney Parklands Trusts as well as Callan Park in Rozelle and the Fernhill Estate at Mulgoa.
Businessman Michael Rose will chair the GSP board. He also chairs the North West Rapid Transit Group, the pro-development lobby Committee for Sydney and is a trustee of the Sydney Harbour Trust. An ex-partner of one of Australia’s most powerful corporate law firms Allens, he has been an advisor to consulting giant KPMG.
The announcement came in the wake of the Minister fast-tracking more than 60 approvals for development, a number of which involve a loss of open space and trees, add little affordable or public housing and are opposed by local communities. It is also only three weeks since the establishment of another super agency to manage all stadiums and major venues, which will be headed by influential businessman and current Chair of the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust, Tony Shepherd.
Shepherd is well known in Sydney as one of the strongest players in the massive WestConnex tollway system and the expensive and little-used Tibby Cotter bridge which sits in the middle of Moore Park. He was a strong proponent of the tear-down and rebuild of Sydney Stadium that sits on the Park’s edge. He supported building the stadium on Moore Park but after the community successfully campaigned against that proposal, he supported the current demolition and rebuild plan that still threatens the edges of the park. At a time when many are focused on more sustainable living, working from home and recreation in their local communities, Shepherd still openly touts expensive tollways and a future stream of global sporting events.
Stokes is keen to persuade a sceptical public that the new Parks agency is not part of the government’s broader pro-developer agenda. “We’ve seen in the past how parklands were often victim to more powerful voices for development. This is all about giving parks a powerful voice of their own,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
But the problem for the government in selling its so-called 50-year parkland vision is that many believe that what it says it wants to do is unlikely to be what it actually plans to do. Beyond the smooth words of planning are networks of power and influence with preferred development plans that are often not disclosed until after key decisions are made. In these situations, community consultation becomes little more than window-dressing.
The current framework for managing parkland could do with reform. The trusts are dominated by government rather than community appointments. More funding is needed to relieve pressure to cover costs. But it is hard to see how a structure which absorbs smaller trusts into a single bigger agency with just eight directors will not exclude local communities from decision-making. Given the government’s pro-development record, community campaigners who have dedicated their time to fighting to preserve parkland are worried.
Friends of Callan Park welcome funds but question mega-agency
Aware of the likely opposition, Stokes attempted to finesse the announcement by timing it to coincide with a desperately needed $10 million grant to maintain Callan Park. While the Friends of Callan Park justifiably joined with local Balmain MP and Greens spokesperson for Planning Jamie Parker in celebrating this as a win, Friends of Callan Park President Hall Greenland lost no time in writing to the SMH the next day.
“The abolition of the various trusts managing Sydney’s parks and their incorporation into a new Frankenstein-esque bureaucracy is the opposite of what is needed. The aim should have been to fully fund and democratise these trusts with elected local community representatives. This is precisely the kind of trust that the Friends of Callan Park and the former Leichhardt Council advocated for the forgotten jewel of Sydney’s parklands, Callan Park. It is a pity the Minister for Planning’s retrograde step may obscure his historic announcement in committing $10 million to enhancing the open space at Callan Park.”
Greenland, who is also an ex-Leichhardt Greens Councillor, told City Hub that he saw the move as yet another example of the way the NSW government is “constantly bureaucratising and removing power from Councils and communities”.
Right now, it is unlikely that the GPS will not go ahead. Callan Park currently has its own Act of Parliament that protects it from development but unlike Moore and Centennial Parks and Parramatta Park, it does not have its own trust. Inner West Mayor Darcy Byrne also told the SMH that he will be advocating for a local Board within the new agency.
Jamie Parker says the issue of public participation is critical. He told City Hub, “If this is agency really committed to public parks then public participation needs to be at the front and centre of everything they do. At a minimum, each parkland area needs a panel of local representatives with genuine powers to guide the use and management of these sites. We also need strong laws to protect these parkland areas like the Callan Park Act that prohibits development and commercialisation.”
Fears for Moore and Centennial Parks
Nowhere is the cynicism greater than in the community surrounding Moore Park and Centennial Park, which are currently managed by a single trust. For more than four decades, various community groups have campaigned to protect the parkland. In recent years, hundreds of trees were destroyed to make way for the South-East Light Rail; the rebuild of Sydney stadium is putting pressure on the edges of Moore Park; and part of Moore park is still used for commuter and events parking. A cabal of businesspeople including Gerry Harvey and John Singleton have plans for a massive overhaul of the Entertainment Quarter and Fox Studios on the old Showgrounds site next door. This unsolicited project called Carsingha would include 20 storey buildings and an expansion of commercial development.
Labor sport and recreation spokeswoman Lynda Voltz told the SMH that the Parks revamp was “an outrageous move that put Moore Park at risk given the neighbouring SCG Trust’s attempts to get its hands on the parkland.”
A spokesperson for community group Keep Sydney Beautiful Maria Bradley told City Hub that “a super-agency with pro-development members is at odds with the NSW government’s own Green Spaces value statement that the public should be custodians of public spaces. There are no public members in this super-agency.”
She says that the existing trusts are not a problem but rather the lack of funding from the NSW Government. “This is a monumental land grab that if successful, will have far-reaching impacts. For example, it could lead to Gerry Harvey’s Carsingha unsolicited development proposal for Moore Park being given the green light as well as land lost for car parks at Moore Park and ES Marks Athletic Field,” she said.
Convenor of the Paddington Darlinghurst Community Working Group Will Mrongovius is “very concerned as it appears it will be a further erosion of community input to the running of Moore Park & Centennial Park. The Centennial Parklands Trust authority should not be weakened in any way.”
“Local residents and community groups are very sceptical as successive governments have reneged on assurances that on-grass car parking would be removed – this goes back over 20 years. The current pandemic illustrates how valuable parklands are, they should not be used as car parks for selfish bodies like the Sydney & Cricket ground trust,” he said.
Independent MP for Sydney Alex Greenwich has already met with Minister Stokes. He urged “him to ensure that the new trust is tasked with defending the parklands from encroachment and alienation and has a strong local community voice. I also stressed the need for the new trust to deliver the Moore Park Master Plan 2040, particularly the removal of event parking on the grasslands, and argued for halving the size of the golf course to deliver much needed public green open space for expanding populations in the surrounding neighbourhoods.” Lord Mayor Clover Moore has also been campaigning for parts of Moore Park golf course to be turned back into public open space for the thousands of residents living in nearby Green Square.
So far the only indication that the local community might have any voice at all is the announcement that Patrick St John will be a GSP Board member. St John, who is currently on the Moore Park and Centennial Park Trust. was a partner specialising in real estate at corporate law firm Freehills and is now a consultant who gives strategic advice to law firms.
Scant public information available on Park mega-agency
Stokes has fuelled community anxieties by providing little detail about how the GSP will be structured. His announcement was accompanied by a document outlining a 50-year vision for Sydney Parklands. The vision is built on community surveys of what people value in parklands. Case studies are included which are mostly outside the lands to be managed by the GSP. The language is based around the “strategic principle” of “parks for people” but seasoned campaigners know that this can mean anything. Just as vague and perhaps more ominous is the reference to “best practice private investment in planning and provision of open space and parklands through the development process, including the potential for the long-term involvement of the private sector in provision and maintenance of some types of local open space.”
There are several beautiful photos of Parramatta Park in the vision statement but there is no reference to the current desperate community battle to preserve significant heritage in Parramatta Park. When City Hub visited the park on Sunday, we found that tracts of it are already fenced off for the Western Light Rail project and other developments.
The vision document refers to the new agency but provides no details about how it will operate. The Park trusts have been set up by Acts of Parliament. Stokes has said that trusts would not be abolished “at this stage” because people were “instinctively a bit nervous when anything happens in parks.” This can only mean that whatever planning has been done is not being made public for political reasons. It is not clear how trusts can be legally wound into a super agency.
Parramatta Park Trust Chairperson Lyall Gorman will be on the GSP Board. Gorman has a very strong record in sports management. He has been CEO of the Manly Sea Eagles, a director of Cricket NSW and Chair of both the Western Sydney Wanderers Football Club and the Central Coast Mariners Football Club. He is President of business lobby group Business NSW.
The only woman so far appointed to the Board is Western Parklands Trust representative and professional planner Julie Bindon. She was CEO of JBA Urban Planning Consultants and is currently a director of major development project manager Essence.
These Board appointments offer strong connections into the worlds of business, law, finance and development. However, they do little to reassure those who are concerned that the underlying agenda is one that favours privatisation of park control and management and profits before communities. So far, there are no representatives of the passionate hardworking groups without which the parks would be in a much-diminished state or any experts with biodiversity, horticulture or botanic park expertise. Also missing is any voice for the Gadigal or Darug people whose lands the GSP agency seeks to manage.