Protests mount: Sydney Harbour public lands sale
by Peter Mac Thousands of people are expected to attend a rally on Sunday August 18 at Sydney's Rozelle Hospital, concerning the proposed sale or long-term lease of vast areas of magnificent government-owned land around Sydney Harbour's foreshores. Plans for the sale or lease of other sites include former defence lands at North Head, Middle Head and Georges Heights, which have now been transferred to a special trust, prior to full acquisition by the State Government. Sydney has one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, and a number of spectacular government-owned foreshore sites have remained relatively undeveloped. The State Government argues that sale or lease of large parts of these sites would fund their restoration and adaptation to other purposes. However, the reality is that the cost of adapting them could easily be funded by government. Their partial sale or lease would result in considerable reductions in area and availability for public use. And, of course, it would provide a huge source of profit for developers. The Rozelle Hospital site consists of some 50 hectares on the water's edge, some two kilometres west of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Its central 19th century complex of grand sandstone buildings was built to house mentally disturbed patients, whose recovery was intended to be assisted by its idyllic park-like surroundings. However, after 1983 most of the inmates were released into the community, with the official justification of reducing their stigmatisation, and helping them to reintegrate into the community by transferring them to friendly "group houses", with low-level support, in the suburbs. In fact, most eventually found their way into private boarding houses (where their government pensions are, in many cases, ruthlessly exploited) or onto the streets. There is now a disproportionately high representation of former mental patients among NSW jail inmates. Many argue that this was the result of a quite deliberate policy of cutting the costs of care of the mentally ill and removing them from accommodation in extremely valuable real estate. The remaining patients were relegated to somewhat shabby wards on the periphery of the Rozelle site, and the Kirkbride building complex transferred to the Sydney College of the Arts. Rather than simply upgrading the patients' accommodation, the Government now proposes to move them to Concord Hospital, to demolish some of the Rozelle buildings and to sell off the land on which they now stand, in order to fund construction of the new buildings for the mental patients at Concord. The Government proposes to convert the remaining Rozelle site to a park "three times the size of (Sydney's) Hyde Park". However, most of the publicly accessible area of the site, including much of the area earmarked for sale, is already in the form of a park and is used as such by local residents and other Sydneysiders. The new scheme will in effect actually comprise an effective reduction in park area. Moreover, Sydney's Hyde Park comprises a tiny fraction of the area of its namesake in London, and every square metre of the Rozelle site is needed if it is to realise its potential as one of the nation's truly great urban parks. The other harbour sites in contention were all formerly Commonwealth-owned. Their original purpose, to provide defence against a seaborne attack on the port of Sydney, was superceded by development of long-range bombers and guided missiles after World War II. Although the Army maintains some presence on these sites, they now await State Government decisions on their future use and treatment. All these sites are of national significance in terms of their natural features, their historic buildings and their archaeological potential. All are popular destinations for Sydney residents and tourists. A war of words has been fought over the future use of the Middle Head and Georges Heights sites for years between the local residents, who are determined to retain them for public use, and the State Government, which would dearly love to see at least part of them sold off or leased. The main North Head sites in contention comprise the former School of Artillery and the former Quarantine Station. The Station has been the subject of a public inquiry into the State Government plans to lease it for 40 years to Mawlands, a private hotel chain. The results of this leasing would be to effectively exclude the public from the station's main accommodation areas, with most visitors (other than hotel patrons) funnelled into the small wharf area. Until recently staff of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) ran very popular tours of the Station. However, funding limitations progressively reduced the scope for maintenance, tours and even security, as demonstrated recently by fires which tragically destroyed two of the site's most significant buildings. This official neglect was used by the prospective lessees, Mawlands Hotel Management, to argue for leasing the site. Amazingly, they were backed by the NPWS management, who described themselves as "co-proponents" of the lease. Together, they convinced the Commissioners that the lease should go ahead, despite the fact that every member of the public and every representative of community organisations who addressed the inquiry (and there were dozens of them) were adamantly opposed to the leasing proposal. In order to make the lease proposal more palatable to the public, Mawlands' representatives made a number of verbal modifications to their proposal during the inquiry. The Commissioner subsequently defined in writing the extent of these changes, and in so doing fatally compromised the objectivity of his position, even laying himself open to charges that he had acted as a "de facto" consultant to the "co-proponents". Nevertheless, the State Government seized on the Commission's report to justify their own role in promoting the leasing proposal. The Carr Government has come in for increasing criticism over its policy of support for the sale of government-owned land which is potentially of great recreational and other benefit to the public. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Government is acting in effect as a real estate agent to developers for the sale or lease of hugely valuable government sites. If you want to voice your opposition to this flagrantly corrupt practice, you should attend the rally at Rozelle Hospital on August 18 at 11am.