The Guardian August 14, 2002


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.

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