Callan Park historic site going for a pittance
by Peter Mac With its latest deal, the Carr Labor Government is consolidating its odious reputation as a very obliging estate agent for big developers in NSW. Prior to the recent elections, and after vigorous public opposition, the Government with the utmost reluctance cancelled its plan to flog off a huge chunk of the beautiful Callan Park Hospital grounds at Rozelle. However, it is still intent on handing over many other sites, including the priceless former Quarantine Station at Sydney's North Head. And having won the elections, the Government seems to have abandoned all pretence at concern for preserving its own environmental heritage. The Government's latest initiative as developer's estate agent concerns the spectacular 75-hectare Kenmore Hospital site at Goulburn, on the banks of the Wollondilly River. The complex, which was originally designed by the former NSW government architect Walter Liberty Vernon, is considered to be one of the best examples of Edwardian architecture in Australia. It is currently used as a psychiatric hospital, and also accommodates administrative and mental health facilities for the Department of Community Services. The Government proposes to sell the site to the Melbourne-based developer Longreach Capital, which in turn wants to develop it as a hotel, conference and sporting complex. The deal would effectively end public access to this beautiful site. The $3 million price tag is the equivalent of about $4050 per quarter acre, i.e. the size of an average cottage subdivision at a tiny fraction of the unit cost. But of course the developers wouldn't just get the land for this outrageously low rate. They'd get a magnificent complex of 40 buildings, many of them with prime heritage classifications, as well as a historic clocktower, bowling green and cricket oval and many other facilities! Both Federal and State Governments have resorted to the ploy of failing to carry out adequate maintenance to historic sites over a long period, and then declaring that their maintenance costs don't justify their retention. And in the case of the Kenmore site, the Carr Government has indeed declared that the site must be sold because of its heavy maintenance costs. The Government claims that the cost of carrying out proper maintenance works has now reached $3 million per year. This figure is almost certainly inflated because of failure to carry out adequate maintenance. However, even if the figure is taken at face value, by its own admission the Government is selling off the entire site, and its buildings and facilities, for the cost of a year's maintenance. And what would happen to the government offices currently at the site? They' d have to be housed in other equivalent facilities, with huge relocation, establishment and purchase or rental costs — unless, of course, the level of service they provided was downgraded or abolished altogether. The Kenmore saga is remarkably similar to that of Callan Park. Both cases illustrate all too clearly the attitude that extensive and beautiful government real estate is wasted on the public, especially when it primarily serves the needs of the mentally ill. The solution to this "problem", they argue, is for such sites to be sold off for private development — but for a very reasonable figure, of course. After all, you wouldn't want to scare the buyers off, would you? Contracts for the sale are said to have been exchanged, but settlement can't proceed without the approval of the local council and Planning NSW. The NSW Heritage Office may also offer an opinion. The council may decide to oppose the deal, but this is doubtful, since the Mayor has already given his blessing to it. In any case, the State Government has the authority to override Council objections, if necessary by special legislation. Going by their performance at the Quarantine Station inquiry, both Planning NSW and the Heritage Office may recommend some conditions on the deal, but are most unlikely to oppose the sale outright. The announcement of the sale has stunned and enraged local residents, who had heard little about the Government's intentions. The deal is cloaked in "commercial in confidence" secrecy, and access to relevant files under the Freedom of Information Act is "financially prohibitive", according to local National Party MP, Katrina Hodgkinson. The Government obviously thinks it can ride roughshod over the public. But it may get a surprise. The people of Goulburn are said to be up in arms over the issue, as are other organisations such as the National Trust and the Friends of Government Lands.