A Black Friday for New South Wales
Mark Friday 28 June in your diary as the day NSW planning was delivered into the hands of developers… This is the day that public submissions on the O’Farrell government’s Planning White Paper closed, the last day, in fact, that members of the public had any real say in the future of planning policy in the state of NSW. From now on, you are out of the picture. You won’t get a say on what developments happen within your suburb, let alone what developments occur next door to your home, for most of us the biggest single investment of our lives.
Don’t be led to believe this has been a fair process in the making, or even that this is the natural course of things. On the contrary, it has been rushed through the consultation phase giving us only a few weeks to get our collective heads around the plethora of heinous changes plotted within its pages, the stormfront of battery that’s been brewing behind fluffy clouds soon to come down and wreak havoc on an unsuspecting public…
To accommodate the planning needs of a growing state today and over the next 20 or 30 years, what we require is not a system that is exclusively developer-biased or economically focussed, but a system that strives to accomplish balance. Balance between the need for accommodating more people, growing families, and relentless levels of immigration. Balance between how we want our cities to look and feel, and how many people we can actually fit into these finite spaces without altering the look and feel of them beyond all recognition. Balance between how many cars we can fit onto our roads before they reach total gridlock; balance between how many children we can squeeze into our schools before one child’s education suffers; how many beds we can fit into our hospitals and nursing homes before they reach breaking point; how many commuters current and future transport systems can effectively deliver before the wheels fall off completely.
Balance is what we need. A sustainable balance of heritage values and new development, a balance that seeks to integrate and establish new and exciting modern architecture into the existing framework of our heritage streetscapes without detracting from how we have looked at our cities for generations. Adaptive re-use, sensitive reworking and extensions, while maintaining the fabric of heritage within the buildings. An overreaching system of solid heritage protection, maintained by heritage professionals, people with the necessary experience and knowledge in heritage matters – a strong Heritage Council.
The balance of how a building, how a new development sits within its surrounding environment, rather than simply allowing it to dominate and most probably ruin the sentiment of what was there, in many cases, for decades before. The balance of scale, of deciding how big it should be, how big it can be before totally overwhelming any sense of human scale on the site it occupies. The balance of maintaining healthy neighbourhoods where people live close to the ground, children have access to grassed areas, whether in backyards or public parks, where neighbours can meet and not feel totally alienated from one another.
The balance of building sustainable forward-thinking architecture. Environmentally Sustainable Development – there is a term for it – the government is dropping all reference to it in the White Paper as a principle. We need this as a foundation, we need this to build on and work towards a carbon neutral building future… it may not be achievable in the short or medium term but to drop it all together as a society is sinful. We need to gauge the state of the environment we live in and correct our ways of doing things to work towards a truly sustainable future.
The balance of beauty, function and form. We need development that attracts the eye rather than deters it and stands as testament to what is achievable by mankind in this day and age, not simply how many rectangular boxes we can fit onto one block and carve up for maximum profit. Quite simply we need architecture that is beautiful on many levels – cosmetically, physically, functionally, environmentally, adaptively… And to match this we need a planning system that will deliver these outcomes to the community, and does so in a way that involves the community holistically, integrates heritage and other critical non-financial factors, and goes beyond the simplistic goal to boost housing supply quotas and position the building industry as purely an instrument of the economy.
What we are getting is a substitute… A substitute that is poorly thought out, developer-biased and purposefully greed driven.
What we are getting is a recipe for complete disdain of heritage values, complete discard of Environmentally Sensitive building practice, and complete disregard for community input and relevance. Developers will be looked after from now on, they will have free run of the county fair. They will be able to build what they want, where they want, regardless of heritage, environmental or community requirements. That is what Barry O’Farrell and Brad Hazzard’s Liberal government is endorsing here. In essence they have sold off your rights and indeed your state to developers.
Some of the changes in the White paper are reckless – allowing quick publicity-free turnarounds for Code and Compliant developments of 10-25 days for example, or just 28 days for state significant developments – Some are plainly vindictive – like removing ESD or replacing the role of the Heritage Council on judging state significant items with the Department of Planning and Infrastructure. All of the measures are clearly pro-developer and geared towards opening up our cities and suburbs for a development boom, the likes of which we have never seen before. When you allow the markets to decide what happens in planning, you may be setting yourself up for a big fall. Think of what happened in Ireland when all those new apartments were rapidly built before the GFC, and now lay dormant, the real estate prices having crashed through the floor since.
But what concerns me, as a lifelong resident of NSW, is not the financial viability or market forces of overdevelopment. It is the loss of things I feel important for the community and the sheer recklessness with which this government has handled the job. Economics rise and fall, market forces surge and stabilize, but once heritage is gone, it doesn’t return. And once our heritage is gone, we as a nation are the poorer. We start to look like a people who don’t care, don’t value our heritage. A people who are more interested in making quick dollars and keeping our budgets balanced by sacrificing our treasures, our heritage, our very lifestyle, for the sake of short term profiteering. And our suburbs, that once held so much history and uniqueness, all start to look the same. Row after row of nondescript concrete building blocks without soul, the fibre of which has been sold. The Victorian and Federation shopfronts of our main streets, the cottages and houses with their ornate features and gardens, gone, sold to make way for ever more boxes. And it doesn’t help society, it is not healthy for a society to have houses go up for sale, and have first home buyers facing off with developers lining up at auction to decide who gets to carve up a property and sell back to multiple home buyers at the same price they should’ve paid for the house originally.
Supply is not the problem for our housing market, it is demand. The growth in population has to be sustainable, there is a limit to everything, and we can’t just allow growth at all costs any more. I liken it to a cafe or a bar…the doors are open and the tables fill up. Soon there are more patrons queuing at the door than there are tables available. Patrons keep filing in, standing and waiting, crowding around. If it was left to market forces (in this case, the bar or cafe owner) they would continue to serve more and more patrons, shuffling them into small unlit corners or having them spill out over the footpath, preferring to extract maximum profits rather than turn newcomers away in order to maintain the comfort level and expectations of their existing clientele. Pretty soon all floorspace is taken, civility is compromised, it’s getting harder to breathe, the atmosphere almost unbearable.
This is what Barry O’Farrell is condemning us to, when he hands all the cards in the planning deck from the citizens to developers, and throws these common regulations out the window… Environment, heritage protection, sustainable development, public consultation, all the things that should be expected in a good planning system. Remember we are the clientele here. We are the ones sitting in the crowded cafe or bar, watching it rapidly fill up to overcapacity. We have the right to expect certain levels of service and amenity. The same goes if you have bought a home in a nice area, an area you may have chosen because it is relatively low density, away for the city, in the suburban atmosphere. You have, in effect, made an investment, with all the terms and conditions that go with it. By Barry O’Farrell increasing the densities of that local area and rewriting the planning rules to suit developer interests, he is breaking the terms of that investment. You have a right to feel misled.
In the years to come I can foresee much conflict arising over the implications handed down in this undemocratic White Paper. I can see residents trying to minimize the damage to their suburbs en masse. I can see protesters asking “how were they allowed to build so close to that wetland?” or “how did they get permission to knock down that beautiful historic building?” or even “how were they allowed to build three level townhouses next to my house without me knowing?” But the damage is already done. The damage was done on Friday 28 June 2013, when submissions were closed on the details of the rushed and reckless Planning White Paper. When residents lost their right to be heard on matters of planning. When their rights, their voices, their state, were sold to developers by Barry O’Farrell, Premier of NSW.
Related posts on this site:
Recently I was fortunate enough to attend two separate forums dealing with the NSW Government’s proposed introduction of its Planning White Paper. The first was at Parliament House organized by the Better Planning Network, and the second at the Sydney Masonic Centre hosted by the Heritage Council of NSW.
There were a number of expert speakers at both events, including representatives of the State Government (Brad Hazzard was present at the first), community groups, the Heritage Council, and Nature Conservation Council of NSW. The talks involved in depth analysis of the White paper and its implications for the residents of NSW, and the news wasn’t good… What became clearer as the talks unfolded is just how biased and favourable to developers these new planning reforms really are.
With the government gunning to provide a platform that will pass 80 percent of developments within 10-25 days without any community consultation, it is becoming obvious that the rights and voices of residents are being radically swept aside in favour of economic development at any cost. The fact that there is such a short time frame for residents to digest not just the White Paper but also the Draft Metropolitan Strategy which dictates where future high rise growth corridors of Sydney will take shape, shows that our right of reply is not likely to be taken seriously by this government. The very idea that the Draft Metropolitan Strategy has been released before the White Paper submissions are heard almost defies logic.
There are facets of the Planning White Paper that will have far-reaching consequences to the state and the people that reside in it. Many of these can be seen as contentious in their nature, and the government criticized for not allowing the scope of public investigation they deserve. The planning reforms read like a Christmas wishlist for developers, many of whom would now be greedily lining up for their slice of the turkey, knife and fork in hand. For the purposes of compression, and so you don’t get bored too quickly (as I know it’s a painful subject) I have summarized the main points as I see them below.
Key issues of the White Paper that need to be addressed
- As mentioned, 80 percent of developments passed as ‘Code’ or ‘Complying’, without any community involvement or consultation, including units, industrial, mixed use, retail and commercial. These will all be passed in certain areas within 10-25 days without neighbours’ consent or knowledge.
- Other regional or state-significant developments will have only 14 or 28 days public notice/consultation, far from adequate for developments of such magnitude.
- Environmental protection zones including E1 (National Parks) and E2 (conservation areas) merged; E3 and E4 removed and replaced by general rural and residential zones. Some of the state’s most environmentally sensitive lands will lose all protection.
- The concept of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) completely removed from the White Paper. Under the current Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, ESD has been encouraged as standard principle, now it has been deliberately removed.
- Climate change totally excluded from the Paper. This is particularly worrying in drought prone areas as well as coastal fringes where beach and river erosion is increasing.
- Strategic planning principles will now be worded as ‘having regard to environment and social considerations.’ This means nothing.
- Subregional planning boards will be introduced to pass regional plans. These will be made up of a local council representative, up to four state representatives appointed by the Minister and an ‘independent’ chair appointed by the Minister.
- Role of local councils greatly diminished in planning policy and approvals.
- Simultaneously, many councils are being forced to amalgamate and cut back staff, reducing the level of service available to ratepayers.
- Neither infrastructure nor housing affordability are properly addressed in the White Paper. In fact there can be up to a three year lag on new development levies going to provide local infrastructure.
- The Minister has power to overrule any LEP or local zonings and amend strategic plans. There are risks of corruption when so much power is handled by so few, and this makes the whole idea of ‘community consultation’ laughable and void.
- Developers have rights of appeal and the right to request spot rezoning, whereas the public don’t. In essence, it is becoming much harder to knock back development and easier to allow it.
- Expansion in the use of private certifiers in assessment roles of new developments. This is fundamentally flawed because certifiers are paid and employed by the developer, not independently.
- Strategic Compatibility Certificates will allow developers now to override existing local controls until the new plans are introduced and possibly after.
- The utter lack of protection of cultural and architectural heritage (References to ‘heritage’ only mentioned three times in the White Paper). Key decision making on the 1,600 state significant listed heritage items passed out of the hands of Heritage Council to the Department of Planning with little or no knowledge of heritage issues and a pro-development bias.
- Similarly the role of assessing Aboriginal culture and heritage will be passed to the Department of Planning.
What the experts say…
David Logan, who was a key speaker at both events as a representative of the Heritage Council of NSW, stated in his speech that “Environment and heritage are two of the things that need to be balanced with development and growth. Planning is all about balancing. To get a look in heritage needs to be mentioned at the highest level, it needs to be very clearly articulated in the Act, in the state planning policies aswell… it’s not proposed to be… unless that happens there’s the real risk it won’t be taken into account adequately when those plans are made.”
The Nature Conservation Council of NSW states “These changes represent the most significant backward step on public participation and environmental protection in more than a generation, placing our natural areas and resources, and communities at risk.” In its assessment, the Nature Conservation Council rated the White Paper’s performance as only 3.5 out of 15.
The Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO NSW) states in its Parliamentary Briefing Note and Key Summary that “the White Paper’s strategic planning principles do not deal with improving or maintaining environmental outcomes, assessing cumulative impacts or preparing for climate change,” and that “The combined effect of broader zoning, greater code assessment (including the 80% target, ‘mandatory’ approvals, and compartmentalised merit assessments), and new review and appeal options for developers, will tip the balance further away from community involvement, environment protection, and local influence in decision-making.” It also notes the “lack of any real detail about how Aboriginal cultural heritage will be protected under the new planning system,” and that “The continued imbalance of appeal rights between developers and community members will continue to undermine community confidence in the proposed system.”
The Greens also have a bone to pick with Barry O’Farrell, claiming in their Putting Communities First document that “A new Planning Act must empower communities to deliver ecologically sustainable development. This means development that respects the precautionary principle and looks beyond the ‘market’ to balance the environment, the economy and social well-being.” The White Paper does none of this. And on the proposed quick turnarounds “Far from strengthening community participation rights, the government is proposing a scheme that will allow even less community notice than is currently required for any one state significant planning project.”
If you are reading this post there is a very good chance you are already familiar with many of the policies proposed under the White Paper and their disastrous consequences for communities, heritage and the environment. You would already be familiar with the Better Planning Network who are doing such a magnificent job in trying to represent the many and varied community groups around the state. And hopefully you will have penned your submission against this great mismanagement of our state’s assets, or be in the process of sending it in. You know how drastic and devastating these changes will be to your suburbs, towns and cities. You only have until 28 June. Go forth and spread the word.
If you have time on Wednesday 26 June, there will be a protest held by the BPN outside Governor Macquarie and Governor Phillip Towers, 1 Farrer Place at 12.15pm. Click here for map. If you are a responsible NSW resident who feels they are being misrepresented by an irresponsible government and you want to show your disapproval on matters of planning, the time has now come.
Send your submission to New Planning System, GPO Box 39, Sydney NSW 2001 or online here.
Alternatively, send your comments here whitepaper.planning.nsw.gov.au
Anyone who has been following the state of planning politics in NSW under the current O’Farrell Liberal government does so with a sense of dread and foreboding, especially after witnessing the recent disastrous handling of heritage items such as Thompson Square, Parramatta’s Lennox bridge and Griffith House Kogarah. Unfortunately these are only the tip of the iceberg… an iceberg that we are rapidly approaching and threatens to take down all sense of logical town planning, heritage value, and environmentally sensitive development with it. In its wake communities will be left reeling, as they lay scattered in the choppy waves of overdevelopment, clinging to some semblance of what they once knew and thought would remain solid forever, the state of the very surroundings that they held so dear.
Unfortunately this is no iceberg, if it was we could possibly steer around it… no, this is far worse. This is the reality of a government that came to power with the promise of returning planning powers to the people, the very people they now treat as third class passengers and are tossing overboard like used ballast, while the first class ranks of developer players stand proudly on the upper decks tapping to the tunes of the Liberal grand piano, watching the people below paddling for safety as their world comes crashing in around them.
If you think I’m over-exaggerating then think again. Under proposed changes to the planning system in NSW, the effects will be extreme and far reaching. There won’t be one citizen in this state who won’t feel the intrusive consequences of this ludicrous planning policy about to be laid down. Developers will be given a free ride on this ship of fools as Captain Barry and his First mate Hazzard steam off into uncharted murky waters with all of us in tow. The entire state will be altered beyond recognition and for such a titanic physically dizzying piece of legislation they have given residents only a few short weeks to comment and draw up submissions. June 28th is the cut off, after that you will have no say in how planning in your state evolves let alone what happens next door to your own front porch – you know, the one you just forked out half a million or a million dollars for because “you like the view.” Well guess what, don’t get used to the view too quickly because if a developer likes the view from the other side of the road you may just be looking into the balconies of a six story apartment block without even being consulted.
If you still think I’m exaggerating let’s break it down some more. Barry O’Farrell wants to fast track development in this state, and there are a number of tricks he’s planning to introduce or has introduced already that aim to get the ball rolling and go high with developing. As the mining investment boom slows down and China doesn’t seem to be wanting as much of all those expensive minerals we dig out of the ground and ship over at unsustainable levels, Barry is looking to capitalize on the next unsustainable boom – high density building. And what better way is there than to get all your developer buddies onside and rewrite the rules completely, claim to be representing the little people residents, wrangle their votes and support, then pull the wool over their eyes… what’s wrong with that?
With the introduction of the White Paper, Barry expects to get 80 percent of developments passed without any community consultation or merit assessment on a 10 to 25 day turnaround. That means the house next door to you can be bulldozed, every tree ripped out, a gaping hole dug, and three or four levels of townhouse or units ganged up a metre from your colorbond fence without you even knowing about it. If you’re not scared now, you should be… Heritage buildings will fair no better. We know already that just because a building is old and pretty doesn’t mean it will be spared. There are thousands of heritage buildings that aren’t listed at any level because the listings as they stand now are totally inadequate for a start. Rather than Barry taking this opportunity to regather listings and make a fresh start on increasing the levels of protection as well as (heaven forbid) adding more heritage stock to the lists, Barry is in fact doing nothing for unlisted properties and taking away the role of the Heritage Council in assessing controls for those properties that are listed, meaning heritage will become a by-product of planning in this state, leaving a trail of foreseeable destruction in his post-White Paper Brave New World.
Councils will lose much of their say in planning assessments, thereby directing absolute power to the state government, and scarily, often into the hands of just one minister. Councils, which can be seen as local representatives, will be stripped back and therefore we, as citizens, will lose our representation when it comes to planning. At present there is opportunity for councils to assess what developments take place within their local community and give residents the option to respond on a case by case basis, much of this will be lost, as it introduces too many variables as to whether a development will be approved and how long it will take to get through. Local knowledge will be lost, the councillors who were elected to make decisions because they have the necessary local familiarity with issues such as traffic and density – this will be compromised and hand the powers to faceless bureaucrats whose party is feeding off developer donations and whose only local knowledge comes from scanning Google maps of your area from behind a desk in a city office.
Bigger is better, according to Barry. Our village-like suburbs as they currently stand with their countless charming Victorian and Federation shopfronts will not be spared the hurricane forces of developer frenzy that this White Paper will unleash. But don’t take my word for it, have a look at what is already happening… Residents of low-rise Peakhurst, Riverwood and Penshurst have just been told their streets will be rezoned to allow highrise on the orders of the state government, despite Hurstville, the controlling council, trying to save these villages by instead funneling future areas of high density growth into its own central CBD. Both council and residents were ignored. Gosford is about to be lumbered with higher densities along the waterfront under what they classify as a ‘state significant’ development, Newcastle is at the mercy of the state government after Barry and co bought up a swathe of CBD shops and are going into a business partnership with the developer.
Thompson Square and historic Windsor Bridge are slated for an unsympathetic complete redesign as a ‘state significant project’ despite intense ongoing protests by local communities hopeful of retaining some of the picturesque and charming (not to mention historically significant) ambience that Windsor is renowned for. Griffith House in Kogarah, which was also recently fought and lost, can in fact be seen as a test case for the new planning system and how it can all go horribly wrong… Griffith House was a locally significant building, arguably the most important heritage building in the area, located on the grounds of the state owned St George Hospital. A public hospital is really a microcosm of society in general. Here you have all the issues that affect planning within the greater community – appropriate zoning and density, open space, commercial issues, traffic and congestion, population growth forecasts, heritage values, environment… So we saw what happened here when absolute power was given to the state government as it will be under this White Paper… Traffic and logistics issues were ignored and brushed over, public input and consultation was totally rejected, and the one heritage item that was there to be protected was tragically laid to waste.
This case in particular among many others proves that the current regime of Barry O’Farrell and his pro-developer lobby are blatantly incompetent when it comes to managing the issues of planning in NSW, so incompetent in fact, that they are now re-writing the rules to suit their own lack of capability. They are so far out of touch with the greater public that this planning paper they have announced, this so-called magic bullet to fix planning issues in NSW, has been roundly condemned and criticized by anyone who has a stake in the future of this state. Community groups, the Heritage Council, local councils, the Nature Conservation Council of NSW have all weighed in to the debate; the issue now is whether Barry O’Farrell and his dictatorship start to listen and realise there is so much more to good planning than just giving developer groups green lights to get the economy stimulated. That sets a dangerous path and one that you as a citizen shouldn’t just take for granted. We all have a say, so I hope you will use your own voice to challenge this government’s ridiculous and extremely developer-biased planning proposals.
Look into the Better planning Network, campaign your local MPs and councillors, advise people you know, get involved in local forums, and most importantly, get your submission in to protest the new planning reforms. Tell them you simply aren’t happy with the rights you are losing as a ratepaying citizen to decide what happens in your own area, and that by handing over all our rights to developers to decide how we will live is not morally justifiable in any way, shape or form.
On the Australia Day Weekend and in light of the recent news of the historic Jolly Frog hotel in Windsor being gutted by fire, we take a look at the dire state of heritage in one of our most treasured precincts and the case Planning Minister Brad Hazzard has to answer for…
Brad Hazzard has been at the helm of the Planning Department in NSW for a number of years now, and the crowning factor of his tenure has been his ruthless insistence to push through overbearing developer-biased planning reforms on to an unsuspecting public on every front, with scant regard for residents’ wishes or indeed what were once considered commonsense controls.
In a clearly sneaky and contentious move, Minister Hazzard approved the controversial Option 1 road project through Thompson Square at Windsor just five days before Christmas 2013, obviously trying to sneak another trick beneath the public’s wary gaze just as everybody was gearing up for the summer holidays.
Thompson Square is Australia’s oldest surviving public square, and the attempted push-through of this project goes some way to highlight the contempt this government has for the heritage of NSW. A total lack of heritage knowledge, a combined political bully-boy mindset of which pure ignorance is at the heart, a ‘leave nothing to the people’ thuggish mentality is the only way I can describe it.
It reminds me of an old example in Vienna, Austria, where in the late 1980s a large postmodern glass sheeted building known as Haas Haus was inflicted upon Vienna’s most important public square, Stefansplatz, directly overlooking the Stefansdom, Vienna’s grand Gothic-Romanesque cathedral. The building was roundly criticized at the time and still remains ridiculously out of place and in fact completely unnecessary in the context of the historic Baroque-lined market square. The point here is, what may seem like a good idea by a small group of hard-nosed bureaucrats at the time, has long lasting consequences and in fact can severely scar or even totally deface an important historic precinct long after those few decision-makers have waltzed out of parliament with their golden pensions in hand.
At least in Vienna, they seem to know when to stop… Closer to home, in Sydney’s Circular Quay, a similar issue, with the so-called ‘Toaster’ building occupying pride of place next to our iconic Opera House and crowding the shores of the famous harbour with square glass and metal shapes. And more recently, the Museum of Contemporary Art building extension, the so-called ‘Mordant Wing’ (or ‘moron wing?’), causing even more conflict with the surrounding heritage of the public space, introducing oversized flat black and white cubes into a maritime precinct that was characterised by sandstone Georgian and Art Deco architecture. This wing was added without the usual input from the Heritage Council, the very overseer that Hazzard and O’Farrell’s government are trying so hard currently to stifle.
Windsor’s Thompson Square is equally under threat, not from any one particular unsympathetic building, but rather a ghastly modern road cutting through the side of the square and continuing over the historic crossing on a suspended concrete byway replacing the oldest bridge on the Hawkesbury River.
Residents’ action group CAWB has fought hard to keep this destruction at bay, enduring six months of continuous occupation of the square, and raising awareness of the need to protect such a historic site as their beloved Windsor. Noted historians and heritage architects such as Clive Lucas and high profile celebrities have added their voices to the campaign, the latest being Wendy Harmer on Australia Day 2014.
The CAWB, in its media release, says “In approving this strategically inept project, Minister Hazzard has ignored the overwhelming evidence of the government’s own experts…evidence that demonstrates this project fails to deliver on traffic, flooding and heritage.”
Unfortunately, in another blow for local heritage, the nearby heritage-listed and historically linked Jolly Frog hotel, unoccupied for a year, was gutted by fire on 20th January in unusual circumstances. Fire crews were called to the blaze around 9.45pm to find the building well alight, and a crime scene has since been established to determine the cause of the fire. CAWB fear this may pave the way for a wider road leading in to Windsor and through the Square, and say the hotel should and must be rebuilt, not demolished thereby further eroding the heritage values of the area.
Brad Hazzard, the Minister for Planning, and Robyn Parker, Minister for Heritage and the Environment, as well as Barry ‘the wrecker’ O’Farrell, should be standing up and working towards viable solutions for situations such as Thompson Square, not bulldozing their way through the tide of public angst currently on show. They are clearly ignoring their elected responsibilities as a government for the short-sighted aims that don’t really make any sense to the average Australian citizen.
Why are they intent on destroying this historic square, this wonderful vestige of Governer Macquarie’s legacy, this scenic and picturesque river crossing, this peaceful place bathed in colonial history? Why are they intent on replacing a two-laned bridge with another, uglier, more brutal, out-of character, two-laned bridge? Is it for CSG mining trucks to get more easily to the western escarpments as some have suggested? It defies logic.
Hazzard, O’Farrell, Parker and co.; you have so much to answer for in only your first term. You are a failure of government. You are intent on bulldozing our irreplaceable heritage at every turn, rather than performing your sworn duty of protecting it. You should be ashamed of your actions, and just because you are wielding the axe of power at the present moment, doesn’t mean your time of judgement won’t come soon enough. Tens of thousands of us are already judging you, we are casting a watchful eye over your actions in the fields of heritage, the environment, and sustainable development, and without surprise, you have unanimously failed in every respect in just your first term. We dearly hope, that you won’t be allowed to enter a second term, for the sake of what little is left after your torrid demolition spree over the entire state.
Main title image: Hazzard and Heritage, Inheritance 2014.
Read about the Government’s Planning Reforms here.
I call it ‘heritage hate’, when a certain entity or governing body decides that there is nothing worth working towards with regards to the heritage of an identified item or area. It is not seen as important enough to warrant the necessary study, funding, or interest by the governing body needed to maintain and protect that heritage to an acceptable level. It is simply wiped from the agenda, and given the lowest possible afterthought despite the public’s perception, wants or needs regarding these matters that really belong to us all, and concern not only ratepayers of today but the children and grandchildren of generations to come.
The current state government led by Barry O’Farrell is an exponent of heritage hate. It seems as though now filtering down from the Liberal political machine at state level, that many Liberal councillors also share that sentiment at the local level. The heavily Liberal dominated Sutherland Shire council led by Mayor Kent Johns have embarked on a campaign of heritage hate soon after coming to power, writing a draft LEP that is so geared toward developer interests and non-protective of the shire’s great assets that it has prompted a backlash of over 2000 submissions, with many residents now wondering what lies in store for the future of their beloved Shire.
Heritage hate shows itself in many forms. One significant item that came up in the news recently is a cottage of Thomas Holt estate. The historic house at 5 Evelyn St. North Sylvania, formerly known as ‘The Gunyah’, was built in the 1870s as part of the original Thomas Holt Sutherland estate. It was one of three workers’ cottages and is the last remaining building of the historic estate, and one of the oldest houses standing in the Sutherland Shire. Thomas Holt himself was undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the Sutherland’s history, having accomplished numerous watermarks within his lifetime. The fact that this is the very last remnant of his famous Sutherland Estate makes it an extremely vital link to the history of the area and the early days of the colony south of Sydney.
The cottage is actually owned by Sutherland Council, being bought by a much more forward-thinking council back in 2003, for the purpose of future restoration and preservation as a living piece of local heritage. Now they have announced they will not be restoring, nor preserving the cottage. They won’t even be giving other potential buyers a chance. Instead, they have opted for the self-professed ‘document, demolish and sale’ procedure (which could be interpreted as ‘take a few photos, send in the bulldozers, and cash in’), truly an astonishing course of action considering the council at the time of sale enforced heritage listing on previous owner Jan Buchanan (whose family owned the house for 70 years) and eventually bought the house for a sum of $610,000. “When I sold it, the council told me they had grandiose ideas about its restoration. They promised there would be a caretaker to look after it, but the last time I went to visit it was vandalised and run down. I had to walk away” she told Fairfax reporters.
The reasons given by council for erasing this valuable piece of local history are, of course, financially motivated. Originally it was estimated to cost around $200,000 to restore the weatherboard cottage. However that has now blown out to $495,000. Liberal Mayor Kent Johns said “In its current state it is derelict, it would be irresponsible to invest more council funds in this property.” Now I’m not sure exactly who quoted Kent Johns and his council half a million dollars to fix up a weatherboard cottage, but I love to see the speedboat their accountant gets around in.
This seems to be another case of heritage loss by pre-empted neglect. The fact that council is putting a questionable restoration cost onto this project when in fact the house was paid for years ago for the very purpose of restoration raises serious concerns over the current spending patterns of Sutherland Council. Ratepayers, who deserve better, are being taken for a pack of dummies by this irresponsible council who see fit to strip the area they represent of a very significant piece of its visible history. And the case of council acting as owner, development applicant, judge, jury, and executioner, is always a situation that is questionable by its nature.
Sutherland Shire should be well and truly proud to maintain a little piece of Thomas Holt’s legacy in the shape of this house, not looking to simply cash in to fill up a short term budget hole. Absolutely disgraceful…
Even the Sutherland Historical Society have something to answer for. Strangely, for an organisation that would normally be considered the guardians of local heritage, they have remained fairly quiet on the situation of potentially losing one of their oldest buildings, seemingly adopting the ‘lay low and see’ attitude. Questions posed by myself and others including historian and honorary life member Edward Duyker, and editor of Doryanthes arts journal Les Bursill OAM (also a life member) have not been fully answered. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Mayor Kent Johns, that proven purveyor of local heritage hate, is also patron of the Sutherland Historical Society.
Some members are questioning whether Mayor Johns is indeed an appropriate patron, and wanting to know exactly why the Society is not jumping up and down about this issue. Edward Duyker and others have also questioned the council’s negative stance on heritage moreover, after reading a passage in the draft LEP that slated the removal of a number of items that no longer meet the threshold for heritage listing. “What exactly is the changed threshold and what are the new criteria and what are the heritage items to be removed? Perhaps it is whatever suits local developers” Mr. Duyker notes… These questions remain unanswered.
The story of the Thomas Holt Estate cottage echoes that of another recent cottage demolition nearby, that of Bedford Cottage (otherwise known as ‘the Gardener’s Cottage’), located inside the Royal National Park at Heathcote, by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. The Royal National Park is quite an historic park in itself, being the first designated National Park in Australia, and the second oldest in the world, behind Yellowstone in the USA. How a historic cottage could be trashed within this environment is a wonder. What codes of heritage preservation do the NPWS actually adhere to?
This building was built between 1909 and 1915 for James Toyer, an important gardener in the St. George area who married the daughter of the first Royal National Park manager. It was the site of the depot for the first horse drawn and later motorised buses in the Shire, and was renowned for its intricate herringbone brickwork. It was one of the earliest brick buildings in the Shire.
Despite years of neglect by the NPWS, the foundations were sound, according to Heritage Building Consultant Gary Waller, who estimated $250,000-$300,000 to restore the cottage with a new roof and re-lined walls. A twenty year campaign by local historic groups came to no avail, including one proposal by local radio station 2SSR to set up the house as a broadcasting station back in 2006. They were told by Minister the signal may be detrimental to the flora and fawna in the park, which they found “a bit strange as Australia’s first official military signal came from the park.’’
What a missed opportunity this could turn out to be. Restoring and transforming the historic cottage at the entry of the Royal National Park, right near the Loftus Tramway Museum, into a museum of early bus transport as well as an interactive radio broadcasting museum. Its close vicinity to the Loftus Tramway Museum with trams in fact running right by would have added to the experience. So there you have it, another wonderful piece of history lost, an opportunity lost and a beautiful cottage reduced to a pile of smouldering rubble. Now that’s a fine legacy for the National Parks and Wildlife Service to leave behind in Australia’s most historic park. And Sutherland Shire Council wants to follow suite…
Back in the mid 1980s, a massive beautification program took shape around Darling Harbour to mark Australia’s bicentennial celebrations. Industrial workings were removed and the entire precinct cleaned up, new facilities were built including world-class exhibition and convention centres, harbourside halls and entertainment, parks and fountains, and of course the iconic monorail that now exists only in our memory. 25 years on, and current premier Barry O’Farrell has redevelopment on the cards once again, this time erasing many of the grand designs that marked Darling Harbour as a place of open public amenity and quality modernist architecture, a place that is still welcoming, charming and not overbearing in its scale, a place that captures the essence of the 1988 and all the bicentennial glory that came with it.
Barry O’Farrell is no stranger to upsetting the general public with his planning policies and acts of heritage vandalism of late, by treading over our views and in many cases blocking them out in the shadows of high rise towers. It is almost a given now that whatever he does in the context of planning causes most of us to stand back and take stock… We’ve gone from mild bemusement to temperate head scratching to a stark realisation of false prophecy fulfilled and now to absolute horror and shaken disdain, where it will all end nobody knows…
This time he has also managed to upset more than a few taller poppies along the way. Naturally if we are talking about an award-winning and quite stunning piece of Sydney architecture, and the architect, who is still very much in the here and now, gets wind of the idea the current Premier wants to knock it all down, just 25 years after it graced the city’s skyline, there is going to be a little ‘discomfort’ associated with the idea. Especially when that building, the Sydney Exhibition Centre, has attracted legions of fans of 20th Century architecture worldwide by the relevance of its form, function, and beauty and the way it simply enhances, rather than detracts, from the pleasant surroundings it finds itself in.
So what are we losing?
Phillip Cox designed the Exhibition Centre in the modernist style with multi-tiered glass surfaces over five interconnected halls with tall steel masts rising overhead in a maritime theme, glistening white in the afternoon Sydney sun. The project took 36 months to complete and was built by the Darling Harbour Authority for the state government of the time. The building has been awarded several acclaims including the highly coveted Royal Australian Institute of Architects Sir John Sulman Medal in 1989 and MBA Excellence in Construction Award in 2007. It is met at one end with the John Andrews designed Sydney Convention Centre, semi-circular in appearance and quite an impressive building in its own right. Both recently celebrated their 25 year anniversary with a black tie event. Both served as venues for events during the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Both, as I see it, are quintessentially Sydney buildings.
Phillip Cox has rightly slammed the government’s redevelopment plan as “an act of vandalism.” His impressive portfolio of Sydney buildings includes the Sydney Football Stadium and the National Maritime Museum, and his list of awards includes the RAIA Gold Medal, the highest accolade bestowed upon an Australian architect. He described the government’s plans, which have allowed big developers to completely take the reigns of both the planning stage and redevelopment, as “insane… How do you control developers with no planning controls over the area in question? They will take over the park, demolish the exhibition centre, an icon of Sydney, that will (soon) be on the heritage register… We have two commercial developers trying to make a buck out of it and minimise expenditure.”
He offered up a second option of utilising the existing Harbourside shopping arcade as part of the project. “We put an alternative solution to Nick Greiner (former premier and head of Infrastructure NSW) showing how all the buildings can be retained and still achieve their expectations for increased areas without doing all this horrendous vandalism that’s about to take place down there,” he told Fairfax. ”It’s obvious, get rid of Harbourside, it’s a failed shopping centre, put the facilities in the best location and still activate the area with cafes and bars and keep the existing buildings as part of the heritage of Sydney.” For that to take place, Harbourside, which is a privately owned shopping precinct, would have to be bought by the government, and according to Infrastructure NSW project manager, Tim Parker, that wasn’t going to happen.
John Andrews, designer of the Sydney Convention Centre, also received the RAIA Gold Medal and has been described as the first Australian architect with a truly international reputation. He was renowned for his work on universities in America in the 1960s including the Harvard Graduate design school, as well as Intelsat Headquarters in Washington, the CN Tower in Toronto, later returning to Australia to work on important commissions such as the Cameron Offices at Belconnen, and another university project ANU’s Toad Hall, so named by students due to its Wind in The Willows setting characteristics.
Understandably, he also has misgivings over the plan to tear down his most iconic work, slating the idea as “rather stupid.” And he elaborated “Does it make sense to pull down $120 million worth of (building) that’s perfectly all right?… As Australia, we just haven’t grown up, we haven’t developed any good manners and we don’t protect and look after our good things. I don’t understand why the (new) architects … are so keen to knock everything down,” he said. ”Why don’t they just reuse things and add to them?” To add insult to injury, Andrews only found out about the proposed demolition through a leisurely read of a newspaper article.
But Phillip Cox and John Andrews aren’t the only critics of the new state government plans. Former public works minister Laurie Brereton, who oversaw much of the original Darling Harbour redevelopment in the 1980s, branded the new project “the work of Philistines.” Australian Institute of Architects president-elect Paul Berkemeier, called for proper consultation and a complete set of models and drawings to be released…”They’re just ephemeral images. They could be made out of green cheese for that matter and you’d be no wiser” he said. And Peter Webber, former government architect and professor of architecture at Sydney Uni told Fairfax “The government should have prepared a separate master plan for the precinct, taking public opinion into account, rather than wrapping the master plan into the tender process… I think it’s a back to front process. Instead of allowing feedback as the proposal was developed we are presented with almost a fait accompli.”
Docomomo Australia, an organisation that is dedicated to the ‘documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the modern movement’ has gone one step further in their criticism. They have nominated the Darling Harbour site to ICMS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, for a heritage alert, the first time ever for an Australian site. Docomomo Australia vice-chairman Scott Robertson said Darling Harbour was “one of the finest modernist collection of buildings in Sydney”, and likened the government’s plans to that of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who also made the heritage alert list over his treatment of developments threatening heritage sites in Russia.
So what are we getting instead?
In exchange for the loss of these two (three including the monorail) outstanding examples of 20th century Australian architecture, we are getting a jumble of oversized public and private buildings developed and planned by big construction company Lend Lease for the state government. The scale will be big… Three or four towers in Haymarket up to 40 storeys in height adding over 540 apartments to the skyline and allowing, as Lend Lease Development general manager Gavin Biles says “more people to live, work and play in the heart of the city”…Well how nice that sounds. A new town square, boulevard connecting the the new precinct to the waterfront and so-called IQ Hub would also be created accommodating technology and creative entrepeneurs in low-cost workspaces. Again, how nice. The Sydney Entertainment Centre would also be lost but no-one is jumping up and down about that… you see, we don’t just whinge for the fun of it, people make noise when we are actually losing something of real value.
Tumbling onto Tumbalong Park, an overbearing theatre, booming down over what’s left of the public space. New International Exhibition and Convention Centres would be built, dwarfing everything that is currently there, and behind them, massive twin towers rising above the harbour like the former World Trade Centers of New York. Not much would be left of Darling Harbour as it stands now, all laid to waste in this 2.5 billion dollar blunder over 20 hectares of our sacred public land. In the interim, a temporary exhibition centre would be built at Garden Island to host events over the three year period of construction, but that encountered a few hurdles as well, with a deal breaking down in May between the state government and Pages Hire and Echo Entertainment Group who were chosen to construct the halls. A new deal has been brokered since, but it has set the government on a course of last minute preparedness, and given opposition leader John Robertson a perfect opportunity for the perfect jibe. “The O’Farrell Government and Infrastructure NSW can’t build a tent” he said. And he may have a point.
But Infrastructure NSW, headed by Nick Greiner, the state government department charged with pushing through projects of this magnitude, are adamant of its success. Darling Harbour Live, the project’s PR codename, delivers the spin: ‘By delivering a ‘whole of precinct’ approach that responds to the character of such a unique location, integrates seamlessly with the adjacent city fabric, and provides state of the art operation and functional performance, Darling Harbour Live will build on the vibrancy of Darling Harbour to create a memorable new precinct and public place on Sydney’s harbour foreshore.’
However, architect Philip Thalis, of Hill Thalis, who won the initial Barrangaroo design (before it was bastardized to suit more highrise residential and James Packer’s high roller casino) is critical of what they term ‘a whole of precinct approach’, claiming ”No holistic plan has been released, just a selective crop of perspective views… Again in NSW, we get planning by press release, instead of by public policy or real planning.” In other words, we, the public, are being left in the dark once again, a practice that Barry O’Farrell is becoming quite accomplished with.
And the AIA have echoed the mounting chorus of opposition, showing concern for the government’s technique of committing so much of the project “through a single contract with a single developer”. Its president-elect Paul Berkemeier commented “The government has contracted out its responsibility to prepare a master plan for the use of public land, as well as the rights to demolish and develop it… The Institute’s view is that city development is better served by a multiplicity of players in the development industry, not just one. That is the way most urban areas have been developed, and re-developed, in the past… What we question is the muddled brief to which they are responding and the out-dated and wasteful demolish and rebuild strategy underlying the whole proposal” and finally “the government’s responsibility is to defend the public interest, not to sell it”. But it seems that is exactly what they have done. By the Lend Lease consortium being given total access to this large and precious swathe of land in Haymarket for residential/commercial development, and in turn the project rights to the whole planning process and redevelopment of the public centres, this in effect reduces the cost to the government of supplying new facilities to the public. In effect, this is privatisation of planning. Our land, our city, and our architectural assets have been sold off to big developers, it’s as clear and simple as that.
Click on the pretty digitised images below for pictorial propaganda of how the site will look, from Darling Harbour Live. Notice all the pretty plastic people in various poses of joy and happiness. Why is it that all the plastic people in these digital images are attractive, Anglo and under 35?
A website called savethecentres.com.au has been set up to publicise the fate of the Exhibition and Convention Centres, and tell a compelling story of why we need to recognise the importance of these purpose built buildings. These centres are icons of bicentennial Sydney, they are a cohesive collection of 1980s modernity, and what we are getting will be simply an inferior product… Massive great bulky square blocks built in a generic ‘international style’ rather than Sydney-specific or even coastal Australian specific. They will do nothing for our city apart from make Lend Lease a lot of money and pack more in to a place that is perfectly designed as it is.
Not only is our public land being sold out but it is being done so at such a rushed rate, almost as if to get the results through before the public wakes up to the fact and realise what has actually happened, by which point, it will be all too late. To lose two iconic, world-class buildings that haven’t yet lived their full life, for the sake of a big business deal done by a short-sighted and architecturally ignorant government is more than just a shame, it’s a tradgedy for the people of Sydney and our status as an international capital of culture.
And as for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, our man Barry may trump him just yet. The dictatorship of this planning department grows more ruthless and powerful every day, more than willing to sweep aside any public opposition with keen PR spin and multi-billion dollar partnerships with single-minded developers like Lend Lease. Meanwhile our heritage and internationally acclaimed architecture gets brushed aside like things that don’t matter. Well, in a newsflash for Barry O’Farrell and his government, by the volume and standard of high profile opposition on show here, clearly they do matter… It’s time to treat them as such.
The DAs are on public exhibition until 2 August 2013. To comment on the designs, visit planning.nsw.gov.au
Save The Centres website here. Some beautiful images and articles about the importance of what we are losing. Sign the petition too.