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Issue #1758      November 23, 2016

A city’s history under the hammer

NSW Premier Mike Baird’s rise to power was facilitated by use of a squeaky clean “Mr Nice Guy” image, with slick PR that fully exploited the scandals involving Eddie Obeid and other now-discredited members of the former Labor government. But Baird is now being exposed as a social and environmental vandal.

“The National Art School faces an uncertain future, and remarkably is not State Heritage listed.”

The government’s stupendously destructive WestConnex tollway project has come under widespread community objection because of its savage impact on residents, parks and wildlife in affected areas. And there’s another aspect of government policy that’s equally destructive of cultural values and is far more insidious.

The government has leased off to private interests, particularly the tourist industry, many of Sydney’s magnificent 19th century government sandstone buildings. They are to be gutted and converted to use as hotel accommodation, like the former Treasury building, which is now the InterContinental Hotel.

The Department of Education building, the Department of Planning building, the Lands and Titles building, the Lands Department building, the University of Sydney Law Faculty and the Central Courthouse are either in the process of transfer to the private sector or are targeted for the same treatment.

The government claims it wants to save the taxpayer money on repairs and maintenance, but Sydney’s old government buildings were very well built and have mostly been well maintained during their life. Any necessary conservation work is usually carried out prior to the vacation of the premises as a condition of lease. (Sydney’s former General Post Office was given a multi-million dollar facelift at taxpayers’ expense by the federal government prior to its lease to Macquarie Bank some 25 years ago).

Moreover, some of the government departments that formerly occupied these buildings are now in expensive rented accommodation in privately-owned buildings, and the cost of relocating and reorganising the departments is colossal.

The government’s real objective is not to save money for the taxpayer, but rather to provide the tourist industry with an invaluable commodity, i.e. magnificent buildings which have the potential to maximise the industry’s profits.

The NSW branch of the National Trust has recently published a list of historically significant industrial sites and government-owned buildings that are now under threat of sale, lease and/or demolition. It commented:

“Following the loss of the ... Sir John Sulman medal award-winning Sydney Exhibition Centre and the adjoining Sydney Convention Centre in Darling Harbour, the nearby historic Ultimo Power House is now under threat despite it also winning the Sulman Award for Architectural Merit, and in the 1988 Architecture Australia Awards winning the President’s award for Recycled Buildings for its conversion to the Powerhouse Museum.

“Also lost are key elements of Sydney’s harbour history – Garden Island’s Hammerhead Crane and Millers Point’s Harbour Control Tower, despite a unanimous recommendation by the NSW Heritage Council for its listing on the State Heritage Register.

“Millers Point, Dawes Point and The Rocks, arguably Australia’s most historic and earliest residential precinct, continues to be under threat with the outright sale of government-owned properties without the protection that would have been afforded by long-term leases and bonds.

“The Rocks Sirius Apartments building, also unanimously recommended by the NSW Heritage Council for State Heritage listing, is under threat of demolition and replacement by a taller building in the heart of The Rocks, blocking important views in the Sydney Opera House World Heritage Area Buffer Zone.

“The National Art School (the old Darlinghurst Jail dating from 1823) faces an uncertain future, and remarkably is not State Heritage listed.

“The WestConnex Motorway has cut a swathe of destruction through the Haberfield Conservation Area, one of Australia’s most important heritage places. Glebe, Newtown and Rozelle now face the impacts of the proposed connection of the WestConnex M4 to the M5.

“Windsor’s state-significant Thompson Square still faces a destructive road proposal, and a local resident group, Concerned Action for Windsor Bridge ... has been occupying Thompson Square 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, since July 2013, winning a National Trust Advocacy Heritage Award.”

The trust has also expressed deep concern about the impact of new government legislation and policy on the natural environment. It declared:

“A crucial issue over coming decades is biodiversity conservation. The National Trust has joined with key environmental groups in NSW to form Stand Up For Nature to lobby against legislation which, in the view of the Trust, the Environment Movement and the Wentworth Group of scientists, will facilitate major land clearance in NSW. The legislation will also impact on critical green spaces across Sydney and NSW. The Trust is supporting a new major campaign by the Total Environment Centre to save them – SOS Green Spaces. The campaign deals with:

  • “Current threats to our green spaces
  • “The NSW government scheme for a new urban tree SEEP, overriding existing tree preservation orders and setting new vegetation clearing controls across urban areas in NSW
  • “The NSW government’s proposed Crown Lands legislative changes
  • “The review of SEPP [State Environmental Planning Provision] 19, Urban Bushland
  • “The work of the Greater Sydney Commission and how it will affect planning
  • “All these proposals will have a profound impact on our environment and on the way our shared green spaces and trees are protected and managed.”

But other developments show that government policy can be defeated. Last year the Baird government dropped a plan to construct a WestConnex entry point that would have necessitated demolishing most of inner-city Petersham Park and adjacent streets.

The decision was prompted by fierce opposition from local residents – and probably also from sporting organisations, because Don Bradman scored his first century in first class cricket in Petersham Park!

Last week, following vigorous objections from university and hospital authorities, the government amended the WestConnex plan by removing another proposed tollway entry point near Sydney University and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

So, objectionable government decisions can be reversed if enough pressure is applied. As protests mount over the WestConnex monstrosity, legal action is also being taken against the government by grossly under-compensated homeowners. But the best thing of all would be to dump the government at the earliest opportunity.

Next article – Use Your Power rally – Fighting privatisation in WA

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