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land grab

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 21-Jun-2006

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 866

A new twist on the old land-grab trick

Elizabeth Farrelly – Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning and architecture issues for the Herald

WE THE populace must have been out to lunch that week, as our fearless leaders sliced 16 hectares of Crown land off the Sydney Common for private profit and then, even as drought resumed its death-grip on the state, freed apartments from water restrictions. And – here’s the genius of it – they sold it all as public interest.

The Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Amendment Bill whizzed through both houses of Parliament on June 7. It was bucketing down at the time, so we could hardly be expected to notice. The bill – now act – enables commercial development on that 16 hectares of Governor Macquarie’s old Sydney Common known as the SCG, which also includes Aussie Stadium.

Back in 1811, Sydney Common, including the now Centennial Parklands, covered 1000 acres (450 hectares). By June 6 this year, after two centuries of whittling down for tollways and supacentres, something less than half of the original bequest remained publicly accessible. Now, that remnant is 16 hectares smaller still.

The new act effectively rezones the entire SCG area as development-capable. Two portions are earmarked: the 3.2-hectare Gold Members’ car park on the corner of Moore Park Road and Driver Avenue for residential, and the southern two-thirds, including the SCG itself, for “tourist and visitor accommodation … hotel and serviced apartments”. The remaining 3.5 hectares must make do with other, miscellaneous development.

Cricket, of course, is sacred. The Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust board is stacked with Alan Joneses and Rod McGeoughs so Parliament was unlikely to deny them their slice of the park. The SCG land – held in trust from the Crown – was, as the Sport Minister, Sandra Nori, told Parliament, “underutilised … [with] the potential for generating funds”. Funds needed, she said, for the SCG’s proposed new $60 million Philip Cox-designed Hill grandstand.

The trust’s chairman, however, the aptly named Rodney Cavalier, has a different take. Money, he says, is not a problem for the trust, which has over 20 years repaid some $60 million in debt and spent $160 million on capital works. Come February, he says, the new grandstand will proceed regardless of whether the newly legalised commercial development occurs. So why do they need the commercial development at all? Why not leave public land for the public? This is mysterious.

Still, Parliament loved it, with only the Greens and the independents speaking against. Ayes 61, nays six.

What exactly were the Wise Ones approving? Nori said it was an innocent measure to allow, simply, the “possibility of … a sports medicine clinic or a child-care centre … Would it be the end of the world? Of course it would not.” Anyway, said Nori, it was quite likely nothing would eventuate. And Centennial Park represents a public investment to which “not too many people drive down from Toomelah, Condobolin or Boggabilla in their BMWs and Mercedes to … enjoy the ambience”. It’s a silvertail park – so, goes the logic, let’s develop.

But surely, you say, there are protections? Safeguards? Nori (reading your mind) did generously suggest that, as proposals arise, “it may well be that I will look at the heritage considerations of the site”. The only requirement, though, is ministerial approval. There is no public-interest test, no consultation requirement, no development limit. Just agreement between the minister for sport and the minister for planning. (Or is it the other way around?)

Perhaps, in fairness, our MPs hadn’t understood. No map accompanied the bill, so the land areas, swathed in multi-page “metes and bounds” descriptions, were intelligible only to professional surveyors. The rules were crocheted in those double-double-negatives so difficult to understand but so beloved of our legislators, with constant references to some further string of negatives in the parent act. It was, in short, a bill designed to obscure.

Then again, maybe they did understand. Maybe they figured this was the perfect way to guarantee full funding for parliamentary super reserves, by zero-funding not just trains but all public infrastructure. It could catch on. The SCG may not need the cash but there are plenty of public institutions on Crown land that do. Schools, say. Solve that education crisis! Apply now for an apartment tower, hotel even, on your bottom field.

That was June 7. Next day came the announcement that the long-awaited roll-out of Basix energy and water-saving provisions for new dwellings was being diluted yet again. “Next Stage of Basix to make NSW More Energy Efficient,” promised the release. In fact, it was mostly retrograde.

Days earlier we’d learnt that – shockingly, since they should be, if anything, more efficient – Sydney high-rise apartment dwellers produce twice the greenhouse gas tonnage of townhouse dwellers. This is due largely to common areas, including gyms and pools. In water terms, it is estimated that in NSW new pools alone lose by evaporation about 60 million litres every summer month.

High-rise living normally saves energy, and makes water re-use easier. Minister Sartor, though, took the news as his cue not to increase discipline but to abandon proposed Basix tightening for apartments. He also removed any incentive for pool covering by specifically exempting alterations and additions below $100,000. Why? All too expensive. Poor, poor developers.

Then again, if it’s money they need, the answer is simple. Find a corner of Crown land somewhere, develop it, pocket the proceeds. That’s public benefit, what?


Photo: Kristjan Porm


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