The New South Wales government is using the strict pandemic lockdown and curfew to dismantle and remove the historic Willow Grove to make way for the new Powerhouse Museum along Parramatta River.
After a four-year community-union fight to prevent the destruction of the Italianate villa, campaigners are still coming to terms with the loss.
The North Parramatta Residents Action Group (NPRAG) spokesperson Suzette Meade said the legal challenge had always been “Plan B” and that the battle to save Willow Grove would have to be won on the ground.
The NSW Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) placed a Green Ban on Willow Grove 18 months ago, in the spirit of struggles led by Jack Mundey and members of the Builders Labourers Federation. It was a source of strength for campaigners.
In June, when contractors attempted to enter the site, the CFMEU, backed by residents, responded in large numbers to halt work.
However, the lockdown and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s decision to shut down the construction industry was a game changer.
Public Health Orders meant that residents and workers faced $5000 fines if they gathered at the site, and locals were concerned about the health risks involved, making the enforcement of the Green Ban more and more difficult.
Under pressure to get its members back to work on construction sites, the CFMEU negotiated with government and construction industry bosses to safely reopen the industry.
The government sought to end the dispute and an agreement was made with the union to relocate Willow Grove to a new site “as soon as possible”, with union and community input on the location.
NPRAG does not agree with the building being relocated, accusing the government of using COVID-19 to “desecrate” the site.
“The people of Parramatta will not forgive or forget,” Meade said.
The CFMEU said it was able to secure government support for a committee to oversee the “dismantling, re-location, re-build and re-use of the villa and ongoing maintenance”. It said “the villa will be kept in public hands, funded and utilised for the community of Parramatta”.
The union will ensure the dismantling is “undertaken in accordance with best-practice heritage conservation”, and that Willow Grove is rebuilt “at a location to be chosen with the local Parramatta community and stakeholders as soon as possible”.
The union has promised to “support the community in their ongoing work to preserve the heritage of Parramatta”.
Meade addressed CFMEU delegates on August 27 to thank the union for its support and to criticise the NSW Premier for mismanaging the pandemic.
“The CFMEU and the community put up a significant fight and that is a historic achievement. The state government knew what they were up against and ruthlessly took the opportunity COVID-19 presented.
“I know like you, we would have preferred to go to combat and there is a sense of disappointment that this monumental battle ended this way.”
Meade said she was confident that the four-year long campaign had shown the government that “we mean business and will mobilise, with our allies far and wide, to fight back”.
“We hope that this will inspire other communities to dare to struggle for better outcomes for our heritage and environment for next generations.”
Residents feel that the loss of Willow Grove from its original home is not a win.
However, the Green Ban was successful in saving the 1880 St Georges Terraces next door, and they will be incorporated into the new Powerhouse museum.
The government will spend far more on relocating Willow Grove than it could have spent redesigning the museum to incorporate and preserve this piece or urban heritage in its original setting.
[Susan Price is a member of the North Parramatta Residents Action Group.]