New law threatens Sydney’s precious green space

April 6, 2022
A new law threatens Sydney's iconic parklands, including Moore Park (pictured). Photo: City of Sydney

The Greater Sydney Parklands Trust Bill 2021 threatens Sydney’s iconic parklands by opening the door to privatisation. The bill was passed on March 29, with the support of the Greens and Labor.

The new law hands the control of Callan Park, Western Sydney Parklands, Centennial and Moore Parks, Parramatta Park and Fernhill Estate to the Greater Sydney Parklands Trust — a new government agency stacked with corporate executives.

In its original form, the bill would have modified the Callan Park (Special Provisions) Act 2002 to allow the Trust to grant 50-year leases to commercial outfits in Callan Park.

After amendments by the Greens, the law restores protections which restrict the Trust’s ability to grant leases longer than 10 years and development for not-for-profit purposes. Greens MP Jamie Parker said the amendments ensure Callan Park “doesn’t become a glorified business park”.

Another amendment, moved by Labor, gives community trustee boards more say in signing off on the management plans for each of the parklands. Another amendment removes car parking areas in parts of Moore Park, but this won’t come into effect until 2025. It is unclear if these green spaces will be rehabilitated or handed over to private interests.

Overall, the bill concentrates decision-making power in the Trust.

Spokesperson for the Alliance for Public Parks (APP), Suzette Meade said: “The Alliance will be meticulously reviewing this heavily-amended legislation with a fine tooth comb and, in the meantime, will be making it our priority to make sure genuine local representation will be sitting on the park’s new Community Trust Boards.”

Community groups and academic James Weirick have called for a federated model focused on the community-based management of parklands.

Greater Sydney Parklands Trust

Friends of Callan Park said the Trust’s “composition inspires no confidence — they appear to be the usual suspects that a Liberal minister would appoint”.

CEO Suellen Fitzgerald, also executive director of the Western Sydney Parklands Trust since 2008, has overseen the commercialisation of swaths of the Western Sydney Parklands and, more recently, Parramatta Park.

Chair Michael Rose, who supported the 2016–17 forced amalgamation of councils, is also Chair of Northwest Rapid Transit, companies owning the privatised Sydney Metro.

Board member Ceinwen Kirk-Lennox held management positions in Lendlease — the development and construction behemoth responsible for a range of environmentally-destructive, anti-community projects, such as the Figtree Hill housing development and Barangaroo. She is also a director of Charter Hall, a real estate company with a major lease agreement in the Western Sydney Parklands.

Community opposition

Following a community backlash, a New South Wales parliamentary Select Committee set up last November handed down its report on the bill on February 21. Community groups opposed to the bill, such as Friends of Callan Park, Blacktown and District Environment Group Inc and the APP and local councils — Woollahra, Blacktown, Inner West and Randwick Councils — were concerned about the lack of transparency, undemocratic governance, poor community consultation and the creeping commercialisation.

The bill pays lip service to “community consultation” and concentrates decision-making power to a few individuals. It mandates the Trust to set up community trustee boards for each of the parklands. While this seems to ensure community input, these boards are “consultative” bodies only, with limited legislated decision-making power. The planning minister appoints the community trustee board members and can dissolve the trustee boards at any time.

The bill also grants the Trust the power to compulsorily acquire land. Given the government’s track record of compulsory acquisition, including the WestConnex tollway, this is concerning.

The law allows the Trust to grant 25-year leases on public land without ministerial approval. The planning minister can grant leases that last longer than 25 years.

The bill amends the Centennial Park and Moore Park Trust Act 1983 to allow the Trust or planning minister to grant leases of up to 99 years for commercial purposes in Centennial and Moore Parks. This gives the Trust and planning minister huge discretionary power to hand over public land to private interests.

The Alliance for Public Parklands said in its opposition submission that the Trust’s new powers represent “an effective alienation of public spaces for private profit”.

The Trust made clear in its submission its proposed funding model “builds on” the Western Sydney Parklands Trust operating model — which hands leases to companies to set up “business hubs” within the parklands to generate revenue.

The bill’s implicit neoliberal assertion is that public parks should fund themselves. Absent is any promise of NSW government funding.

If the goal is to establish a “metropolitan-wide legal framework” for the management of Sydney’s parks, it makes no sense to exclude other significant parks such as Bicentennial Park in Sydney Olympic Park and the Millenium Parklands in Wentworth Point.

Is it a coincidence that the parks included in the bill are the same ones that developers have already started eyeing off for even more development? It seems the real purpose of the bill is to hand control over to a Trust with property-dominated interests.

Green space needed

The importance of quality green space to people’s mental and physical health is well-documented. But in Sydney access is unequal: those in the west and south-west face longer distances to reach open space.

The rise in high-density developments across Sydney will put a strain on parks, such as Centennial Park and Parramatta Park.

The NSW government should be investing in iconic parks and creating new parklands to meet growing demand. Instead, it is handing corporations long-term leases on public land — a form of creeping privatisation which restricts community access and use.

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