The Guardian 14 September, 2005

Struggles against
developments for the ultra-rich

Peter Mac

Property development proposals in both Sydney and Melbourne are being contested by local councils, and by residents who would be disadvantaged or even evicted by the projects.

In Melbourne’s historic inner-city suburb of Kew, a group of intellectually disabled residents is being threatened by a proposal from major developer Walker Corporation, to develop the Kew Cottages estate where they live.

The situation is like the Carr government’s recent attempt to sell off a chunk of Sydney’s Callan Park, which is also a former hospital for the intellectually disabled. These institutions were developed in the nineteenth century, with a view to caring for those suffering intellectual and emotional problems in beautiful stress-free surroundings. Both these magnificent sites are now of huge real estate value.

However, the hundreds of Kew Cottages residents are a major hindrance for Walker developments, which wants to develop the 27-hectare site with 800 luxury houses and apartments. The fate of the residents would probably be similar to those at Callan Park, most of whom have been removed, and many of whom are fending for themselves in often-seedy boarding houses.

However, the local Boroondara Council opposed the development proposal. Walkers then attempted to bypass the Council by seeking approval from the warm and friendly Victorian government.

The Court rejected the Council’s argument that the government should not considering the proposal, because the application was based on insufficient information. However, it also accepted the Council’s call for the government to provide them with all information on the case (the government had objected to this demand), and ordered another hearing, allowing the Council to make another appeal.

A spokesperson for the Kew Cottages Coalition commented angrily: "What hypocrisy to preach open government and open planning, while practicing stealth and evasion over the disposal of the homes of hundreds of intellectually disabled Victorians to a Sydney developer."

In Sydney two developments have hit the headlines, once again involving beautiful sites of prime real estate value. One involves the developer Rosecorp, which is currently building a complex of 436 dwellings on a magnificent 52 hectare site at Breakfast Point on the Parramatta River.

The scheme was approved by the former Homebush Bay Council, which was then wracked by accusations of corruption and malpractice. The new council stipulated requirements regarding public access, public transport and landscaping, as well as community facilities, child care and a neighbourhood centre, in the Rosecorp development.

The matter was taken to the Land and Environment Court. However, the developer then approached the State Labor government for help, which obligingly declared the project "of state significance", thus overriding the Council under recently amended legislation.

This case sets a precedent which opens the door for development to proceed on any residential development worth more than $50 million, without the checks and controls imposed by careful council planning procedures.

Genia McCaffery, President of the Local Government Association, commented bitterly: "If a developer … doesn’t get what he wants, they seem to be able to go to the Planning Minister and the thing gets called in."

The second Sydney case involves Unions NSW, whose managers recently moved to sell Currawong, a workers’ holiday cottage site on a magnificent Pittwater beach. The proposal has been vigorously opposed by the local council, a coalition of local residents, and many unionists. A spokesperson for Friends of Currawong stated "We’re scared that some multimillionaires will move in, stick half a dozen luxury houses on it and the workers of Australia will be excluded from a site they have had possession of for half a century."

Currawong was originally bought in 1949 by the NSW State Labour Council, and developed as an idyllic recreation resort for workers. However, several years ago Michael Costa, the Secretary of Unions NSW (and later a less than successful Minister for Public transport) attempted to negotiate a 99-year lease on the property.

This unsuccessful attempt illustrated the reverence which the Labor Party’s leadership seems to have for development projects, even the most smelly. Unions NSW’s claim that they need to sell the site to fund the campaign against the Howard government’s industrial reform legislation has been disputed, since funding has already been acquired from individual unions.

As many unionists have observed, industrial campaigns shouldn’t involve dumping facilities acquired for the benefit of members, and the quality of the Currawong accommodation should be improved to increase demand for the facilities. The site’s accommodation could even be developed slightly, by a modest, sensitive development, so that more union members can enjoy this splendid retreat.

That would be preferable to throwing the site open to the developer rat pack.

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