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Redeveloping The Block: the battle drags on - April 2005 SSH

Negotiations between the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) and the Redfern Waterloo Authority have come to a standstill because of a failure to agree on what is a sustainable future for The Block. The AHC is committed to the Pemulwuy Redevelopment Project, which would replace deteriorated terrace housing on the Block with 62 homes in a low-rise apartment complex.

NSW Minister for Redfern-Waterloo, Frank Sartor, while declining to talk to the media, sent a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald on March 8 and described his plans for the Block. "My dialogue with the company is based on two propositions: Let's set up a working group to develop a new vision for the Block and its surrounds, and let's not rehouse any more than the 19 existing tenancies".

Peter Valilis, the AHC's Project Manager, said the AHC is shocked at the position that the Redfern Waterloo Authority has taken on the future of The Block. He argues that, until the formation of the Redfern Waterloo Authority, the NSW Government had  publicly supported the Pemulwuy Project and funded parts of its development.

Valilis said, "For the past three years the Premier's Department has encouraged us to follow a model of 62 houses. Now Frank Sartor has come along and demanded we disregard the entire plan. But the Pemulwuy Project will go ahead with or without the NSW Government".

Zoe Allebone, spokesperson for Frank Sartor said of the Pemulwuy ' Project: "The Minister, doesn't believe reconcentrating potentially, high-dependency housing on The Block is the way to make the area sustainable". The AHC agrees with this view, but argues that the Pemulwuy Project is based on a combination of private home ownership and tenants with mixed socio-economic backgrounds - not 'high dependency' housing as suggested by Minister Sartor.

Mick Mundine, chief executive of the AHC, said, "five years of planning has shown us that we can't compromise the figure of 62 houses because it is the number of properties we need to create a safe and sustainable environment". In response to reports that the Redfern Waterloo Authority wanted `no black faces on the Block', Mundine said: "The Aboriginal. people fought hard to secure this land, and now it seems likely that we'll have to fight to rebuild the houses on it. Frank Sartor can`t just come in here and use standover tactics to tell us what the NSW Government wants this company to do".

However, Sartor's tough talk has gained support from property developers interested in the area. Property Council of Australia NSW Executive Director, Ken Morrison, has publicly said: "There is no way that Redfern is going to be that commercial mini-centre with Aboriginal housing and The Block still in place. We need to sort that out before any private investors will be interested". When asked by, the South Sydney Herald about the comment, Morrison said, "We support the Redfern Waterloo Authority in their plans for the Block. I don't think it's unreasonable that they have an agenda of urban renewal, and the NSW Government's vision is unlikely to be achievable with a residential area in the Redfern Station precinct".

At present, talks between the AHC and the Redfern Waterloo Authority have ceased because Minister Sartor will only conduct negotiations through a "working body”, tentatively known as the Pemulwuy Vision Taskforce. A document obtained by the South Sydney Herald, known as the Pemulwuy Vision Taskforce Brief, detailed the conditions of the agenda for the proposed committee. They were that the AHC abandon the Pemulwuy Project and allow the committee to decide on a new vision for what is built on The Block. Representatives on the Pemulwuy Vision Taskforce, other than the AHC, would be selected from a list provided by Minister Sartor. A final report, with recommendation, would be due on June 30 2005.

Valilis said, "That's unacceptable. The Minister would have authority over the group and the final say on its decision. We won't place the future of the Block in the hands of the Frank Sartor. Of the representatives he suggested for the Taskforce, hardly any had experience in planning, but he expected the committee to come up with a better plan than the Pemulwuy Project in only five months. Negotiations with the State Government have finished as far as we're concerned. They gave us: a take-it-or-leave-it deal and we said, no thanks."

Robert   Domm, CEO of  the Redfern Waterloo Authority, when questioned about the proposed committee said: "The Aboriginal Housing Company has been invited to take part in a dialogue about a sustainable future for The Block. Our motives are genuine". He refused to say whether the Redfern Waterloo Authority would compromise on the conditions of the Pemulwuy Vision Taskforce, which have made further negotiations unlikely.

The AHC will now form their own committee, also to be known as the Pemulwuy Vision Taskforce, which will assess the Pemulwuy Project and offer advice on any changes that would make the plan more sustainable. The panel will include experts who are associated with the Sydney Metropolitan Strategy, the Chamber of Commerce, Sydney University, local community groups, and also a founder of the Aboriginal Housing Office.

There has also been a swell of support for the project within the City of Sydney Council. Green's Councillor Chris Harris said, "There is no formal resolution yet, but Chief Executive Peter Seamer is preparing a report on how we could form a consortium composed of the Aboriginal Housing Company, City of Sydney Council, and a Federal funding body that could supply money for the Pemulwuy Redevelopment Project. I'm confident council would support such a resolution. We aren't expecting the NSW Government to be a part of the consortium because they don't want Aboriginal housing on The Block."

NSW Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Brad Hazzard, told the South Sydney Herald that the Carr Government has adopted the wrong approach towards The Block. "The NSW Government is clearly wrong. A top-down solution will not work and never has in indigenous communities. If we gain power, we'll talk to the community and work out what's good for the local area. I don't see any problems that would prevent the Pemulwuy project from getting funding from a Coalition Government".

Joe Correy - The South Sydney Herald April 2005 Page 1