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Land and secrets on The Block - 15.07.2005

On May 25, a map of Redfern Waterloo was published in the Government Gazette. It showed areas declared state significant within Redfern and Waterloo boundaries and included The Block - land privately owned by the Aboriginal Housing Company. Gazetting means planning and compulsory acquisition powers will now move to the recently established Redfern Waterloo Authority. Government documents show control of The Block was always central to the $5 billion redevelopment plan for the area. SAMANTHA DERRICK reports for Southside News (Issue 3/2005 Pages 13-14.)

Last December the Redfern/ Waterloo Authority Bill 2004 passed through the NSW parliament.


The Bill legislated for the formation of a decision and planning authority to take charge of redevelopment in the two South Sydney suburbs.


Early this year the Authority was formed - see opposite page.


Even before that happened Cabinet documents were leaked and newspaper reports told of the State Government's $5 billion, 10-year plan to redevelop Redfern and the surrounding suburbs. The plan involved taking control of Aboriginal housing on The Block and letting private developers take over two-thirds of the area's public housing estates.


Since then, the man with extraordinary powers to implement this plan, Minister for Redfern Waterloo Frank Sartor has consistently denied there were any plans to seize control of Aboriginal land.


Southside News however, has sighted documents which show crown solicitors' office advice to Cabinet last year outlined a number of scenarios which would give the RWA effective control of Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) land in return for RWA funding to redevelop The Block and associated lands.


And if these scenarios collapsed and the "worst case" - AHC insolvency - happened, the advice was that the "RWA may compulsorily acquire the AHC land or NSW Government may consider legislation".


The advice was among Cabinet papers titled The Redfern/Waterloo Plan (2004-2014) which related to the setting up of the RWA and its funding.


They give comprehensive insight into the NSW Government's plans for a wholesale makeover of Redfern and Waterloo as a high density extension of the CBD.


They also reveal that crucial to the funding of the whole plan was control of the redevelopment of Aboriginal Housing Company's prime real estate - The Block site.


Meanwhile for five years the AHC, assisted by the State Government, has been planning the redevelopment of The Block through a project called the Pemulwuy Project. It is a comprehensive plan that would see 62 Aboriginal homes on The Block. It needs $27 million funding. (See Page 15)


In the scenarios outlined to Cabinet last October this project did not get a look in, even though it had won awards and was found to be economically feasible.


All scenarios addressed by the crown solicitor's office concentrate on how the AHC could lease the land to the RWA for redevelopment.


The advice to Cabinet is that the RWA and the AHC form the Pemulwuy Redevelopment Committee (PRC) - same name but no relationship to the project. In fact the proposed set up of this committee would remove the Aboriginal Housing Company from direct access to the RWA.


This PRC committee was to advise the RWA on the redevelopment of The Block. The advice to Cabinet was that it be made up, half and half, of AHC and RWA members.


The PRC would have a chairperson who had the deciding vote - a position appointed by Mr Sartor.


It would also have a general manager-an RWA staff member.


This structure would ostensibly show co-operation between the RWA and AHC but ultimately the Aboriginal Company would have limited control over the decision-making process.


AHC project director Peter Valilis said: "This whole deal smacked of a conspiracy to take the Block, but it would have been done with the cooperation of the AHC."


The NSW Crown solicitor's office also advised Cabinet in October that the RWA should lease AHC land for 10 years. The AHC should be asked to sign off on a redevelopment agreement and positive covenant for 20 years, in return for the RWA start-up funds to redevelop The Block.


Under this arrangement Mr Sartor's Authority would have "exclusive possession and management of sales and leasing" for 10 years and then have ongoing management interest for another 10.


This would mean that even if The Block was not compulsorily acquired, the AHC would, while formally owning the land lose control over it. The RWA would decide who was allowed to lease houses on The Block and have power of eviction.


Another recommendation in the documents was that the AHC take out a $I million - $2 million loan as a "contribution to the redevelopments".


The Crown solicitor recommended that the RWA would get more "leverage when dealing with the company" if it was "guarantor of the loan.


The AHC has told Southside News that repayments of such a loan could not. have been met. It would have pushed them into insolvency.


The "worst case" would have come about and as the advice suggests "the RWA could compulsorily acquire the AHC land to protect its investment".


In any event and after the Sydney Morning Herald published stories based on leaked Cabinet documents showing the extent of Government pre-planning, the Aboriginal Housing Company walked away.


AHC project director Peter Valilis said: "This whole deal smacked off a conspiracy to take The Block, but it would have been done with the co-operation of the AHC."


He said AHC members did talk to the State Government in August 2004 about forming the Pemulwuy Redevelopment Committee.


"We wanted an equal partnership with the government," said Mr Valilis.


"We would bring land and over $3 million to $4 million worth of research (The Pemulwuy Project) and they would bring money that would be equivalent to the land value."


But he said the government wanted the AHC to contribute more to the partnership.


"The State Government said they weren't happy with that arrangement. They proposed that we go to Macquarie Bank, they even proposed the bank, and borrow $2 million," he said.


"They would underwrite that loan and at any time we didn't keep up with the payments, then they would take The Block."


The AHC has since setup its own committee called the Pemulwuy Vision Taskforce headed by former Whitlam regional planning development minister and veteran campaigner Tom Uren.


As you will see on Page 15 that vision for 62 dwellings collides head on with Frank Sartor's vision for The Block.


On June 15 he told SBS Aboriginal reporter Lola Forester: "my only precondition to this, I don't mind what the final vision is, my only precondition is, that we shouldn't increase the amount of dwellings in and around The Block above the 19 that are there now.”


REDWatch is an amalgam of community and political interest groups dedicated to getting the best deal for Redfem. An e¬letter is circulated monthly with detailed information on unfolding community and RWA sagas.


Geoff Turnbull is president of REDwatch.


He said he believes the RWA wants limited Aboriginal housing because otherwise developers might not bite.


"Part of the issue on what you're seeing about The Block is in the stuff that the Herald leaked from the Cabinet papers which said... if you didn't have good things happening around the station, the developer would be prepared to pay 25-30 per cent less for doing that public and private development than what they would if there were other things going on.


"The developers and the spokesperson for the property council are on record as saying if you want them to come in and redevelop the station and other areas then we are going to have to get rid of The Block," he said.


The RWA is not an open organisation.


As it is constituted Mr Sartor has final' say oil funding, can appoint and fire board members and is the sole spokesperson on all issues relating to the redevelopment.


Mr Turnbull said the community was being left in the dark by the RWA.


"This is a development corporation model, everything is secret unless there's some good reason to release it, or leak it to somebody in the media. What we've argued is that the Authority should have the same sort of mechanisms and transparency as being carried on by local government."


In an interview with Southside News in April, opposition Aboriginal affairs spokesman Brad Hazzard also criticised lack of community consultation.


"It seems very Monty Pythonesque that the government had all these people working on it (Pemulwuy Project) and yet their solution seems to be coming from a totally different quarter, out of the blue," he said.


"All power to be placed in one person or group tends to be a very corruptive and destructive force."


"Sartor's decision (gazetting The Block as state significant) is a de¬cision of arrogance," said Mr Uren.


"His whole position is a confrontational one. You don't start off doing something on the position of confrontation, you seek out co-operation with all parties involved, including the community," he said.


Mr Sartor declined to be interviewed by Southside New.


His office instead supplied written answers to our questions about the Redfern-Waterloo Authority and the Aboriginal Housing Company.


"My door remains open to the Aboriginal Housing Company to discuss a way forward for The Block. I have also met a range of stakeholders and discussions are happening at a community level on the redevelopment of Redfern-Waterloo.


"I have consistently stated I would find the balance of the 62 tenancies in the area, and I repeat my commitment that the level of public and Aboriginal housing in Redfern-Waterloo will not be reduced," the written replies from his press officer said.


He elaborated on this in the SBS interview. He told Ms Forester: `...we're prepared to find 62 dwellings in and around Redfem¬Waterloo but on the actual Block, and the immediate, sort of, across the road from the Block, we think you're crazy re-concentrating this amount of housing just right there, given the fact that, in fact, we used to have about 50 - most of them got demolished, because it just ended up being just too difficult to manage.


“... we want the Aboriginal community to work with us to work that through. And then we will help them financially and try and put together a different vision, it might be to do with education, it might be to do with arts, it might be to do with sport ... once we settle that, let's settle how much housing you can have around there and then we will find the rest, and we will find the 62 dwellings..." Mr Sartor said.


Ms Forester asked: "Yeah but Frank you're actually saying that Aboriginal people can't move forward in a sophisticated way but with the Pemulwuy Project they're proposing a mixture of home ownership, and affordable housing for high, middle and low income families on The Block, along with a business college, a retail office complex, a large civil space with Aboriginal artist markets, a sporting facility, student hostel.


"Can you name one aspect of the Pemulwuy Project you don't believe is worth implementing?"


Mr Sartor repeated his point about the 62 dwellings.


When pressed he said he hadn't read all of the Pemulwuy Project but was familiar with its contents.




• RWA to be consent authority for lands within its ambit.


• In return for the RWA Fund redevelopment funding AHC agrees to RWA controlling AHC land via a 10-year lease (RWA has exclusive possession and manages leases and sales), and a Redevelopment Agreement and registered legal title owner of the AHC land.


• A key aspect of the redevelopment of the AHC land is the operation of the PRC (Pemulwuy Redevelopment Committee) within the RWA structure. The PRC will comprise equal representations from the AHC and Government, with the chairman, having the deciding vote, to be nominated by the minister subject to the AHC having aright to veto the appointment (at the time of the appointment only). It is also intended to appoint a general manager to have carriage of management of the PRC's affairs, with the general manager having a dual reporting line to the PRC and the RWA's CEO.

• Advice acknowledges inherent risks in development with its example being that after the RWA develops AHC land, the AHC may challenge the agreement as "inequitable and oppressive". In the worst-case scenario it advises the RWA could compulsorily acquire the AHC land.


• In a section of RWA Control of Aboriginal Housing Company land in return for RWA Fund monies applied to redevelop The Block and associated lands it is mentioned that:

Compulsory acquisition is not likely except in very limited circumstances, eg. In the event of AHC insolvency.


The documents do mention that intended RWA's functions include the social outcome of promoting affordable quality Aboriginal housing and employment opportunities.



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