You are here: Home / Media / Symbolism cannot solve unemployment and social misery

Symbolism cannot solve unemployment and social misery

Redfern and Waterloo are bigger than just one block, however needy, writes Frank Sartor in an Opinion piece in the SMH February 22, 2006

IT IS time for some straight talking about the Block in Redfern. In 1985, when I was the ward alderman for Eveleigh Street, the Block was a no-go zone. Twenty years later, most of the houses that once stood at the symbolic heart of black Redfern have been demolished, after falling victim to vandalism and drug dealers. Just 19 homes remain.

Over the years, the Aboriginal Housing Company - which owns the Block - has prepared a number of proposals to rebuild these dwellings. In the meantime, it has received a sizeable slice of public funding: up to $30 million from the Commonwealth since 1973, and $8 million in state and federal funding for repairs and insurance over the past eight years alone.

But the same problems remain. There is no evidence to suggest reconcentrating high-dependency housing on the Block will miraculously solve its social problems. There is also little evidence to suggest that the housing company has improved its governance arrangements in order to manage such a development, for which it initially sought $27 million in taxpayer funding.

Its latest proposal for the Block - the Pemulwuy project - is essentially a residential development of up to four storeys. It centres on 62 new homes, symbolising the number of local Gadigal families wiped out by smallpox. Symbolism is laudable, but it can never be a substitute for sustainable planning. The only long-term solution for these problems is to provide jobs and opportunities for local families, supported by improved human services.

The housing company's Pemulwuy proposal was presented to me a year ago, though I have never received any detailed plans.

Regrettably, a development application for the project is yet to materialise, despite repeated promises. The housing company has also boycotted formal talks on the future of the Block for the past year.

In the meantime, the Government has exhibited and adopted plans to improve human services in Redfern and Waterloo and provide more jobs and training for locals, especially indigenous residents.

The new Redfern-Waterloo Authority has turned its attention to land use, and a draft built environment plan is on exhibition for public comment until April 14. It anticipates the creation of 18,000 jobs and 2000 dwellings over the next decade.

Changes are proposed for all sites of state significance in Redfern, including railway land and the Australian Technology Park. Essential heritage features will be preserved, as they have been at the Australian Technology Park and the former North Eveleigh Carriage Works, which is being transformed into a $40 million contemporary arts centre.

Work and training opportunities on these projects are also earmarked for indigenous job seekers. Nineteen are being employed at the carriage works and another 26 are due to commence at a Redfern-Waterloo Authority construction project at the Australian Technology Park, with more employment deals to come.

The overarching aim of the draft built environment plan is to favour uses which create jobs. This same approach has been applied to the Block and other parts of Eveleigh Street. The proposed changes increase its total development potential by 50 per cent, but reduce the number of dwellings which could be permitted to about 30. However, the Government has committed itself to provide a total of 62 dwellings in the area.

It should be noted that the Pemulwuy proposal contravenes existing height controls for the Block, which are set at six metres, or two storeys.

The new controls, if adopted, favour mixed-use development, including residential, cultural, educational and even some retail. It has not been rezoned commercial - as reported recently - although commercial uses will be permitted. The aim is to reinvigorate the area and make it more sustainable, while preserving its Aboriginal identity and ownership.

I am sure that pathways can be found to address the future of the Block.

In 1985 I gave the housing company my support and agreed to chair its residents' advisory committee.

I also resisted calls for the Block to be levelled.

But now it is the Block's indigenous owners who have torn down most of its houses, and want to redevelop the rest.

It is a landmark place for indigenous people, and indeed for Sydney. But residential gentrification or reconcentrating high-dependency housing is not the answer to the area's entrenched problems. Unemployment and social misery cannot be solved by symbolism.

Redfern and Waterloo are bigger than just one block, and the views of locals more diverse than those promoted by the housing company.

Only jobs and opportunity can make a lasting difference to all the residents and allow true self-reliance and self-determination.

Frank Sartor is NSW Minister for Planning and the Minister for Redfern Waterloo.