Crown Land

Crown Land

(Crown Land Management Bill 2016, 9 November 2016, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

The Crown lands estate provides significant environmental, social, recreational and cultural values that must be protected. Millions of hectares across rural, regional and urban areas of New South Wales are Crown land, representing approximately 42 per cent of the state.

Crown lands include vital habitat for endangered species and ecosystems; wetlands that provide habitat for migratory birds protected under international agreements; additions and connections to reserves used by native animals to travel; remnants of native vegetation in towns; beaches; and important community space including open space for recreation. Much of Crown land plays important functions like carbon sequestration, and maintaining and improving soil fertility, air quality and water quality.

The Crown Land Management Bill is about enabling the government to sell and dispose of Crown lands in a planned stocktake of the entire estate.

This obsession with stripping government assets, functions and responsibilities is getting out of hand. We are privatising: electricity generation and retail; prisons; TAFE; ports; government functions like land and property services; school camping centres; and bus services. We are selling inner city public housing, government department buildings, cultural institutions, investment property and prime harbour land. There is a real fear in the community that there will be nothing left and future governments will have less control to address challenges like climate change, housing affordability and liveability in response to population growth.

This bill is part of this trend with the state government reducing ownership and management responsibilities of Crown land.

The Crown Land Management Bill gives the minister ultimate power to dispose of Crown land that is not considered State significant. The criteria under which the minister will determine what land is State significant and to be retained are not even in the bill and can change without Parliament’s approval. I welcome amendments in the other place to include these in the regulations, but this is not the same as including criteria like environmental, social, heritage or cultural value in the act.

Even with these criteria there are no guarantees on how decision makers will determine whether to retain land as part of the Crown estate. The bill gives decision makers significant discretion and provides little guidance on how decisions should be made. The minister will have ultimate power to grant a lease, licence, permit, easement or right of way over any parcel of Crown land as the minister sees fit.

The minister’s requirement to give public notice of the intention to sell public land has been removed and while community engagement strategies have been included, the content of these will be determined by the minister with no minimum consultation requirements in the bill.

Of great community concern is the future of Travelling Stock Routes in the Central and Western divisions. Travelling Stock Routes have significantly high biodiversity value and provide vital habitat for endangered and vulnerable flora and fauna. Native animals like koalas use them to travel between forests and national parks and they play a vital carbon sequestration function. The biodiversity values of these parcels of land are much higher than adjacent private land because grazing is periodic and they are not fertilized or ploughed for crops. Travelling Stock Routes are used by bush walkers and bird watchers.

But will their value be assessed in terms of environmental contribution to the state, or will they be considered of local significance to the neighbouring property owners who use them for grazing? The bill provides no guarantees.

If Travelling Stock Routes are sold off and cease to be managed for their environmental and biodiversity values, the state’s already seriously degraded native landscape will be further degraded and our shameful record of species loss will escalate. Salinity and soil erosion of agricultural land will worsen.

I am concerned that this bill will reduce opportunities to make claims for title under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act despite government claims of the opposite. Removing the minister’s requirement to give public notice of the intention to sell public land means Aboriginal land councils will not be alerted about land that is no longer lawfully used or occupied or needed for a public purpose precluding them from making a claim. Once land is no longer Crown land, an Aboriginal land council cannot make a claim under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

And how will Crown land held for public recreation in urban areas be assessed in terms of significance to the state?

Under the existing regime of leases and licences, there are shocking examples of Crown land being commercialised, developed and managed for private benefit at the expense of public outcomes.

Under the existing regime of leases and licences, there are shocking examples of Crown land being commercialised, developed and managed for private benefit at the expense of public benefit.

The Paddington Bowling Club in my electorate, for example, was set aside for recreation and open space, adjacent to Trumper Park.

But the Paddington Bowling Club was managed as a commercial for-profit enterprise, which was the subject of a formal Inquiry under the Registered Clubs Act and investigations over a number of years by police and the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing for breaches of liquor licence and registered clubs conditions. Community members have long alleged that the vulnerable bowling club was used to try to gain access to public land for its development value.

Without any tender or public process, the Paddington Bowling Club site was sublet for commercial operations with the lease transferred to a private company CSKS Holdings. There are allegations that this transfer was improper. Changes to the lease allowed CSKS Holdings to take out a mortgage using this publicly owned land as collateral. After the changes, the company submitted a development application on Crown Land that is dedicated for open space and recreation.

The new lease charges were set based on the Paddington Bowling Club being a non-profit community organisation, despite CSKS Holdings not being a community or sporting club and that commercial use for private gain is not consistent with the lease. Indeed the club appeared to be run as a profitable business – I understand CSKS Holding’s rent was below what it received from sub-leasing the two tennis courts on the land alone – allowing a substantial windfall.

It is alleged that some of the past members of the Paddington Bowling Club board had connections with those who later took over the club operations under CSKS Holdings and that some individuals operated the former Paddington Bowling Club as a private business, paying themselves large payments after the club itself went into financial administration.

The former Deputy Premier commissioned an independent review, which resulted in this matter being referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption. I share community concern that this lease has been poorly managed and there is little faith that anything will be done about what appears to be fraud, misuse of Crown Land and maladministration.

These concerns were uncovered and raised by club members, residents and the adjacent community and repeated representations from former member Clover Moore and myself, not by the government agency with responsibility for the land and the lease.

Under the proposed system to streamline Crown land transfers and sell-offs, it is likely that the Paddington Bowling Club would have been assessed as a commercial venture and sold off to the lessees. There is widespread community concern that this will be the future of land despite an historic dedication for non-profit recreation and open space.

The bill facilitates the transfer of Crown land to councils, under which the Crown Lands Act will not apply, allowing councils to manage them in any way they want. Community land can be reclassified operational following a public hearing and sold off for development.  Some councils will do a good job but there are particular concerns if land is transferred to cash-strapped councils and super councils which will have less grassroots representation.

The state has a role in providing space for recreation for present and future generations and ensuring that recreational opportunities are not lost with population growth or under economic pressure.

State ownership of Crown land is about protecting community access, and environmental, social, heritage and cultural values. Public stewardship ensures future opportunities to reserve land as national park or under Aboriginal land title, it protects biodiversity and recreational space and has done so for over a century. The bill puts all this at risk and I cannot support it.

There is a campaign calling for debate and vote on this bill to be postponed. This is complex legislation and the community has not had an opportunity to contribute to a draft bill: there was a white paper over two years ago and then a final bill before Parliament with two weeks to assess it. I support the campaign and call on the government to withdraw vote and debate, to allow community consultation on the bill over the summer break.

I oppose the bill.

Let's work together to celebrate and protect our great city!