New law set to benefit government building sell-off

The Department of Lands building in Bridge Street. Photo: Peter RaeGovernment legislation that would allow the Department of Planning to override the NSW Heritage Council’s approval control over the redevelopment of heritage-listed sites is expected to increase the value of Sydney’s sandstone Department of Lands and Department of Education buildings.
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The O’Farrell government said on Tuesday the historic buildings in Bridge Street were up for sale, along with the Ausgrid building in George Street and vacant land in Waterloo Road, Macquarie Park.

The sales are expected to generate about $200 million.

A spokesman for the acting Minister for Finance and Services, Andrew Constance, said the buildings would be sold off and not leased back by the government.

Premier Barry O’Farrell has been seeking interests from hotel companies to buy the Bridge Street buildings.

Draft legislation proposes to allow the Department of Planning’s director-general to take over the Heritage Council’s power to approve any redevelopment of heritage sites.

Heritage expert David Logan said, if enacted, the legislation would empower the Department of Planning to take over the Heritage Council’s approval role.

“If that were to occur, the Heritage Council would not necessarily have heritage control over what happens on the sites to be sold,” Mr Logan said.

“The decision to sell the sandstone buildings demonstrates why it is so important that there is adequate heritage protection irrespective of whether the buildings are in private or public use.

“If they are used for a hotel, they may want to add additional storeys.”

Mr Logan, who is also a member of the Heritage Council, but not speaking on its behalf, said: “If people think there are fewer controls on the buildings, they might be prepared to pay more for them.

“It is important that each building has a conservation management plan prepared in advance of sale, so that prospective purchasers have a good idea of what they would or would not be allowed to do.”

The government gained $405 million from the sale of seven other government buildings earlier this year.

Mr Constance said divestment of the assets reinforced the government’s commitment to only owning assets that support core government services.

“The sandstone buildings in Bridge Street have the potential for a range of uses – both are located centrally in the business district, close to Circular Quay and all transport services,” he said.

“The current heritage and planning controls in place for these two landmark buildings will ensure their unique nature is respected and protected.

The opposition spokeswoman for heritage, Barbara Perry, said under the government’s proposed legislation the planning minister would be able to “swat away heritage concerns with the stroke of a pen”.

“Mr O’Farrell must guarantee that the Heritage Council will retain control over the future of these iconic buildings. Nothing less is acceptable,” she said. “One wonders, if the motive of the O’Farrell government in removing the oversight of the Heritage Council is a naked attempt to fatten the assets for sale?”

Opposition Leader John Robertson said the O’Farrell government was on a fire sale.

He said the government was taking a very short term view of what is in the longer-term interests of the state, and was “undermining the role of the Heritage Council in this state”.’

Sam Haddad, the director-general of the NSW Department of Planning, said its involvement in specific development applications would only occur in the case of delays “or if there is conflicting advice”.

“This will mean little change from the current system and we will put in place a protocol with the Heritage Council to implement this approach,” he said.

However, Corinne Fisher, convenor of the Better Planning Network, said: “The ‘musts’ written into law trump any optional policy or promise.

“Notwithstanding Mr Haddad’s comments, what the NSW government’s Exposure Planning Bill 2013 says is that the final, binding decision-maker for development of all state heritage items will be the director-general of Planning, not the NSW Heritage Council.

“The Planning Bill 2013 turns off the Heritage Act for all state-listed heritage items, making the Heritage Act and the Heritage Council’s heritage protection role effectively meaningless.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.

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