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SHFT Independent Review Submission

31 January 2020

Carolyn McNally & Erin Flaherty

Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Review

GPO Box 787

Canberra ACT 2601

Dear Carolyn McNally & Erin Flaherty

RE: Sydney Harbour Federation Trust: Independent review of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

I write to you in response to your invitation to provide input into the review of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust (the Trust). As a Senator for New South Wales in the Commonwealth Parliament, I recognise the assets held by the trust are national assets which attract people from all over the world to Northern Sydney.

When the camera pans around Sydney, it starts at North Head. Trust assets are iconic, beautiful and unique. The preservation and maintenance of the natural environment is essential in maintaining Sydney's place as Australia's global city.  

The Howard Government, in its 1998 election commitment, Protecting the Sydney Harbour Foreshore, outlined its commitment to preserving the historical and cultural significance of Sydney Harbour foreshore for future generations. The Howard Government announced that, as the Department of Defence relocates from certain sites around Sydney Harbour, it would establish a Trust to assume management and planning responsibilities for those sites.

Upon being enshrined in legislation in 2001, the Trust was required to manage sites under its control with the objectives of;

  1. ensuring that management of Trust land contributes to preserving the amenity of the Sydney Harbour region;
  2. conserving the environmental and heritage values of Trust land, and establishing suitable land as a park;
  3. maximising public access to Trust land; and
  4. Cooperating with other Commonwealth, New South Wales and local government bodies.

With the Trust now approaching 20 years of age, the independent review is an opportunity to take stock and ensure that arrangements are fit for the future.

During this period, the Trust has achieved a great deal in creating a network of parklands across Sydney Harbour, and more specifically from North Sydney to North Head through restoration of bushland and heritage buildings for community and commercial uses, such as the local business hub at Middle Head, Mosman or the sanctuary at North Head, Manly.

The Trust has been an effective body in ensuring that the Commonwealth's duty to rehabilitate the former Defence sites is fulfilled, and that the sites are returned to the people of New South Wales and Australia in good order and with a sustainable financial base for their ongoing management.

The following will speak to the terms of reference for your review on a principles basis, including three of the subject areas in particular which you will advise the government on; governance, completion of rehabilitation and partnership opportunities and conservation.

Governance

Existing governance plans for the Trust sites and the operation of the Trust itself are unique. They recognise the historical and cultural significance of the sites as well as community and Government expectations around the management and ownership of the sites.  

The overall Comprehensive Plan and site specific plans developed and implemented by the Trust have provided a framework that gives greater certainty to the future direction of Trust land as well as a structure to the work of the Trust with respect to delivery and subsequent management of sites once open for public access.

It is important to recognise input given by the community in developing any current or future plans for sites held by the Trust. Community engagement has been a key pillar of the Trust’s operations since inception. Based on historical performance, it has been able to ensure community aspirations for the Trust’s sites are adequately considered and reinforced in legislation that governs the management of these sites.

Additionally, legislation confers powers on the Trust in order for it to carry out its functions. These powers are more extensive than those afforded to local government and this, in my view has contributed to the effectiveness of the Trust in delivering timely outcomes.

Co-operating with councils as stated earlier is a legislated objective of the Harbour Trust, and it continues to do this with relevant councils including Northern Beaches, Mosman and North Sydney. This legislative framework together with the approval and planning process that sit outside the NSW system for which surrounding land is subject to, is necessary to ensure each planning proposal properly recognises the national historic importance of these sites to the people of Australia.

Completion of Rehabilitation

The Trust should be able to generate adequate revenue to meet its ongoing operations and maintenance costs, with an exception for costly once off activities such as decontamination of outstanding sites held by the Trust.  

The conservation and management of Trust assets should be designed in a manner which preserves the historical, cultural and environmental significance of each site whilst enabling ability for the Trust to operate as a sustainable, self-funded, operation in perpetuity.

To self-fund rehabilitation and operations, the Trust should explore revenue models options such as long term leases and partnerships in accordance with the objectives of the Trust, which as the government has made clear, are about rehabilitating, protecting and preserving these unique sites for the benefit of the whole community.

Over the life of the Trust, it has demonstrated to be effective at balancing financial return with public access and ownership of the sites, as well as conservation, rehabilitation and improving amenity. Greater autonomy with respect to longer term leases should be considered to self-fund future rehabilitation.

At present, the New South Minister for Arts has an ability to sign off 45 year long term leases for cultural assets. Consideration should be given to allow the Trust similar ability to better assist the self-funding objective of the Trust through the use of long term lease agreements.

Additionally, the transfer of existing state-held land parcels near or adjoining Trust assets, such as those held by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service at North Head should be explored. Enabling the Trust to plan and deliver ‘whole of precinct’ designs instead of piecemeal where state held land exists will result in better outcomes for the public with reactivation of public space.

The Trust has a proven track record in actively collaborating with a wide range of organisations for major events that draw and captivate visitors from around Australia and abroad. This approach has contributed to the popularity of sites reopened to the public under the Trust’s oversight attracting nearly 1.8 million visitors each year.

Additionally, the Trust should be congratulated on their track record in working with special interest groups to deliver community focused outcomes and preserve the cultural and historical values of the Trust sites.

Local community groups, such as the volunteer based Community Advisory and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group are one example of how the Trust aims to reflect the needs, wants and aspirations of the local communities into the plan for each site.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory group is intended to ensure Indigenous culture is reflected in the historically significant sites under the Trust’s stewardship.

Conclusion

The Trust has been subject to changing community expectations and financial arrangements for the Trust since its foundation. Since inception, the Trust’s role has broadened.

Initially, it was a planning and rehabilitation agency. Today, it is responsible for the long-term management and programming of heritage buildings, cultural sites, bushland and open space for community enjoyment and recreation.

Unlike other cultural and parkland agencies, the Trust does not receive ongoing financial support from the Government and is largely required to self-fund costly decontamination and rehabilitation programs. While the Trust has demonstrated competency in being able to generate a revenue stream for reinvestment in works complementary to adaptive reuse of buildings, ability to fully self-fund remediation works due to legislative constraints such as lease terms remain.

It is of critical importance that our most prized sites in Sydney harbour continue to be rehabilitated and made accessible to the public, whilst maintaining a robust dialogue and discussion with community to ensure historical, cultural and environmental interpretation is upheld.

The protection of our harbour foreshores should enjoy bipartisan support.

I strongly recommend the continuation of the Trust. Its ongoing work is critical in the preservation and protection of the historical and cultural significance of the greatest harbour in the world, Sydney Harbour.

Summary of Recommendations

  1. The Trust should be preserved in perpetuity;
  2. The mandate of historical, environmental and cultural preservation must be maintained; and
  3. Enhanced revenue models should be explored such as long term leases, consistent with the intent of the Trust.

I look forward to further opportunities to engage in the review.

Yours sincerely

SENATOR ANDREW BRAGG

Liberal Senator for New South Wales

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