Democracy repeatedly sabotaged in heritage, arts and cultural planning

Sabotage – to destroy, damage or disrupt, especially by secret means.

Parramatta Council has published a cultural discussion paper and is inviting community responses by April 7. Culture and Our City – a cultural discussion paper for Parramatta’s CBD is seeking feedback and ideas to contribute to a new cultural plan. I urge you to read it and respond. The plan is intended to guide arts and cultural directions, over the next five years and beyond. Somewhat unexpectedly, I found myself reacting with anger and frustration. Yes, I had been a willing participant in a focus group for the discussion paper, but my frustration was not with the research or the principles articulated in the draft.
Bear with me, this requires some explanation.
The research was commissioned by the new City of Parramatta Council, which is administered by an appointee of the NSW Government. There will be no democratically elected council until September, by which time the state government will have run the show since May 2016. No government would allow the release of a document in its name without its approval and authorisation and it shows in this one. The parameters of the research are restricted to Parramatta’s CBD and do not include the rest of Parramatta’s local government area, including the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct. For almost 70 years, the Parramatta community has been tantalised with promises of cultural opportunity and then betrayed more often than not in their implementation.
According to the 1948 County of Cumberland Scheme released by the NSW Government, Parramatta was to be the most important centre after Sydney. The only drawback at the time was the lack of adequate cultural facilities in Parramatta. I was an active part of a push that led to the opening of Riverside Theatres in Parramatta in 1988, above (Sydney Festival 17 photo), but still there was no gallery. Then the state government, under Labor Premier Bob Carr, invited artists and community members to discussion groups in the late 1990s about the future of the Cumberland Hospital site, now described as the North Parramatta or Fleet Street Heritage Precinct. Opportunities were sketched for future artists studios, music and dance rehearsal spaces, heritage and community facilities – and on the outskirts – medium density residential development – not unlike current proposals by North Parramatta Residents Action Group.
Nothing more was heard until Parramatta Council released its Arts Facilities & Cultural Places Framework (2005) – Parramatta: Identity, Contemporary Culture & Prosperity. “The Parramatta Arts Facilities & Cultural Places Framework 2005,” it said, “will assist Council in establishing a clear direction for the planning, the provision and resourcing of a broad range of arts infrastructure & cultural places for the City over the next ten years. The vitality of Parramatta comes down to establishing cultural assets with a point of difference, that are unique, reflect the community and complement rather than replicate the rest of Sydney’s cultural resources. The City must also build its cultural identity and creative industries to attract, retain, validate, and acknowledge the role of artists in our community, as well as to generate new wealth and prosperity for Parramatta.”
Then Lord Mayor of Parramatta, David Borger, was the political champion of this framework, and officiated at the opening of Parramatta Artists Studios – the foundation component of the framework, where production has continued to flourish. The framework stated there would be three sites for the placement of facilities –
Cluster 1 Venue—Civic Place (the administrative heart of the CBD)
Cluster 2 Venue—Old Kings School (on the bank of Parramatta River and across the road from Riverside Theatres)
Cluster 3 Venue—North Parramatta Mixed Use Site (i.e. North Parramatta Heritage Precinct)
Twelve years later, not one of these facilities has been achieved. The first was not so much a matter of the state government as a fierce struggle between council, landholders and developers. Civic Place, now known as Parramatta Square, left (artist’s impression), is finally under construction, but there is no mention of a major gallery or exhibition space. This is primarily the council’s responsibility.
Determined advocacy by artists, the Western Sydney Arts Lobby and proposals for adaptations of the Old King’s School buildings, continued right up to the March state election in 2011. Then a week before the election, Labor Premier Kristina Keneally announced $24.6 million for the refurbishment and transformation of the heritage buildings into galleries and spaces for arts groups – intended for regional and not just local use, see photo below. The government was defeated and after six months the new Liberal/National Party Government failed to allocate funding and claimed it was an unfunded election promise. In 2015, the government announced the precinct would become a primary school, which is now under construction.
In the meantime, the state government announced the decision to subdivide and sell much of the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct for high rise development.  It claims the sale of one of Australia’s most important historic sites is the only way it can finance preservation of its heritage. A framework masterplan was to be developed by the government agency UrbanGrowth NSW. Local residents were appalled. Many of them lived close by in a Parramatta Council heritage listed zone and by 2013 were banding together in protest. One of them explains their distress, with relevant links:
“There are over 10 conservation areas in Parramatta district and these all have residents. The contradictions between what’s supported and allowed for property developers and for those who are resident in the conservation areas affects more people than just those adjacent to the high density/high rise planned in what’s called the ‘Parramatta North Urban Transformation’. List of conservation areas link. Link to straightforward map of North Parramatta Conservation Area (there are 2 parts of this one area). This map is worth a close look.  The current North Parramatta Heritage area between  O’Connell and Villiers St is very close to 90,000 sq metres in size.
“Regulations governing what can be done by property owners are in the Parramatta Local Environmental Plan 2011   (Current version for 23 September 2016 to date Part 5 Clause 5.10) Parramatta LEP requires owners to organise and pay for all archaeological surveys prior to submitting DAs for approval and construction of a simple garage or shed on their land as it is in a conservation area where it is anticipated features/items of archaeological significance can be found in the land.  Surveys have not been done of the entire conservation area so it falls to each individual to do instance-by-instance. (We can’t even dig a vegetable bed.)
“The inequity and hypocrisy around the different circumstances of those in conservation areas compared to property developers who plan to profit from high rise development in recent rezoning/planning is stark.”
In June 2014, then NSW Premier Mike Baird announced a cultural ambassador for western Sydney, Liz Ann Macgregor, left, the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA). For many years, under her leadership, the MCA has worked closely with a “terrific network of galleries, organisations and artists in Western Sydney doing innovative and highly engaging work.” She was keen to bring their work to closer government attention. She was also keen to bring the services of Sydney museums and galleries to the west. In February 2015, Mike Baird announced the sale of the Powerhouse Museum at Darling Harbour and its relocation to Parramatta. To many it was seen merely as a land grab for developers and resistance by Save the Powerhouse supporters was fierce.
Nonetheless, the Powerhouse move was seen by others as symbolic of the state government’s commitment to western Sydney and enthusiastically embraced by David Borger, now the Western Sydney director of the Sydney Business Chamber, and other civic leaders and, more cautiously, by the Western Sydney Arts Lobby. Anything, after all, was better than nothing. Later that year a Deloitte report, commissioned by Sydney Business Chamber – Western Sydney, and three western Sydney councils – Parramatta, Penrith and Liverpool, Building Western Sydney’s Cultural Economy – A Key to Sydney’s Success, recommended relocation of the Powerhouse Museum to western Sydney.
Since then, there has been much debate about what funds the sale of the Darling Harbour site, left, would actually generate, the cost of relocation and whether Parramatta Council should simply donate the announced new site, it already owns, on the banks of the Parramatta River. The current fiasco over the state government’s authorisation of demolition of the city’s main swimming pool to make way for the expansion of a sports stadium is a guide to what may come. Parramatta Council acquiesced without protest, before the administrator was appointed last year. No financial compensation has been made for the loss of the popular pool and no state funds committed to the building of a new one. A new aquatic centre is said to be two to five years away. Sabotage of community interests now seems standard practice.
A year ago, exchange visits between Save the Powerhouse Museum and NPRAG members led to mutual support for each other’s positions and SPM supporting a proposal for a museum unique to Parramatta and the region. The visitors were gobsmacked by the volume and evidence of Australia’s colonial history in the Fleet Street Heritage Precinct and the site’s treasury of thousands of years of Aboriginal custodianship.
Last October, Liz-Ann McGregor was the guest speaker at a Western Sydney University event – the launch of a Bachelor of Creative Industries. The new degree combines majoring in a chosen field within the creative industries, with minors in business management and law. Liz Ann spoke in the presence of WSU Vice-Chancellor Professor Barney Glover, who was also the newly appointed president of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) Trust. The trust will play a pivotal role in the Powerhouse’s relocation to Parramatta (see artist’s impression). She spoke of the current dispiriting atmosphere that surrounds financial support for the arts at state and federal levels and internationally and the likelihood of little change in the foreseeable future. She spoke of her own frustration when arguing with ministers for better support for western Sydney and meeting with a wall of resistance.
In this climate, a long term project like MCA’s C3West offers a model of alternative approaches that have been bringing artists, businesses and community together for more than a decade. A course like the new Bachelor of Creative Industries can equip artists with the financial and marketing skills to enter into these relationships. It takes a long time for artists and business to learn to talk each other’s language, she said. It’s a slow process, but artists can often articulate issues and offer possible solutions.
Under Suzette Meade’s leadership North Parramatta Residents Action Group has been listening to community and working with other organisations to develop an economically viable alternative proposal for the Fleet Street Precinct. They want genuine community consultation. Their supporters and collaborators number in the thousands, but neither state government nor Parramatta Council are really listening.
Is it any wonder she wrote to Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore last week appealing for her help? In a neat summary Elizabeth Farrelly wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald
“This week, when North Parramatta Residents’ Action Group begged Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore to “adopt the community of Parramatta, as we are left without a democratically elected council” there certainly was envy. It was the envy of people deliberately disenfranchised at a moment of great change, people gazing wistfully at a place where local government is strong, free and fair. It was an “I’ll have what she’s having” moment.
This envy is entirely justified.
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“Parramatta is reeling from a governelopment boom: 3000 apartments on its irreplaceable heritage precinct (Cumberland Hospital, 1818 Female Factory); the $2 billion ultra-ugly Parramatta Square project behind the old town hall; the proposed new Powerhouse, or whatever fragment of it finally drifts up-river; the demolition of the Pirtek Stadium and pool for a bigger, more lucrative stadium (no pool); plus masses of private development like Meriton’s 54-storey Altitude, the city’s tallest tower, on the old David Jones site. Barely a squeak of affordable housing anywhere, and the people held voiceless, all the while, by a government-appointed city administrator.”
It makes better sense to create a cultural hub celebrating indigenous and migration history (NPRAG’s Artist’s impression in their Alternative Vision, above)
I’m off for three weeks to New Zealand. Family members there tell me local governments are guided by democratically elected advisory committees and it is one of the world’s most democratic countries. Now there’s an idea!
NOTE: This article was originally posted on Western Sydney Frontier and can be found here.