Saturday, 24 October 2009

Hunter Residents Defeat Overdevelopment

By Duroyan Fertl

The NSW Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO) and community democracy activists celebrated a second victory in a month on October 19, when the State Government withdrew its approval for the Huntlee New Town Project in the Lower Hunter.

The development, near Branxton in the Lower Hunter, was to build 7,200 houses, and was the subject of a controversial 7,000 hectare land-swap with developers Huntlee Holdings, similar to the failed development at nearby Catherine Hill Bay and Gwandalan.

Last month, the Land and Environment court kyboshed those two developments, declaring the approval “biased”, and described the actions of then-Planning Minister Frank Sartor as amounting to a “land bribe”.

The Minister had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the developers well before applications had been lodged for development approval in exchange for conservation land being handed over to the government.

EDO solicitor Melissa Jolley, who represented residents opposed to the Branxton project – organised as Sweetwater Action Group – described the land-swaps in both cases as “virtually identical”.

As in Gwandaland, an MOU was signed between the Minister and the Branxton developers, swapping development approval for land of environmental significance. On October 19, however, the Planning Minister, Kristina Keneally, withdrew both the approval and the rezoning for the land, before the court had a chance to overturn approval.

The Minister also admitted that granting the approval – made under the controversial and undemocratic Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, which bypasses local councils – was unlawful.

The decision has virtually put an end to direct ministerial approval of any other major developments in the Lower Hunter, but it doesn’t put an end to the government’s plans to house more than 160,000 more people in the region over the next two decades under the Lower Hunter Regional Strategy.

In fact, the $1.8 billion Branxton development, as well as numerous others at Catherine Hill Bay and close by, could still go ahead despite recent events, as they will be referred by the Minister to an independent committee, handpicked by the government.

The development approvals throughout the Hunter also carries the stench of political corruption. Both Hardie Holdings – which part-owns Huntlee – and Catherine Hill Bay developers Rose Group donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the NSW ALP in the lead up to the 2007 election, and shady Labor identity Graham Richardson has been retained as a lobbyist for Hardie.

Greens Councillor for Cessnock, James Ryan, has called for a new Lower Hunter Regional Strategy to be drafted, free from MOUs “infected” with developer donations.

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