How ICAC’s Macquarie Street massacre could affect Strathfield

The extraordinary toll on Liberal State ministers wrought by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings may just have a sliver of a silver lining for Strathfield. At least, in the case of one long-running major issue.

New Premier Mike Baird was one of the party big guns wheeled out by Charles Casuscelli during his successful campaign to unseat Virginia Judge from the Strathfield constituency two years ago. The normally cautious Mr Baird, who was then shadow treasurer, proclaimed himself a big supporter of the proposed development of Strathfield Town Centre.

And in another visit he described it as a “once in a generation” opportunity for the community to revitalise the CBD with offices, shops and an improved bus-rail interchange. He even promised to push for the council’s concept plan to be fast-tracked to a list of community projects.

“I love the vision,” he told the Scene, adding he would raise the bus-rail interchange with Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian and talk to Landcom, the government’s master planner, about becoming involved.

That was 25 months ago. Today, Ms Berejiklian is his deputy and Strathfield still needs some $600,000 to complete detailed plans and begin negotiating a private-public funding partnership.

So will Mr Baird, now sitting at the Premier’s desk, lift the phone and start the ball rolling?

Mayor Daniel Bott certainly hopes so. This week he sent Mr Baird an invitation to meet in Strathfield and discuss progress. We don’t read too much into the fact that his spokesperson, Mark Tobin, has not responded to our queries. It has, after all, been a busy week.

But Mr Casuscelli told the Scene: “I will certainly raise it with the Premier and try to progress this.”

Two other ministers dealing with major issues affecting Strathfield have also left their offices in Macquarie Street: Don Page, in charge of local government and seen as a strong supporter of reform; and Brad Hazzard, the flint-like planning head whose department overruled many of Strathfield’s attempts to maintain its unique character.

The Independent Local Government Review Panel, headed by Professor Graham Sansom, has recommended in its final report that Strathfield be merged with Burwood, Ashfield, Canada Bay, Marrickville and Leichardt.

But after former premier Barry O’Farrell told the Scene he felt no one had made out a case for amalgamation, many felt the issue was destined to whither and die. After all, with just 11 months to go before the next state poll, a risky policy change could cost the election.

Mr Baird, however, has proved more equivocal. In response to calls from former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett to “sack all NSW councillors” before a “wave of councils go broke”, Mr Baird told The Daily Telegraph he was determined to “deliver modern and effective local government that the people of NSW deserve”. And while he repeated Mr O’Farrell’s pledge of no forced amalgamation before the next election, he added: “I hear the community’s frustration with local government loud and clear.’’

It was a line echoed by a spokesperson for the new Local Government Minister, Paul Toole, a Nationals MP who has already suggested council mergers will make the local government sector more efficient.

Mr Toole was on Evans Shire Council when it was forced to merge with Bathurst in 2005. He became mayor and a strong advocate of the success of the merger.

He told The Sydney Morning Herald after his appointment: “My experience as a long-serving councillor taught me some councils, including metropolitan councils, do have the potential for merging with others to achieve greater efficiencies. “However, any changes will be developed in partnership with councils and their communities.”

In response to questions from the Scene, his spokesperson said: “The minister believes that all councils should take the necessary steps to become financially viable… the minister is encouraging councils to consider the recommendations and is open to and enthusiastic about proposals of voluntary mergers. The minister believes in structural reforms for local government – there need to be changes for the better.”

Any changes to the policies on planning are more difficult to discern. For Strathfield, balancing the needs of quality and the demands of residents for the character of the municipality to be maintained with relatively low-rise buildings, the big question will be if new Planning Minister Pru Goward is more inclined to be sensitive to the needs of individual communities.

The changes to the planning laws, so unpopular even Mr Hazzard failed to bulldoze them through, may well be off the agenda until the state election next March is out of the way.

But quite where Ms Goward stands on issues such as the recreational land rezoned by the Planning Department at the Enfield Intermodal Centre, or the court case involving the Australian Catholic University, is yet to be tested.

Her biggest challenge, according to political commentators, is the reform of the planning agenda in NSW. One of her first interviews with her local paper, The Goulburn Post, did indeed show a more sensitive side emerging: “My focus is entirely on planning and ensuring there is a healthier balance between community concerns and development.”

Strathfield residents would certainly applaud that.


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