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‘Backward step’: NSW government slams Commonwealth over Harbour review

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A federal-state tiff over the historic properties, which also include Sub Base Platypus and the Macquarie Lightstation, could hinder the need for close cooperation to develop the Harbour as a top tourist destination.

The report, for instance, identified the pressing need for $47 million to be spent over the next four years to repair crumbling buildings, including falling windows at the School of Artillery at North Head Sanctuary and to restore or partially demolish cranes on Cockatoo Island that present “risks to safety and heritage values”.

“It is clear that in the absence of additional funding the Harbour Trust will need to take some hard decisions, including on whether Cockatoo Island can continue to receive visitors in the future,” the review said.

Mr Stokes said the state was “more than willing to step up” with funds but “we were rebuffed”. Having separate jurisdictions over different historic Harbour sites only added to “costs, duplication and confusion”.

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‘There should be a single vision and a single narrative for the Harbour,” he said. “This is so important for the future of the city and the future of the country.”

The minister added he had only “found out by accident” of the review’s release on Thursday night after a staff member had seen the Herald‘s report go up.

Mr Stokes said he’d sought closer engagement with the Morrison government and the Trust but was “stone-walled on every step of the way”, including “a promised meeting” with federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley “that never materialised”.

Deteriorating infrastructure means that without large injections of money Cockatoo Island (in the background) may no longer be able to receive visitors, an independent review found.

Deteriorating infrastructure means that without large injections of money Cockatoo Island (in the background) may no longer be able to receive visitors, an independent review found.Credit:Nick Moir

Separately, the report’s recommendations – “broadly” supported by Minister Ley – including the granting of longer leases offered encouragement to private investors such as financial Danny Goldberg, who had previously proposed developing Cockatoo Island in its entirely into an “art island”.

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“We are disappointed [at some of the recommendations which rule out, for instance, a whole-of-island lease] but accept that the reviewers have considered the views of all stakeholders,” Mr Goldberg said.

“The recommendation of lease terms up to 35 years is probably something we can work with,” Mr Goldberg said. “[It] would not necessarily be a deal-breaker if a substantial portion [of the island] was able to be leased, and there were negotiated safeguards and clear understandings around what else the island was being used for.”

For her part, Ms Ley defended the Commonwealth’s continued control of the Harbour sites, saying “people don’t want NSW to have control of these assets”.

“All I heard when I walked around North Head Sanctuary was ‘don’t let the state government control this area,” she said.

Ms Ley said the government was “unlocking” $9 million sitting in the Trust’s accounts following the sale of Markham Close properties. Further funding would have to go through the “normal budget processes”, she said.

Fellow federal Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman, who helped draft the Trust’s original plans during the Howard government years, said the public had more confidence in the federal government than the state ones to manage the Harbour’s sites.

People know where the boundary of state control is because “that’s where the weeds start”, he said, adding that Circular Quay was “the most dramatic example” of poor state government management”.

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The Trust had become “a dynamic and groundbreaking organisation”, Mr Zimmerman said.

Joseph Carrozzi, the chair of the Trust, said he was “very pleased” that the review had recommended sites remain in the custody of the Trust.

“To be frank, I’ve been disappointed over the past four years at the level of engagement with the state on the work that we’re doing and the sites that we have,” Mr Carrozzi said, adding Canberra wanted the Trust to have a “strong collaborative partnership” with the state.

Jill L’Estrange, president of the Headland Preservation Group, welcomed the review’s recommendations particularly that landmarks must “be protected and should not fall victim to commercial ventures that are not sympathetic to the environmental and heritage values of the land”.

“We remain concerned about the long-term funding of the sites, which may require $200 – $300 million over the next decade,” Ms L’Estrange said.

“The issue of long-term leasing is still a major concern,” he said. “In our view, a lease of 35 years, which can be further extended, is dangerously close to privatisation of public land.”

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