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Don’t be fooled, the ‘Westmead Place Strategy’ puts lipstick on a pig

Ours is a government of many plans. Indeed, such is the profusion of plans, so vast is their coverage and so thick and fast their arrival one almost suspects deliberate obfuscation. (I’m reminded of that scene in Harry Potter where a conspiracy of owls sends a million letters into the muggle house’s every orifice). In all this multiplicity, though, all this rampant “building Sydney’s future”, there’s just one discernible idea. Innovation.

Tech-hubs have deluged inner Sydney, designating everything from Eveleigh through Central to White Bay an “innovation corridor”. But if western Sydney was feeling any FOMO in the innovation department, it shouldn’t worry. Pretty soon, if the plans are to be believed, and just upriver from the new flood-prone Powerhouse-to-be, Parramatta will have its own 250-hectare “health and innovation district”.

Cumberland Hospital, which gets swallowed whole in the Westmead Place Strategy

Cumberland Hospital, which gets swallowed whole in the Westmead Place StrategyCredit:Tony Walters

It’s all set out in the 81-page draft Westmead Place Strategy. The name makes it sound harmless, a collection of landscape fixes for that woebegone hospital campus. Be not fooled. It’s not about place, it’s not strategic and it’s certainly not harmless, less concerned to fix the hospital than expand it to 10 times its already considerable size. It’s not even innovative. Far from it. This is grubby old business as usual.

What it really is, this Place Strategy, is a cloak for stuffing as much development as possible into the fragile, treasured Cumberland Hospital precinct, part of which is prposed for world heritage-listing.

The new plan reduces the whole of the Fleet Street, Cumberland Hospital and Female Factory site to Westmead’s “sub-precinct 7”, covering more than half of it in “mixed use” – university, retail, commercial and residential. This has driven the normally mild National Trust to phrases like “totally dismayed”, “totally reject” and “deliberately misleading”. It has Parramatta’s Sisters of Mercy warning that “the soul of such an historic place as Parramatta should be preserved, honoured and celebrated” and citing Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’: “Ecology … involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense.” You don’t often find popes in planning objections.

We knew that the push was on. It was clear in 2016, when the government sacked Parramatta Council and installed as commissioner former Liberal minister’s daughter and ex-Landcom executive Amanda Chadwick. It became even clearer on July 10, 2017, when Commissioner Chadwick unilaterally approved 1300 pages of Parramatta development and infrastructure projects including the “urban transformation” of the Cumberland Hospital precinct and its ruthless bisection by light rail. It was done in a matter of minutes. No voting. No dissent. “Resolved, Chadwick.”

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Chadwick had left Landcom with a big payout (“the cheque was big and I get a new start,” she wrote to colleagues) after being accused of bullying. She had no apparent difficulty bullying Parramatta into handing its most precious heritage fabric over to the UrbanGrowth jackbooters and was soon rewarded with a big job, running affordable housing for the Department of Planning.

“As Administrator of the City of Parramatta Council,″ cooed the department, “Ms Chadwick has achieved a 10-day reduction in median housing Development Application approval times, making her a perfect fit for this position.” Never mind the quality. Never mind democracy. Never mind that a nodding puppet could do as well. Just feeeeel the efficiency.

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