Crown land … Bondi Beach
NSW local councils and environment groups have welcomed news that there will be a parliamentary inquiry into Crown land and called for an immediate moratorium on any Crown and public land being sold or developed before the report comes out.
The NSW Upper House inquiry, announced late last week, will attempt to address fears raised about the Crown Land Bill before it is tabled in Parliament, including concerns that local councils could collapse under extra responsibilities for land and roads and that it will become easier to sell off Crown Land to private interests.
The inquiry will examine:
- Crown land in NSW, its uses and management
- The adequacy of community consultation on commercial use and disposal of Crown land
- The best way of protecting and managing Crown land in the future
- Aboriginal land claims over Crown land and how to improve Aboriginal involvement in its management
The deadline for submissions is July 24 with a report due by mid-October.
Crown land includes sports and recreational land, waterfront land, Crown public roads, beaches, caravan parks, travelling stock routes, green space and recreation facilities and cemeteries. It makes up about 34 million hectares or around 42 per cent of NSW but does not include national parks or state forests.
The new Act would divide Crown lands into state and local lands and transfer all local land to councils. The remainder (classed as Crown lands) will be transferred to the relevant government department to be managed.
It is a complex area of legislation. The Crown Lands Division, part of NSW Trade and Investment, administers the land through a mix of contracts, tenures, leases and devolution to local trusts managed by community groups and local councils.
Local government currently manages around one-quarter of the state’s 33,000 crown reserves, which is land set aside on behalf of the community for a wide range of public purposes including environmental and heritage protection, recreation and sport, open space, community halls, special events and government services. Councils are generally positive about the transferral of ownership to them, believing it should reduce bureaucracy and make it easier to manage the land.
However, councils are concerned that the NSW government will devolve other ‘land of local interest’ to them and give them responsibility for Crown public roads without commensurate funding or the choice of which parcels of land to accept or reject.
Crown public roads, sometimes referred to as ‘paper roads’, provide public access to privately owned and leasehold lands where little or no subdivision has occurred since the early nineteenth century. Most have not been formed or constructed and councils could decide not to maintain some of them.
There is some concern among councils too that travelling stock routes in regional areas will be split up, compromising the network and affecting vegetation, biodiversity and Aboriginal land rights.
Shadow Minister for Lands Mick Veitch said the Upper House inquiry was necessary because there was so much uncertainty surrounding how the Crown Lands Act would work and what local councils would be taking on.
“The government suggests that the proposed Crown Lands Act is the biggest shake-up of Crown lands administration in 110 years,” Mr Veitch said. “It’s critical that the Upper House undertakes some sort of review prior to the Act coming in.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions. The biggest issue is the resources and funding required for councils to manage Crown land.”
Mr Veitch said there was “a considerable degree of concern” over what the $24 million allocated over four years for Crown lands in the NSW Budget actually covered, whether it was for the political process or had a broader application.
He said there were question marks over whether councils would be able to designate Crown land as ‘operational’ and sell it, alongside confusion about the levels and longevity of funding for councils owning and managing Crown land.
“When I speak to councils about this they are very concerned about the unknowns and they would really appreciate some knowledge around what is going to happen,” he said. “Most worry about being allocated Crown land to manage without the required resources and funding.”
Mr Veitch said that the outcome of the process was also heavily dependent on the location of each council.
“Obviously Crown land along the coast is much more valuable than Crown land around the Far West, such as around Moree and Young, so that allows cross-subsidisation. The inland councils would be concerned about being asked to manage the Crown estate, unless there is a long-term funding solution in place.”
The Nature Conservation Council of NSW (NCC), amongst other environment groups, has raised concerns that councils will be allowed to sell off Crown lands to bankroll other projects, especially poorer councils in the Central and Western parts of the state.
This is a legitimate concern, given the extra burden that taking on more roads and land could place on councils, most of which are already struggling with a huge maintenance and repair infrastructure gap. Newly merged councils are also unable to raise their rates outside the ratings trajectory of former council areas.
The NCC is also concerned that Crown lands transferred to local councils will not have the social and environmental protections guaranteed under the Crown Lands Act but come under local government legislation, which may be less stringent and is currently under review.
The Greens Crown lands spokesperson David Shoebridge said the inquiry would give community campaigners a chance to speak directly to Parliament about crown land issues during public hearings.
“All across NSW community and environment groups have been campaigning to protect their local parks, reserves and foreshore lands from privatisation in isolation.
“Whether it is the King Edward Park in Newcastle, the Paddington Bowling Club, the Terrace Reserve or Caravan Park at Brunswick Heads, the pattern of mismanagement has been the same and it must be reviewed.
“Public land being cannot continue to be eyed off by private interests for private profits, it needs to be protected and kept in public hands.” Mr Shoebridge said.
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