The stadium as it stands. Photo: supplied.

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By Wendy Bacon

Waverley Council Liberals have boycotted debate on their own rescission motion aimed at reversing Council’s support for legal action to stop demolition of the Sydney Football Stadium.

The motion supporting taking action was passed after Waverley Council received advice from a senior barrister that the Minister for Planning Anthony Roberts’ approval of the demolition and concept proposal was fundamentally flawed.

After three Liberal Councillors who moved the motion failed to attend last Friday, another meeting was scheduled for Tuesday January 15. Again, they were not present, although as Mayor John Wakefield told the meeting, two of them were within easy distance of Waverley Council Chambers in Bondi.

Mayor John Wakefield’s did not hide his frustration. “This council has been attempting to deliberate on this matter since December 20th. We have had three, and with this one, four failed meetings”. Another attempt at a meeting has been set for Monday, January 21. The missing Liberal Councillors were Leon Goltsman, Tony Kay and Will Nemesh. Ex-Mayor Liberal Sally Betts is overseas on leave.

Wakefield told the meeting that he wrote to every Waverley Councillor this week pointing out that “there are sections of the [Local Government] act that indicate that if purposeful and malicious attempts by Councillors to stymie the business of Council is clear … then that is against the code of conduct and the Local government act … If that is the case and I’m not saying it is the case.” Two of the missing Liberal Councillors have indicated that they will be available next week.

Councillors absent for their own motion

After the meeting, the Mayor told City Hub, “The [Liberal Councillors] need to recognise that they have an obligation. They may not agree with us. They are free to debate us on the floor of Council and to vote. That is what they were elected to do”. In 15 years on Council, Wakefield has never before experienced a situation in which three Councillors who have moved and supported a rescission motion have not turned up. The rescission motion remains on foot until it is debated.

The strongest ground for argument is that the required consideration of design excellence principles has not been correctly applied by the Minister in his approval. The City of Sydney objected to the project on those grounds. Waverley Council’s independent advice is also supported by senior barrister Tim Robertson’s earlier advice that an appeal on the basis of failure to properly consider design excellence should be considered.

A landmark judgement was made in October when the NSW Land and Environment Court rejected an appeal by Uniting Church Property Trust against an earlier ruling that it had not properly considered design excellence in its application for high rise developments at Parramatta square. This case will be a key to a possible Council challenge. It seems possible that Minister Roberts had not sought his own advice when he rubbished Labor’s advice in late December.

Mayor Wakefield said last night that if the rescission motion is rejected, letters to the Minister are ready to go out. If the Minister fails to act to correct his decision, the Acting Mayor of Randwick Labor’s Danny Said has told him that he would call an extraordinary meeting to consider if the Randwick would join a legal action.

Two weeks ago, NSW government ministers made it sound like demolition was imminent. It is possible that they are in such a rush that they had not read all the conditions of consent.

When City Hub visited the site on Tuesday evening this week, it was clear that there were still thousands of seats in place, and although Lendlease has occupied offices on the site, the preliminary strip of furnishings is far from complete.

Poor community consultation

One condition that Lendlease might not have bargained for is the Community Consultative Committee (CCC), which was added as a response to objections. With more than 99.5% of more than 700 public submissions objecting to the project, and more than 25% of those citing “poor community consultation” as a ground for their objections, NSW Planning mandated that a CCC “must be functioning before demolition can begin”. According to its final assessment report, the purpose of this ” to provide feedback on the management of works during demolition”.

Disappointingly, within days of having imposed that condition, NSW Planning appointed Margie Harvie as the “Independent Chair”.  NSW Planning has so far rejected community complaints that Ms Harvie’s past work for Lendlease is a conflict of interest that makes her unsuitable for the position.

This week, the Randwick Botany Greens registered a formal letter of complaint with the Department Secretary Carolyn McNally. (McNally also sits on the Board of Infrastructure NSW, which is the applicant for project approval). The complaint reminds NSW Planning of Randwick’s strong objection to the project and expresses strong concerns about the CCC and the failure for anyone in the Randwick LGA to receive written notification of the application process. The complaint states that Ms Harvie has a “clear conflict of interest” and that she should be removed. “Randwick is right on the doorstop and traffic during demolition and construction operations will have an adverse impact on local residents. We strongly request … re-advertising the position of Independent Chair and the notification be extended for a further 30 days”.

If Planning does not respond positively to this letter of complaint, the applications will close on January 16. Ms Harvie is required to make her selections and provide reasons for her choices to NSW Planning. The Committee will then be appointed and an initial meeting scheduled. Even assuming the breakneck speed that Planning has applied to the process so far, it is hard to see how the Committee can meet before February. It will then need to be informed about the demolition conditions and be given the opportunity to ask questions, which means that unless the Committee is unusually compliant, a second meeting will be needed.

It’s clear from NSW assessment report that pressure on NSW Planning to approve projects supported by the Berejiklian government is causing tensions with the NSW Environmental Protection Authority that has borne the brunt of attempting to mitigate impacts of other projects, especially the Westconnex tollways and the Light Rail.

Last year, NSW Planning overrode the EPA’s objection to approving the Stage 3 WestConnex, although impacts had not been documented and no detailed design was in place. The NSW EPA again raised many objections, particularly to the assessment of noise impacts of demolition and operation of the Sydney Football Stadium. After Infrastructure NSW (INSW) had filed its Response to Submissions report, the NSW EPA still had concerns.

Although NSW Planning ultimately agreed with INSW, it did impose more conditions. These include a condition that a large shed to contain machinery that will crush more than 100,000 tonnes of concrete must be constructed before demolition can begin.

With all of these matters still in play, it is hard to see the stadium demolition getting seriously underway until later in February. By then, the election will be only a month away.

Give people chance to vote

The teardown and rebuild of the stadium is very much Gladys Berejklian’s project. She pushed for it against opposition in Cabinet and made the order for Infrastructure NSW to go ahead with the project.

NSW Opposition Leader Michael Daley said last week, “The Premier is rushing into demolition today but she still hasn’t given the people of NSW a vote on this extravagant waste of public money. The people of NSW should decide at the next election on whether to spend over $2 billion on rebuilding stadiums. It is taxpayer money that could be going to schools and hospitals. I’m urging the Berejiklian Government to halt the demolition and give the people of NSW a vote – make the March election a referendum on stadiums.”

Berejiklian’s claim that demolition was underway was an exaggeration. And while Labor’s policy on unpopular tollways and planning reform remain unclear and confusing for voters, Daley seems determined that if he wins power, the Stadium will be refurbished and not destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of voters who signed petitions opposing demolition support him.

Next week INSW must publish the contract that Lendlease signed with INSW. We should then find out how Lendlease has protected its commercial interests in the event of a change of government.

Wendy Bacon is the past Professor of Journalism UTS. She blogs at wendybacon.com.