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ENVIRONMENT: Crown land? Our land?

BACK in the 1980s the NSW Department of Lands was a great place to work. The old headquarters building in Bridge St was arguably the most beautiful in Sydney’s sandstone belt and was maintained by skilled tradesmen from the old Department of Public Works. Part of the department was the Crown Lands Office, which managed state-owned land on behalf of the people of NSW.

Bowling clubs were on Crown land. Oyster leases. Playing fields. Parks. Rural landowners’ holdings adjacent to their freehold titles. Crown leases were cheap as chips, both as a contribution to the community good and as a way of supporting sometimes financially stressed rural industries.

Lands originally had a Parks and Reserves Branch, which was split off by then Premier Tom Lewis to form the basis of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Lands continued to build walking tracks and facilities on Crown land, culminating in the wonderful Hume and Hovell walking track and Sydney’s Great North Walk, both 1988 Bicentenary projects. But around then things started changing. The government and Treasury basically decided that the Crown estate could be a source of big dollars if lease rates were increased and unused lands sold off, at bargain prices as it happened. The Dutton trout hatchery was almost sold to a Queensland white-shoe property developer.

Economic rationalism swept into the public sector about this time. The old Department was split up and parts of it, including the Land Titles Office, were privatised. The wonderful service once provided by Crown lands offices around the state evaporated. The beautiful Bridge St building was leased out for 99 years to a hotel chain.

And now, under the new NSW State government, Crown land rent rises are again in the news. Little community bowling clubs are being hit with reported 1,100% increases. Diamond Bay club, with 73 mostly retiree members, is looking at an extra $20,000 per year. A cynic would suggest that developers would be licking their lips at the prospect of bowling clubs going under. It’s not just clubs that have been hit. Greenwell Point oyster growers, who produce some of the state’s best oysters, can’t seem to get their leases renewed, and have been told they won’t be able to sell opened oysters direct to customers in the future. No Crown leases for their sheds and outlets and their aquaculture permits will go. The effect on the families who own the leases, their employees and regional tourism will be profound.

Anglers aren’t immune to these parsimonious decisions. For several years National Parks and Wildlife have been promising to upgrade access trails and parking in some of the northside’s best rock fishing locations. And what have the done in reality? Permanently closed trails, removed parking and taken out access ladders, in the name of “safety”. “Safety” would seem to equal “no money to deliver on undertakings”. Public golf courses are under pressure. Fishing club houses to follow soon, if not already? What’s next for our public lands, Treasurer?

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