The Crown Lands Management Bill 2016, debated in State Parliament this week, represents the greatest change to Crown Land management in more than 120 years. But, until two weeks ago, the NSW Government was the only one that knew its contents.
Like tax law, Crown lands legislation is probably something most of us try to avoid: apparently dry and of limited relevance. But as private recreation facilities become more expensive, our beaches and foreshores, parks, sports grounds and budget holiday parks on Crown land are some of the last remaining free or low-cost activities for families. And yet the Bill flies in the face of one of the main principles that saw King Edward Headland Reserve returned to public use in 2014: Crown land is to be openly commercialised, and fees can be charged for entry.
Under the bill much of our Crown land will be transferred to councils and then, rather than requiring the consent of both houses of Parliament before it can be sold, the land can be operationalised and sold under the Local Government Act (NSW) with hardly any fanfare.
The objects of the bill expressly reflect this move towards use and sale rather than “management” for the benefit of the people of NSW: gone is governance under stated Crown land management principles over choices about suitable and preferred uses, the granting of leases, licences, easements, permits or rights of way, adoptions of Plans of Management over Crown land, or the authorisation of additional purposes on Crown land. These appropriately stirring ideals of protection and conservation of the natural resources of Crown land, public use and enjoyment, sustenance of resources in perpetuity, and dealing with land in the best interests of the State are replaced by limp reference to undefined “environmental, social, cultural, heritage and economic considerations”, to be applied only in decision making generally. And rather than having to be “compatible” with the declared purpose of a reserve, an additional purposes need only not “materially harm” that purpose, as assessed using a long list of micro-criteria that ignore the overall purpose of public land for public enjoyment.
Behind this approach lies the full spectre of the Government’s privatisation agenda: the bill turns the NSW Crown Lands Division into a Public Trading Enterprise, with “economic objectives” and goals for how much Crown land is to be disposed of each year. If all of the measures in the White Paper are implemented, the Division will need to be “budget neutral”, and any shortfall in expenses for its use and management met by a “Community Service Obligation” imposed on users for any difference between “market rent” and actual rent paid. Crown land will be priced according to its commercial freehold value, and any shortfall between that and the income it generates noted as an “opportunity cost”.
The whole Crown estate is being converted into a balance sheet.
The large African mammal in the room here is that the NSW Government is not, and does not want to, take money from elsewhere (Sydney Exhibition Centre and Westconnex 1 and 2 top the Government’s 2017 budget projections) to maintain these public lands. These lands are public lands. The bill should be deferred for proper public consultation and its clauses changed until it is worthy of that fact.