Director, Parramatta Park and Western Sydney Parklands Trusts
MAYS HILL GATEHOUSE
I write to you in regards to the Parramatta Park Trust’s lease of the Mays Hill Gatehouse to Think Planners – a commercial consultancy firm providing its developer clients access to Government co-owned by Adam Byrnes and David Borger. The terms of this lease provide Think Planners with the exclusive use of the Gatehouse at less than 30% of the comparable market rate – there is no property of similar size or quality within the Parramatta LGA that has been available for lease any time in the last twelve months for any less than $100000/year gross. If there were, I would invite Think Planners to make use of those facilities.
The decision is at odds with the objects of the Parramatta Park Trust’s mandate under the Parramatta Park Trust Act 2001, and as a publicly accountable agency of the NSW Government, you are answerable to questions rightfully arising from the community around the tender process, the decision making, and the value that the Parramatta Park Trust believes its decision gains for the community.
As you, and the Trustees, are well aware, $1.3 million was provided through State and Federal Government towards the heritage restoration and protection of the Mays Hill Gatehouse. It was built in 1869 to provide a park caretaker a 24-hour presence within the lands. The three-bedroom cottage has been immaculately restored and protected, and is described by the Minister for the Environment, Mark Speakman, as “a living artefact”. Geoff Lee, Member for Parramatta, described the restoration as “adaptive reuse of a facility that would have otherwise been lost to the community”.
The Western Sydney Creative Centre proposal remains the only one of the four proposals received by the Parramatta Park Trust that is in line with the objects of the Act. It provides for an administrative base for Arts and Culture initiatives focused on Western Sydney and Regional NSW, including efforts around the development of the Parramatta Arts and Culture Precinct.
I make no claim that the Parramatta Park Trust is responsible for executing the Arts and Culture policy of the NSW Government – but I note that, as the custodian of slightly over 200 hectares of parklands, the Parramatta Park Trust must, amongst its other goals, “encourage the use and enjoyment of the trust lands by the public by promoting the recreational, historical, scientific, educational and cultural heritage value of those lands”.
Under your direction, the NSW taxpayer has made a substantial investment in incredibly subsidised luxury offices for the enjoyment of the staff and directors of a consultancy firm whose primary focus is to provide access to Government by property developers – and denied the residents of Parramatta and Western Sydney the opportunity to enjoy our Gatehouse.
Meanwhile, the Western Sydney Creative Centre initiative remains without a home. The NSW Government has allocated a $600 million Arts Infrastructure fund – but not a single cent is allocated to Western Sydney initiatives. The meagre support the Western Sydney region receives is approximately 5% of the total funding allocation by Arts NSW, and approximately 1.1% of funding allocated by the Australia Council on the behalf of the Federal Government. Arts and Culture in Western Sydney is grossly underfunded, and as the actions of the Parramatta Park Trust as a NSW Government statutory body demonstrates, also grossly undersupported.
Contrary to the goal of the Parramatta Park Trust Act 2001 to “encourage the use and enjoyment” of the Park’s assets by the public, this agreement instead encourages the use and enjoyment of the Mays Hill Gatehouse exclusively by the staff of Think Planners for the benefit of their commercial ventures.
This is not to say that every asset in Parramatta Park should operate without a return to the taxpayer – indeed, a properly negotiated commercial lease of the Mays Hill Gatehouse could have funded valuable works in areas of the park that are more commonly used, or, for example, allowed for urgent heritage protection works that need to be completed at other Gatehouses. Such an arrangement would be commendable if financially beneficial. Unfortunately, this agreement is no such thing – it’s nothing more than an utter rip-off to the taxpayer.
There was no public consultation process to consider alternate use of the Mays Hill Gatehouse for the benefit of the community. This unilateral decision to give away office space at such heavily subsidised rates is completely at odds with your legislated obligation to support the community – both in the loss of income through providing the space for the use of Think Planners at such low cost, and in the loss of the public use of the Gatehouse facility.
The lease entered into provides some 170 square metres of boutique office space of the highest quality possible for $30000/year gross – a rate that is no more than 30% of that achieved by comparable spaces in the Parramatta LGA. The terms of your commercial lease with Think Planners mean that the taxpayer would not see a return on its $1.3 million investment until the year 2059 – during which time it will be closed to the public.
The Parramatta Park Trust’s desire to enter into this agreement is especially vexing considering that the Think Planners bid, as taken on its merits, was not outstanding in any way whatsoever. Its usage provides no benefit to the residents of Western Sydney, and as the information that was redacted by the Parramatta Park Trust and subsequently made available only through the intervention of an unidentified third party revealed, it was not even the highest offer received from the four bidding parties.
I contend that under your leadership, the Mays Hill Gatehouse has been taken from the community and given away in a sweetheart deal to the private consultancy firm of a former politician with clear and verifiable ties to current and recently departed Trustees.
This valuable resource should have rightfully been used to support the community through Arts and Culture, especially considering that the financial offer made by the Western Sydney Creative Centre was only slightly under $9000 per year lower than the Think Planners bid – and, unlike the Think Planners bid, subject to annual upwards adjustment based on our subsequent ability to seek Federal Government funding through the Australia Council for the Arts and the Catalyst Programmes, State Government funding through Arts NSW and the Arts Infrastructure Fund, funding and in-kind support through Parramatta City Council, and through the Crown Resorts Foundation’s Western Sydney Arts Fund, as well as through philanthropy. All of these details were made available to you and the Trust in our original Expression of Interest document.
Beyond our unique ability to access new sources of funding for conservation works in Parramatta Park, the cultural benefits through programmes facilitated by the Western Sydney Creative Centre provide much more than financial benefit across the entire Sydney basin – though even those financial benefits alone can be measured at far more than $9000 per year.
In the 2014/2015 financial year, the Parramatta Park Trust generated $9.081 million in new revenue. The total loss of income that would have been incurred by the Parramatta Park Trust by accepting our slightly lower offer is equal to approximately 0.11% of the total revenue generated by the Trust in that year. As much as I appreciate financial prudence and maximising value, I am certain that the taxpayers of NSW would have seen the loss of $9000 a year in income to the Parramatta Park Trust as an acceptable price for the development of one of Western Sydney’s most important new Arts and Culture resources. Certainly, the Trust itself would agree that money isn’t everything – otherwise it would have taken the highest of the four offers.
My colleagues and I prepared, without feedback from the Parramatta Park Trust, a financially-sustainable business plan that would create a valuable new resource for Arts and Culture in Western Sydney and simultaneously provide a return on investment to the taxpayer. Our proposal sought to meet the goals defined in the Parramatta Park Trust Act 2001 – to “activate (the) area, and bring more people to (the South) section of the park” as your then-Business and Leasing Manager Rocco Sergi stated in a press release at the time.
We consulted with Stephen Thompson, your Cultural Heritage Program officer, and liaised extensively with Alan James of Knight Frank to better understand the goals of the tender process – and our proposal was specifically intended to address the outcomes that the Parramatta Park Trust had publicly stated a desire for – even while we ourselves would have preferred a much lower-key, lower-impact presence on the site.
In preparing our proposal we sought, and received, the endorsement of the Liberal State Member for Parramatta, Dr. Geoff Lee, the Labor State Member for Granville, Julia Finn, the Labor Federal Member for Parramatta, Julie Owens, and various members of the Parramatta City Council representing a cross-section of the political spectrum. We sought these endorsements to ensure that our work complements existing initiatives by all three levels of Government to support Arts and Culture in Western Sydney – notably the development of a new Arts and Culture Precinct to be established in Parramatta in the next decade.
The documents received through my GIPA request have made clear that, at no time, the Parramatta Park Trust ever thought to consider the public benefit of the Western Sydney Creative Centre proposal – or desired to consider public benefit at all. Having now had an opportunity to consider all four proposals, I am more confident than ever in my ability to state that the Western Sydney Creative Centre initiative proposal was undoubtedly the only one sympathetic to the public benefit need.
It would have been our delight to work with the Parramatta Park Trust to refine the plan to benefit all – but it took a front page article in an edition of the Parramatta Holroyd Sun, after a decision had already been made, to even receive a meeting of any kind.
At every stage I have endeavoured to work in cooperation with you and the Trust to achieve the best possible outcome regarding the Mays Hill Gatehouse, for the people of Western Sydney. You have had every chance to right your original mistake, correct your course and support the Western Sydney Creative Centre initiative – but I strongly suspect that, absolutely no matter what we put forward, the space would still have been awarded to Think Planners.
The facts of this matter have come to light despite your Department’s best effort to frustrate my colleagues and I. At your instruction, your staff knowingly and willingly sought to withhold documents requested through GIPA until January 2016, and when these documents were released they were in an incomplete form with relevant information redacted. Ironically, it is now thanks to the utter incompetence of your staff that a full picture has become available.
I have, therefore, today written to Suzie Khnano, Business and Finance Administration Officer for the Parramatta Park and Western Sydney Parklands Trusts, in regards to a letter sent by her and authorised by you regarding that ongoing GIPA request. As I outline in that letter, I am seeking unredacted access to any and all documents pertaining to the Mays Hill Gatehouse tender process. It is my intention to publish any and all information for the scrutiny of the public. The Parramatta Park Trust, and its Director, must be held publically accountable for its decisions regarding the Mays Hill Gatehouse.
I have also taken advice in regards to a legal challenge to override the decision made by the Parramatta Park Trust to award the Mays Hill Gatehouse to Think Planners. While this effort will likely tie me, you, my organisation, the Parramatta Park Trust and most especially Think Planners in years of legal wrangling and bad publicity, we believe that it is in the best interests of the people of Western Sydney that this effort be made.
I am certain that you share my desire for a quick and amicable resolution to this issue, and that you share my disdain for the prospect of a long, protracted and embarrassing court action. I therefore suggest that a meeting take place by the end of February, for the purpose of entering into an agreement for a long-term residency at the Mays Hill Gatehouse for the Western Sydney Creative Centre initiative beginning no later than the 1st of March, 2016. I would, of course, expect that the Gatehouse be vacated by this date.
If you are unable to comply, then I demand your immediate resignation, and the resignation of the remaining Trustees of the Parramatta Park Trust – Andrew McDonald, Philip Bates, Denise Taylor, Stephanie Dale and Stewart Thompson.
I very much look forward to your prompt response.