HYLDA ROLFE. What’s in a name? The threat to our National Parks

Aug 13, 2018

For three years now, Sydney-based company Gap Bluff Hospitality Pty Ltd (GBH) has been revising an offer it made to NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) under which the company would assume a large share of the burden of repair and maintenance of former Defence and other buildings in the Gap Bluff and Green Point sectors of Sydney Harbour National Park at Watsons Bay NSW. While the financial terms of the offer were not made public, the deal envisaged the adaptation and use by GBH of several buildings in the National Park as an integrated event/function complex. The mountain laboured….   

The original GBH idea was a highly commercial response to a (possibly unwarily-worded) public call by NPWS for expressions of interest in the adaptive re-use of several buildings at Gap Bluff. The content of the initial GBH response looked a lot like an ambit claim, understandably so. On its exposure for comment – and instantly, and loudly, and totally – the local community hated it! Their gripes may be stated in a few words: a wedding factory (as they named it) simply didn’t belong in the chosen location. Its perceived impact on the residential and recreational amenity of Watsons Bay would be horrific. It had nothing to do with the natural, heritage and cultural values of the Park. It was emphatically pronounced unacceptable.

Local MP and Minister for Environment Gabrielle Upton heard the noises, uttered soothing words about process, and made all the right sounds to imply that the activities envisaged were consistent with the powers and duties involved in National Park custody and management. Neither Minister Upton nor NPWS dismissed the GBH offer.

The proposal hasn’t gone away. Its recent reappearance in a modified form and its current public exhibition by NPWS confirm the pursuit by that organisation or its political directorate of a supplementary revenue source of some kind – any kind? – to plug the gap between the resources needed to sustain the National Parks estate and the clearly inadequate NSW Government budgetary funding for that purpose. In this instance, contracting out the NPWS building occupation and maintenance function at Gap Bluff and Green Point would generate profit for GBH and deliver unspecified funds to NPWS and/or its home Office of Environment and Heritage.

What’s not to like about that? Maybe just that its raises a serious query about the perception by the Service and its Minister of their respective roles in the management of a National Park as opposed to management of other public lands, and the relative priority they give to external funding of the statutory duties associated with the Park properties.

If revenue-raising for and from the Watsons Bay sites was and is the primary objective, it seems fair to query the way the task has been tackled so far. Some might think available funds could be shifted from other items in the NSW Budget, or to other elements in the Minister’s portfolio, and/or from other components of the NPWS estate. In addition to the approach of adaptive re-use of some buildings, access to a wider spectrum of options to raise revenue might have been envisaged. With the most recent uses of four of the six subject buildings having been for accommodation, and if it were determined to continue and contract out the management of that practice, it might have been sensible to seek the input of specialist accommodation providers/managers for that purpose.

Some folk think the activities intended by GBH are not appropriate or permissible in the Park anyway. Dressed up in fuzzy language about existing uses and consistency with the Plan of Management for the Park, it is still not at all clear that the commercial activities envisaged by GBH – weddings, conferences, social events, short term accommodation for clients etc. – have any perceptible connexion with the purposes (nature, culture, heritage) for which the National Park lands are reserved. The frequently quoted Plan of Management, itself very fuzzy and ambiguous in places, is subordinate to the National Parks legislation, so reference to artfully selected extracts from it is neither helpful nor convincing, and can be quite misleading.

The modifications now on show could grease some of the louder squeaky wheels in the local community (repeatedly termed ‘the public’, but in real terms only a microcosm of the much wider community meant to have the benefit of National Park land reservations). Deference to the locals is not deference to the public at large, who may well be unimpressed, for example, by offers to local residents of occasional special access to certain buildings and the like. While they scale back some of the more objectionable traffic and noise features of the original scheme, the changes do not bring the essential nature of the residual enterprise any closer to underlying National Park objectives.

GBH is hardly at fault here. In the face of the local and vocal antagonistic reaction to its approach, the company has reacted commercially. Not to be discouraged at the first hurdle, it has – albeit slowly – considered and reacted to NPWS summaries of the public submissions about the original proposal. However, the response documentation from GBH is – understandably – highly defensive. A more objective analysis, especially of the finer points relating to such matters as compliance with the underlying intent of the legislation, and the efficacy of proposed revenue arrangements, has not been exhibited, but is sorely needed. Perhaps NPWS – or someone else – thought it best to deal with such awkward matters in-house.

Curiously, the kinds of activities proposed by GBH and apparently acceptable to NPWS and its Minister for this sector of the celebrated Sydney Harbour National Park appear quite likely to be consistent with the powers and duties of NPWS in its role as manager of lands reserved as Regional Parks. But Gap Bluff and green Point are not and have not been reserved as a Regional Park; they are part of Sydney Harbour National Park – a very different kettle of fish indeed.

Even more interestingly, the current GBH proposal might be comfortably at home on certain of the former Defence lands within the ambit of the Commonwealth Government’s Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. The background to the establishment of that Trust may well be instructive for the present issue, but that is another story, perhaps one for a later day.

Meanwhile, a big tease remains. The Minister’s ‘safe’ electorate extends well beyond Watsons Bay. Local community support for strict adherence to the fundamental concept of National Park land reservation at Watsons Bay may be a matter of relatively minor importance to her and her colleagues in Macquarie Street and Canberra in the wider context of coming elections. Could it be escalated? Who knows?

As for NWPS – it looks like the big N in its name is hostage to the almighty dollar. Well, what’s in a name?

Hylda Rolfe lives at Watsons Bay.

Hylda Rolf was a Board Member of the Australian Wool Corporation and International Wool Secretariat; a Commissioner of the Industries Assistance Commission; Chair of the Commonwealth Prices Surveillance Authority; a Board member of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute and a Commissioner of the Commonwealth Grants Commission.  She served as an alderman on Woollahra Municipal Council from 1980 to 1991, including two periods as Mayor.  


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