Outrage over Varroville Crown Cemetery (aka Macarthur Memorial Park)
To the dismay of local and NSW heritage communities, on 15 July 2019 the 'Independent' Planning Commission (IPC) directed the Sydney Western City Planning Panel (SWCPP) to approve a development application (DA) for a 136,000-grave Crown Cemetery at Varroville in Campbelltown's Scenic Hills Environmental Protection Area to address a shortfall of burial space in Sydney. The cemetery is being managed by the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (CMCT) with 45% of the space reserved for Catholics (though this did not appear in the DA). In justifying its decision, the IPC ignored community claims that a 2017 government report showed that there was no burial shortfall in Sydney's West, South West OR in the Macarthur Area as claimed, but rather in Sydney's Eastern, Northern and Central Districts.
See report (p.39): Metropolitan Sydney Cemetery Capacity Report November 2017
There has been local outcry over this injustice. An information search shows there was plenty of Crown land elsewhere to cater for cemeteries, yet the Berejiklian Government has instead allowed the CMCT, supported by other vested interests, to destroy an inconic greenspace that has been preserved in state planning (including in the recent Greater Sydney Commission District Plans) for 45 years.
Federal MP for Macarthur, Dr Mike Freelander spoke in the Federation Chamber of Parliament on 24 July expressing his 'disgust' at the collusion between the NSW state government and its 'developer mates' at the 'big end of town'.
MP for Macarthur speaks in Parliament: Varroville Cemetery
Dr. Freelander was supported in his outrage by Campbelltown's Mayor and state MPs for Macquarie Fields and Campbelltown.
ABC News 16 July 2019: Outrage over Campbelltown Cemetery approval
Sydney Morning Herald: 'Green space buffer': Sydney Cemetery approved as Penrith plan halted
The Australian 16 July 2019: Cemetery plan eases religious worries
ABC News 16 July 2019: NSW Independent Planning Commission orders approval of Campbelltown's Varroville cemetery
Macarthur Advertiser: Editorial - Scenic Hills Betrayed
South West Voice 16 July 2019: There goes the Scenic Hills
Destruction of state heritage
There has also been outcry from state heritage organisations as the cemetery surrounds state heritage listed Varro Ville Homestead sitting on eight acres in the middle of the cemetery land (and privately owned). The heritage signficance of the Homestead relies on the surrounding land which the cemetery intends to destroy. The NSW Heritage Council (NSWHC) opposed the cemetery when it was first proposed in 2013 and again in 2016 when the land was being rezoned, but was ignored. Then in 2017, after a lengthy community consultation that included four state heritage organisations, it recommended that most of the cemetery land be listed on the State Heritage Register. This recommendation was endorsed by a separate panel of the IPC in Feburary this year.
See IPC review panel report confirming the Heritage Council's recommendation to list the land on the State Heritage Register: Commission Review for Minister for Heritage 22 February 2019
The Heritage Minister was required by law to make the decision within 14 days of receiving each recommendation. Yet, despite representations from state heritage organisations and from the NSW Environmental Defenders Office (acting for the Varro Ville Homestead owners) and despite their legal obligations under the NSW Heritage Act 1977, successive Heritage Ministers have ignored the recommendations - allowing the cemetery to progress through the planning system unimpeded by a heritage listing.
See submission of the National Trust of Australia (NSW): State Significant Varroville property threatened by cemetery development
We note the IPC protected itself legally in this. In its 'Direction' it stated that if there was a change in the heritage status of the land before the approval authority (SWCPP) signed it off, then the Heritage Council would have the right to amend or refuse the DA. The IPC allowed 60 days for the SWCPP to sign off, giving ample time for the Heritage Minister to consider the unanimous advice of both the Heritage Council and the IPC that most of the cemetery land should be listed as an extended curtilage (heritage boundary) for the Homestead.
See IPC 'Conclusions' pp.34-35 of its Determination on the DA: Varroville Crown Cemetery Development Final_Direction
Astonishingly, FOUR DAYS LATER on the 19 July 2019, the SWCPP approved the DA, locking the Heritage Council out of the statutory approval process, thus ensuring most of the state signficance of the surrounding landscape will now be destroyed, and putting the state listing of the Homestead at risk.
See SWCPP approval: Panel Decision 166-176 St Andrews Road Varrovile
We now know that the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust lobbied the Premier to intervene, to ensure the land was not listed before approval of its cemetery plans. It was supported in this stance by other religious groups who made submissions to the IPC's curtilage review. They felt their need for burial space should take precedence over heritage. After the DA was approved, a consultant for the Jewish community specifically thanked the Premier in the media saying 'The first time there was a realistic prospect of this moving forward was last year under the Berejilian government and she has made this possible'...
Australian Jewish News 24 October 2019: New cemetery gets green light
The Scenic Hills Association's Position:
Only a third of Sydney's population continues the practice of burial, and we are aware that not all individuals within these cultural groups support their leaders' views. We support minority cultural practices (providing they are ethical and lawful)...but not at the expense of Australia's cultural heritage or highly valued community assets.
This outcome disrespects our community and the state's heritage.
[Please return at a later date for an update on this issue]
Scenic Hills Association's submissions - Varroville Cemetery DA:
(1) Original SHA Submission 22 March 2018: Click here
(2) SHA Presentation to Public Meeting 25 March 2019: Click here
(3) SHA Further Submission to IPC 4 April 2019: Click here
(4) Letter to Panel Chair 15 April 2019: Click here
Also see Independent Planning Commission website: Crown Cemetery Development Varroville
The Legality of the Decision
In 2013 when the CMCT took out an option on the Varroville land, it was lobbying the Minister for Primary Industries to ensure that as a Crown Cemetery operator, under new legislation, its development application (DA) would be assessed as a Crown Application - even though the land was not yet 'Crown Land'. The NSW government thus shielded the CMCT's poor choice of site from proper scrutiny because this means that we cannot challenge the quality of the decision in the Land and Environment Court (LEC) through a 'merit appeal'.
We note that in 2012, the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) advised the government to expand the scope of third party merit appeals to the LEC, stating that:
'Merit appeals provide a safeguard against biased decision-making by consent authorities and enhance the accountability of these authorities. The extension of third party merit appeals acts as a disincentive for corrupt decision-making by consent authorities.'
See report: Anti-corruption Safeguards and the NSW Planning System February 2012
We do not know if the decison was corrupt, only that it was a bad one based on the evidence. The IPC's 'Direction' did not discuss key issues raised by the community. The DA's non-compliance with the Campbelltown Local Environment Plan 2015 (inlcuding the zoning objectives), the quality of its heritage assessment, water and land stability impacts, social and economic impacts and the conduct of the Department of Planning's assessment should be subject to review. So should the IPC's mangement of this matter.
Failure of the 'Independent' Planning Commission
The outcry by local MPs, Campbelltown Council, community associations and those most affected by the decision, shows that the IPC failed to deliver a critical part of its misssion, expressed in its 'Values' on its website:
'We will build the community’s confidence and trust in the Commission’s independence by ensuring our processes are open and transparent, and encouraging and promoting greater community participation throughout the assessment and determination process.'
The Public Meeting held on 25 March 2019, and subsequent events, contribute to the perception of bias favouring vested minority interests:
- It was held on the Monday immediately after the State election, criticised by both the SHA and the MP for Macquarie Fields, Anoulack Chanthivong at the Hearing.
- It was held during the day when 60% of Campbelltonians work outside the area and were thus unable to attend,
- The IPC made a last minute change to the venue and failed to ensure that those who had made submissions were notified in time. Submitters received advice of this the day AFTER the meeting was held,
- The Panel Chair constantly interrupted, then gaged one of the owners of Varro Ville Homestead on the apparent direction of the CMCT's lawyer and despite vocal protests from community attendees,
- The speaking list was reissued to allow a developer speaking for the cemetery to be included after the list was closed,
- That same speaker was permitted to defame the owners of Varro Homestead without being censured (but his comments were later removed from the transcript as if it never happened).
- Cemetery supporters were allowed, without interruption, to jeer a community representative trying to speak for those who use and need the Carmelite Retreat Centre without the disquiet of a cemetery across the road...
Following the Public Meeting...
The Homestead owners had understood the IPC would make another site visit to the Homestead so that their heritage consultant could be present. Short notice of a prior visit had prevented this. Campbelltown Council had also understood that it would have input into the Schedule of Conditions if the cemetery was to be approved (recorded in the transcripts of its meeting with the IPC). Neither was further contacted. The Cemetery Conditions were largely unchanged from the Department of Planning's assessment, despite expressed concerns about these.
Then we learnt that in June, before the release of the IPC 'Direction', senior executives of the CMCT (CEO Peter O'Meara, the Chair Greg Smith) were granted a 'behind closed doors' meeting with the IPC Chair, Professor Mary O'Kane...for which there were (according to the IPC Secretariat) NO transcipts and NO notes taken, despite the IPC legal counsel being present at the meeting!
A lawyer who doesn't take notes in a meeting? We don't think so.
We note that our Association requested a meeting with Professor O'Kane at the beginning of this project, but it was denied.
[Please return soon for an update on this issue]
A Tale of two cemeteries...and political 'interference'
There were two Catholic Cemeteries Trust cemetery proposals being considered by the same IPC panel at the same time: one at Varroville (on deemed state heritage land) and one at the Wallacia Golf Course in Mulgoa - both ludicrous and insensitive locations. The Liberal MP for Mulgoa, Tanya Davies, was threateneing to resign over the proposal in her electorate.Facing a potential loss at the NSW election, Premier Gladys Berejiklian met with Ms Davies, the Mayor of Penrith and representatives of the Wallacia Progress Association. At that meeting the Premier apparently promised to ask the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC) to conduct a review of site suitablity for cemeteries and copy the letter to the IPC - arguably interferring with the IPC's 'independence':
See letter to GSC (copied to IPC): Copy of Premier's Letter to GSC
See IPC letter to Department of Planning: IPC letter to DoP re Premier's Request
See DOP response: Letter from DoP re Premier's Request
In case anyone was still confused, just before the election and before the cemetery decisions were made, the Premier allowed herself to be photographed with Wallacia residents opposed to the cemetery, sending a clear signal via the media about the outcome she wanted.
Tanya Davies, Mayor Ross Fowler, Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Wallacia Progress Association President Jane McLuckie, Wallacia Progress Association Committee Members Debra Jeffree and Darrell Bell
See media article and photo here: Premier confirms review
The Premier got what she wanted...
In July, the IPC refused the Wallacia Cemetery on social grounds, but approved the Varroville Cemetery on the basis of a need for burial space in Sydney, rewarding lobbyists in Liberal electorates, but leaving a Labor electorate to take the overflow of Sydney's dead at the expense of its environmental heritage. The reasons for refusing Wallacia equally applied at Varroville, just as the reason for approving Varroville equally applied at Wallacia. Claims about better transport connections at Varroville are a nonsense - the site is 'landlocked'. It is accessed by a no-through rural road bordered by sensitive land uses (two schools, two monasteries and a church), approached through local suburbs and road intersections that Campbelltown Council says will fail.
The inconsistencies in the decisions raise issues around