Govt. is in a Dither over Closed School Sites

The ACT Government is in a complete dither about what to do with the closed school sites. On the one hand, it has a report from Purdon Associates that says “sell, sell, sell”. However, the problem for the Government is that the report also reveals strong community opposition to selling off school buildings and ‘green space’.

There is a stark contrast between the recommendations of the Purdon’s report and the outcomes of the consultation it conducted with regional and local communities last year. The report recommended partial or full re-development of each closed school site (except Hall and Tharwa), while retaining some parts for community use.

It also found that there is a strong community preference for the buildings and grounds to be retained for community use. There was very limited community support for re-development of the sites.

It was not surprising that the report recommended sale of the sites because one of the guiding principles given to the consultant was to “deliver a return for the Territory to support other fiscal needs”.

The Government clearly wants the $70 million or more that sale of the sites would bring in. This has always been the agenda behind the school closure program. It was made clear back in mid-2006 when the Chief Minister over-ruled his Education Minister, Andrew Barr, on the issue.

Mr. Barr assured regional meetings on the Towards 2020 school closure plan that “there will be no land sales as a result of school closures” (Canberra Times, 28 June 2006). This was subsequently over-ruled by the Chief Minister who said that the Government would likely sell unused school land for residential development and aged-care facilities (Canberra Times, 5 August 2006).

But, Mr. Barr wasn’t the only Minister who gave assurances he couldn’t keep. Last year, the Minister for Territory and Municipal Services, John Hargreaves, told the Canberra Times (31 March 2007) that “nearly all the sites would remain intact, in case schools needed to be opened in future decades to cope with demographic change”. He emphasised that “we’re not in the real estate market”.

Less than two months later he announced that Mt. Neighbour and Rivett would be sold, spuriously claiming that they were “too dilapidated”. He appointed Purdon Associates to report on what should be done with the other sites. He also ruled out any schools being re-opened, saying that no sites would be kept for use as schools in the future (Canberra Times, 19 May 2007).

Government preparations to sell the sites began in March this year, when Mr. Barr, as Planning Minister, inserted last minute changes in the new Territory Plan to remove the 4E overlay for many school sites which protected green space from sale.

However, the Government is fearful of proceeding against community opposition with an election looming. To solve its dilemma it has announced yet another consultation on what to do with the sites. The job of the new consultant, appointed without going to public tender, is to find a way out for the Government.

The Government is trying to wear down community opposition to the privatisation of the school sites. After two years, it has failed to convince communities that it was a good idea to close schools and to sell off the sites.

The Government has little time to come up with a solution to its dilemma. The new consultation is being rushed through because the ACT election is only 4 months away and the caretaker period begins at the beginning of September.

This is the reason the new consultation contract was not put out to public tender. The consultation is limited to 6 weeks and the report is due in mid-August.

Due process was not properly observed in the rush to appoint the consultant, who was appointed by a Letter of Acceptance before a contract had been agreed. The Letter of Acceptance permitted work to proceed before the contract was signed. It is also apparent that fees had not even been agreed for sub-consultants.

It is usual for a consultancy not to start until the actual contract documents are signed by both parties. The contract was not available on the Government’s contract register website when the consultation was announced. The community has a right to know what is in the contract well before public consultation starts.

The rush to complete the consultation is of the Government’s own making, having withheld the Purdon’s report for 5 months after it was completed last December. This contrasts with the 2-month consultation last year, despite assurances by Minister Hargreaves in May 2007 that it would go for 5 months. The delay seems to have been deliberate so that the 4E overlay removals could be slipped through the Assembly.

The new consultation is yet another sham consultation and a waste of taxpayer funds. It continues the litany of abuses of due process by the ACT Government from the outset of its school closure program. School communities have had to endure being denied relevant information, given misleading and incorrect information, given false assurances and forced to take part in sham consultations.

It is about time that the Stanhope Government was held to account for its contempt for due process and failure to ensure genuine community consultation on its school closure program.

Trevor Cobbold

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