ICAC interviews Hunter residents over Huntlee development near Branxton

Very good to see ICAC investigating this planning debacle.  The public deserves a full explanation of how a project aiming to place 20,000 people in urban sprawl, nowhere near jobs and which will clear endangered bushland, came to be approved in the first place.

James Ryan

ICAC interviews Hunter residents over Huntlee development near BranxtonHuntlee artists impression courtesy Newc Herald 2015

By JOANNE McCARTHY Feb. 12, 2015, 10:30 p.m.
THE NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption has the controversial Huntlee housing development in its sights.

The ICAC has interviewed Hunter residents and taken evidence about events as far back as a decade ago when the state’s biggest housing development suddenly appeared in the Lower Hunter Regional Strategy, despite strong protests from Hunter communities and the region’s Department of Planning office.

An artist’s impression of how the new town of Huntlee may look.

The ICAC would neither confirm nor deny it was conducting any inquiries but the Newcastle Herald can confirm ICAC representatives have spoken in the past few months to people in the Hunter about the former NSW Labor government’s handling of the Huntlee proposal.

The ICAC received its first complaints about Huntlee, then known as Sweetwater, nearly 10 years ago after the Department of Natural Resources controversially suspended legal action against the then owner, Hardie Holdings, for illegal land clearing of the site outside Branxton.

A senior NSW bureaucrat linked to the suspension was last year found to have acted corruptly in relation to another matter involving corrupt former Labor government minister Eddie Obeid.

In July 2006 media reports described former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson conducting ‘‘intensive lobbying’’ of the then government on behalf of developers wanting to lift the draft Lower Hunter Regional Strategy’s population target from 125,000 to 200,000 over 25 years.

By October 2006 the final strategy included a population target increase of 160,000, requiring 115,000 extra homes on 8700 hectares, and controversially included Hardie Holding’s Huntlee proposal for more than 7000 lots outside Branxton.

This was despite the project being ranked last on a Planning Department list of more than 90 Hunter sites.

Huntlee was twice rejected by the NSW Land and Environment Court after the Sweetwater Action Group appealed the government approvals.

The project was also the subject of media reports about Hardie Holdings’ donations to the Labor Party. In the four years before the 2008 election Hardie Holdings donated more than $170,000 to the party.

The Hunter’s then most senior Department of Planning official, Steve Brown, also strongly criticised the Huntlee project in internal communications with the department before leaving in early 2008.

In one communication he warned the NSW government was making ‘‘massive’’ concessions to developers ‘‘with little justification’’.

In a submission to an inquiry in 2011 Mr Brown wrote: ‘‘I believe that during the years 2006-2008 the conduct of matters by the Department of Planning was inappropriate, unjust and something that the residents of the Hunter and the state should be aware of.’’

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