Government’s blame game over vacant former Hunter River Community School site

GOVERNMENT finger-pointing is emerging as one of the reasons the dilapidated former Hunter River Community School site has lay vacant for four years, according to documents revealed to the Herald.

Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison said the government’s inaction over the site, which is locked, overgrown and has three covered outdoor learning areas and play equipment lying unused was “diabolical”.

“They’ve created a very difficult situation for themselves because of a lack of attention to detail.”

The East Maitland site was previously used as an unfenced park, before it was dedicated to the Department of Education to host the school from 2001 up to 2014, when it moved to Metford.

It declared the site surplus to its requirements in June 2016 and has largely washed its hands of the parcel, apart from a “one-off tidying”. 

It wrote to the Department of Industry’s Crown Lands in July 2016 saying that “in accordance with past practice effective from the date of this letter, the future of the site and its use in the interim is now a matter for Crown Lands to determine”.

But surplus sites do not automatically default to Crown management.

Documents obtained by Labor through freedom of information laws show Crown Lands wrote to the Department of Education in January this year saying its records did not reveal “any negotiations or agreements” between the two departments for the return or disposal of the site.

Internal emails from one Crown Lands staffer to colleagues in February said they had a conversation with Department of Education staff that revealed the Department of Education “declared the subject land surplus within their department only”; “did not declare or discuss disposal of this site with Property NSW” and no “communications, negotiation, planning or agreement occurred” with the Department of Industry.

“I advised that at this point we have not accepted return of the land noting the site condition and remaining improvements,” the Crown Lands staffer wrote.

“We should be pushing back on education to take carriage of their own problems,” another said. 

"We seem to increasingly be inheriting/taking on responsibilities that aren’t ours and our resources are already far too thinly spread.”

The emails show the site is also subject to two Aboriginal land claims, understood to have been lodged in 2013.

A Department of Education spokesman told the Herald this week the site “is Crown Land” and the department utilised it “until it was formerly returned on 4 July 2016”. 

A Department of Industry – Lands and Water spokeswoman said it was in negotiations with education “to develop a long term management plan for the site”.

“The Aboriginal land claim will be assessed in due course once agreement has been reached on the site’s transfer.”

Ms Aitchison said the situation was a “dog’s breakfast”. 

“Neither of the departments are telling the community what they’re doing. They’ve been shifting blame.

“One of these ministers needs to show leadership. They must resolve these native title claims and, if it is retained as Crown land, have community consultation and expressions of interest about what should happen.”