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What now for contested Bungendore high school site plan? Town park defenders review process, unanswered questions.

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THE MINISTER FOR Education, Sarah Mitchell, has refused to address reports that the Department of Education has been offered an alternative, greenfield site (alternative to the town park site favoured by the state government) for the long-awaited Bungendore High School.   

ABOVE: Deputy Mayor Esma Livermore talking to anti-school site protestors outside the Council meeting on 27 January. IMAGE: supplied.

In response to questions from The District Bulletin regarding a specific site offered in the southern part of Bungendore, the Minister stated only that “the Majara/Gibraltar Streets precinct has been identified as the best location and we are getting on the with delivery of this project”. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Education also declined to discuss the site, saying that “the Department is diligent in its privacy and commercial-in-confidence obligations”.

This comes amid deepening uncertainty over the Department of Education’s plans for the proposed Bungendore High School.  

The Department of Education doesn’t yet own the site currently proposed for the school, which includes parts of Bungendore Park, Bungendore Common, Majara Street and the Palerang Council Chambers. 

It started a compulsory acquisition process in December 2021, with the Minister for Education saying recently that this process would be completed this April. According to Member for Monaro, Nichole Overall MP, the department will lodge its response to submissions and updated designs with the Department of Planning after that, allowing the long-delayed planning approval process to resume. 

This is taking far longer than normal

It took 16 weeks for the Department of Education to complete the response to submissions process for the Jerrabomberra High School. It’s taken over 24 weeks (and counting) for Bungendore and we’ve still got no real clarity around when the planning process can resume.

The Minister has not explained why things are taking so long. But having seen the range of issues raised by the community and other government bodies in their objections to this siting development application, it’s pretty clear that things can’t be expected to run smoothly when you make a last-minute decision, with no proper due diligence.      

Meanwhile the lack of transparency and accountability around the project was highlighted after the Minister for Education refused to answer questions in Parliament in early April.

Asked to address community concerns about the project, the timing and the planning process, the Minister’s answers to detailed questions on notice are considered irrelevant and evasive.   

She refused to discuss community facilities promised as part of the school development, saying only that “the inclusion of the community library, Council shopfront and community health hub are the subject of ongoing discussions with Queanbeyan–Palerang Regional Council”. 

This is despite council records confirming that those facilities were taken off the table in October 2021, meaning they will not form part of the proposed high school development. 

Likewise, the Minister would not address legal concerns about the school’s ability to access Mick Sherd Oval, saying only that “negotiations with the Queanbeyan–Palerang Regional Council are continuing to secure school access…”.

The Minister also distanced herself from earlier promises made by the Department of Education that Bungendore would receive a heated, eight-lane, 25m covered pool, saying that “any questions relating to this project should be directed to the Council”.

Questions to the Minister

Among the many other questions put to the Minister for Education — and which she avoided answering — were:

  • the expected student numbers at the school (she did confirm that it would have capacity for approximately 450 students);
  • whether the community will see demountables on Bungendore Park;
  • what changes can be expected to the design set out in the development application;
  • the status of discussions with the State Design Review Panel — this is one of the major issues holding up the development approval process;
  • the reasons for the Department of Education’s decision to terminate negotiations with Council and to try to acquire the site through compulsory acquisition;
  • the project budget;
  • clarity around timing;
  • the community’s response to the project;
  • the specific concerns that led to the original site on Tarago Road being abandoned;
  • why the NSW Government didn’t consider any of the five alternative sites it had identified in addition to the Tarago Road site; and
  • the role of former Member for Monaro John Barilaro and (former) QPRC in proposing the Bungendore Park site.

(Link to full series of questions on notice at the end of this document). 

The Minister’s refusal to answer these important questions raises serious doubts about the government’s ability to deliver the Bungendore High School project on time, on budget and in the best interests of the Bungendore community. It highlights not just the Minister’s ongoing refusal to engage with the Bungendore community, but her unwillingness to submit this project to proper scrutiny in state parliament.    

Typical of present NSW Government?

Unfortunately, this reflects the NSW Government’s whole approach to this project.  The once respected communication and consultation channels so central to transparency and accountability in government have been whittled away.

Decisions have been taken in secret for reasons never explained; questions in parliament and freedom of information applications have been treated with utter disdain; letters to Ministers are ignored or receive irrelevant form replies; public consultation has been a meaningless box ticking exercise; and the public has been kept in the dark, fed only crumbs of often misleading information through carefully managed media events, press releases or simplistic, superficial and repetitive “FAQs”.

If we can’t get clear answers from the Minister for Education, how can we have any faith in the integrity of the planning process or the outcome which is coming at such a cost to our town?

The full list of Questions on Notice submitted by The Hon Courtney Houssos MLC to the Minister for Education, as well as the Minister’s answers, is available at: https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/lc/papers/pages/qanda-tracking-details.aspx?pk=90878 

*Maureen Elgood is a member of Save Bungendore Park Inc.

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