Ayres pushed to subdivide and develop parts of historic estate: emails


In particular, the Rookwood General Cemeteries Reserve Trust was proposing to use part of the property, which includes a heritage-listed Georgian homestead, for a cemetery in 2017.

On September 18, 2017, the then chief of staff to planning minister Anthony Roberts, Robert Vellar, wrote to an official in the Department of Planning, Steve Murray, according to an email obtained using freedom of information laws.

“I saw Minister Ayres at Parliament last Tuesday and he discussed his preference for the government to purchase Fernhill and then develop parts of the estate to pay for its upkeep,” Mr Vellar wrote to Mr Murray.

“On Thursday he drew on the attached map to identify the particular portions of land which he says could be developed,” Mr Vellar wrote. “Could you advise what would be required by way of zoning to achieve Minister Ayres’ idea?”

The map drawn on by Mr Ayres shows the zoning of the Fernhill Estate and surrounding areas. It is difficult to discern exactly what Mr Ayres drew on the map in the version provided to the Herald, but on one portion on the eastern section of the estate, Mr Ayres wrote “20 lots.” On the western section, Mr Ayres wrote “33 lots”

In his response to Mr Vellar, Mr Murray replied a planning proposal would need to be lodged with Penrith Council, supported by relevant studies and justification, for any zoning changes.

However in March 2018, Mr Ayres announced that the government had purchased the estate for $27 million. The estate that the government purchased included the western portion on which Mr Ayres had proposed 33 lots.

In December 2018 the government also purchased the eastern portion of the estate, though it did not announce this purchase. The government paid $5.3 million for this section, on which Mr Ayres had proposed 20 lots, according to Mr Vellar’s email.

Asked why he wanted the government to develop portions of Fernhill, Mr Ayres, the Minister for Jobs, Investment, Tourism and Western Sydney, said: “I proudly advocated for the purchase of Fernhill so its heritage value could be protected and its open green spaces could be enjoyed by the people of Western Sydney for generations to come.

“At the time the government purchased Fernhill, development options were being openly canvassed in the community, in particular, public consultation by Rookwood Cemetery to convert Fernhill into a Cemetery,” Mr Ayres said.

“This very fact is one of the main reasons I championed the purchase of Fernhill for the public.”

The Mulgoa Progress Association, which has long campaigned for Fernhill to be in public ownership, said it would be “concerned” if the government intended to rezone parts of the estate for housing.

“MPA opposed developers who expressed the same intentions and strongly opposes this latest push for housing on Fernhill Estate,” a spokeswoman said, when shown Mr Ayres’ map.

However, a spokeswoman for the Department of Planning and Environment indicated the government would not pursue any rezoning.

“Fernhill Estate will be reserved as a green open space and its heritage buildings and gardens will be preserved. The community will be closely engaged as we plan the future of Fernhill Estate,” the spokeswoman said.

The Tripps, who became friends with Mr Ayres and his partner, the Minister for Foreign Affairs,  Marise Payne, left Fernhill in early 2016.

They remained the registered proprietors of the central section of Fernhill, though both the Tripps and the mortgage company that sold the site to the government, Angas Securities, said they did not have a financial interest in the property from that point.

Jacob Saulwick is City Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald.

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