Dapto jail: 'You could wake up and the minister could start the bulldozers rolling'

The tiny square of land which forms the old West Dapto Catholic Cemetery is the only portion of the 230 hectare site earmarked for a jail at Kembla Grange where prisons are permissible. 

This revelation – as well as news that, despite existing zoning rules, the NSW Planning minister could step in to approve a prison anyway – were made by Wollongong City Council’s most senior planner, Andrew Carfield. 

Prompted by questions from deputy mayor David Brown – designed to address “rumours building on rumours” about the jail – Mr Carfield shed new light on the likely approvals process for the prison on Monday.

He said the Independent Planning Commission, run by the state government, would be the consent authority and not the council.

“This facility would not be permitted through the local environmental plan, however there is the State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) – Infrastructure, which does permit this use in some zones,” Mr Carfield told the council.

Under this SEPP, prisons are only allowed in rural, mixed business and infrastructure zones – meaning a prison would only be allowed on the Catholic cemetery (zoned SP2 Infrastructure).

“That would be the only portion of the site which has been published for which this land use would be permissible,” Mr Carfield said.

Corrective Services NSW, as well as Kiama MP Gareth Ward, have repeatedly said the cemetery would be respected, indicating it would not be built over if the prison proposal was to proceed.

While this would mean there was no part of the proposed site suitable for a prison under zoning rules, Mr Carflied also noted that any infrastructure deemed as “state significant” could be approved via ministerial powers.

“So the minister could then organise to use the Independent Planning Commission, or use himself just to issue consent?,” Cr Brown asked.

“That’s correct,” Mr Carfield said.

“There you go,” Cr Brown concluded. “You could wake up one morning and the minister could start the bulldozers rolling.”

Edited transcript of Wollongong council meeting questions

David Brown: Is it accurate to say that over the past 12 to 18 months, there has been a significant number of inquiries from manufacturing firms looking to relocate or establish in Wollongong where we have vacant industrial land?

General manager David Farmer: It would be fair to say there is an increased level of interest from manufacturing operations in Sydney who are interested in potentially relocated out of areas which may have residneital possibilities in Sydney. At this stage, they are only inquiries, but they are getting more frequent and more serious.

Cr Brown: Will council be the consent authority for the jail should the project progress?

Planning director Andrew Carfield: The council would not be the consent authority for a formal proposal for a correctional facility. In fact, the Independent Planning Commission, which is a panel run by the state government would be the consent authority.

Cr Brown: The Wollongong LEP, our prime planning document, mentions correctional facilities in the definitions. But this land use appears in no zone anywhere in the city as permitted use. Does that imply that for any jail project to progress, the state would have to secure a rezone or use its state infrastructure powers?

Mr Carfield: That’s correct. This facility would not be permitted through the local environmental plan that applies across our local government area, however there is the State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) – Infrastructure, which does permit this use in some zones.

Cr Brown: Now, the state infrastructure SEPP talks about having prescribed zones, for correctional facilities. They are RU2 Rural, RU4 Primary Production, RU6 Transitional, B4 Mixed business, SP1 and SP2 Infrastructure. The way I read our LEP maps, for the proposed jail site we’ve got sections of R1 and R2 residential, section [of] environmental protection, E3 environmental management and industrial [zones] 1 and 2. And there’s a bit of SP2 zone, which is the old Catholic Cemetery. Are there any other possible zones in that areas where it might be permissible under the state infrastructure SEPP?

Mr Carfield: That’s an accurate report. The SP2 infrastructure does apply to a small portion of the land, which you’ve described as the Catholic Cemetery. That would be the only portion of the site which has been published for which this land use would be permissible.

Cr Brown: So without some powerful over-riding planning instrument, the only part of the identified land site this jail could go on at present, under today’s infrastructure SEPP, is the cemetery. Is that correct?

Mr Carfield: That is correct.

Cr Brown: Does [changing land controls] require an act of parliament?

Mr Carfield: No, the changes to the SEPP could be done by the minister for planning, and changes to the Local Environmental Plan could be done by the council or the state.

Cr Brown: The other possible pathway here is if this gets determined as state significant infrastructure, if it has a dollar value over a certain level, $30 million. Does that change the decision making pathway?

Mr Carfield: Yes it does. So if it’s declared state significant infrastrcuture, then the state is the consent authority. It removes the council from that decision making process.

Cr Brown: So the minister could then organise to use the Independent Planning Commission to use that power, or use himself just to issue consent? 

Mr Carfield: That’s correct.

Cr Brown: There you go. So you could wake up one morning and the minister could start the bulldozers rolling.