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Occupying Thompson Square and saving St Albans Common

There is something so extraordinary happening in the Hawkesbury that I’m amazed global media isn’t shouting the story from the rooftops. From the Occupation of Thompson Square, to the saving of St Albans Common, communities are saying enough’s enough,

and rising up to protect their historically significant communal spaces.

It is winter, temperatures have plummeted, but each day, and all through the night, community volunteers, in a small tent in Windsor, continue their 24-hour, seven-day-a-week vigil to protect Thompson Square, Australia’s oldest public square.

It’s impossible to overstate how important this is! On the 23 July 2017, the Occupation will have been ongoing for four years. FOUR YEARS!!!!! Four years of people dragging themselves out of bed in the middle of the night to go and sit in a tent on the side of a busy road, day in and day out, because they care about their town’s history, and their community’s future. That’s hundreds of volunteers filling 84 shifts a week!


It’s the longest continuous occupation of a heritage site in 
Australia’s history, and it reflects the awakening of communities around the world who have begun to realise what’s at stake if they don’t act now.


As Joni Mitchell once sang, “Don’t it always seem to go /

That you don’t know what you’ve got / Till it’s gone / They paved

paradise / And put up a parking lot.”

Well, the people of the Hawkesbury know what they’ve got, and they’re fighting hard to protect it. To date, around 40,000 other people have also signed their names on a petition to support them.


The catalyst for the Occupation of Thompson Square was the 
decision by the Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) in 2011 to replace the historic Windsor Bridge (built in 1874). Community Action for Windsor Bridge (CAWB) started in the same year and, over the last five and a half years, has won volunteer and heritage awards for the work it’s been doing.


The RMS’s decision to demolish the bridge has been condemned 
by heritage groups nationally. The new bridge would destroy the heritage precinct with a wide concrete structure and change the grade of Thompson Square to make it unsuitable for community activities.


John Lindop, who’s manned two shifts a week at the 
Occupation Tent with his wife, since 2013, is passionate about the Square: “If we demolish this, where do people go?” he asks.

The Square has been the focal point of many community activities, like Cinema in the Square, concerts and wool-bombing events, and on Sundays people flock to the area. It’s an important public space in the heart of Windsor.


CAWB say that replacing the bridge would also not address 
the increasing road congestion that’s causing traffic chaos. The community is after a long-term transport solution that also protects the heritage assets of the town. They’d like the historic Windsor Bridge renovated for light and local traffic, and a bypass bridge built for heavy traffic further along the river, where the flood impacts on it would also be less severe.


Why occupy Thompson Square?


This area has been the ‘food basket’ for both aboriginal and 
European settlements. According to Hawkesbury councillor and CAWB member, Peter Reynolds (Hawkesbury Gazette, 16 Jan, 2017), it is an important archaeological site. “Only 12 inches under the dirt beneath the CAWB tent are Aboriginal artefacts found to be 6,000 years old.”


Built in 1795, Windsor is also the third oldest place of British 
settlement on the Australian mainland, and the oldest rural township in Australia. Peter Reynolds points out that Thompson Square is the only streetscape you can stand in, in this country, built under the reign of the Georgian kings. Because of the opportunities given to ex-convicts in the area, and the fact that Governor Lachland Macquarie named George St after the King, and the Square next to it after an ex-convict, giving them equal status, Windsor is also considered to be the home of the “Fair Go”.


There are many lessons we can learn from its history.


It’s so easy to forget, for example, how crucially important it 
is to protect fertile farmland. On two occasions, in the early days of the colony (1806 and 1810), Sydney was saved from starvation with food provided by the farmers of the Hawkesbury and transported to Sydney via the river.


History shows us how people have survived and thrived in the 
face of many challenges over hundreds of years. When we study our history, we learn how to grow the resilience we need to survive into the future.


Kate Mackaness, a former local school teacher, is passionate 
about the rich history of Thompson Square: “When you stand in Thompson Square you’re looking out over the oldest continuously cultivated agricultural land in the nation.”

Kate Mackaness

Kate Mackaness looking out over Windsor Bridge


Kate took me up the original Georgian staircase in the 
Macquarie Arms. Built in 1815, it’s the oldest mainland pub in Australia. We looked out through the same old glass that Governor Macquarie himself would have looked out of.


“The wondrous thing about seeing it from here is that you 
can see it though an 18th century lens. You can imagine how soul-sick, hungry, lonely and desperate they must have been for a landscape that was familiar to the one they had left behind. Back then, this was the furthest point from the centre of the known universe (London). It was populated by ex-cons, and yet they built the most extraordinary buildings. Francis Greenway was an ex-convict but he became Australia’s first government architect and built St Matthew’s Anglican Church here.”


“This is such an important place in our history. If we lose this 
it’s gone forever!”


As we talk, Kate waves at the passing truckies. “They’re all on 
our side”, she says.


The Occupation Tent has become a de facto tourist 
information centre and I’m given a historic walking tour guide for the town.


Kate talks about how “heritage tourists spend more and stay 
longer than any other tourists. A well-managed heritage precinct outperforms comparable business outcomes and real estate values go up.” It’s so obviously in the town’s interests to protect this precinct.


“It is impossible to contemplate losing … the price is too high,” 
she says.


Studying history trains us in long-term, not just short-term 
thinking.


The Occupation has brought the community together - 
that’s one of the important roles of public squares. It’s generated dialogue on the long-term future of the Hawkesbury, and its power has been in the one-on-one conversations that continue to remind people of their rights to have a say in how their community is shaped into the future.


Rivers can connect and rivers can divide us. While politics are 
divided over the Hawkesbury, the community is connected like never before.


“We’re all the richer for it,” says Kate.


The RMS say they hope to start construction on the bridge in 
2018 and complete it in 2019.


To find out more about CAWB, visit www.cawb.com.au

 

Saving St Albans Common

St Albans Common

North of Windsor, and tucked away in a place described by locals as ‘The Forgotten Valley’, the tiny village of St Albans, with a population of 305 (2011 census including its surrounding area), recently took on the NSW State Government and won, in a battle to save its Common. It also drew attention to a much larger battle, the one to stop the potential privatisation of all Crown Land in NSW, including travelling stock routes and coastal reserves.


Historically, St Albans was one of Australia’s earliest 
settlements and, like Windsor, critical to the fledgling Colony’s food security.


Eventually, settlers and emancipated convicts arrived. The 
former convicts were usually only given small holdings of less than 20 acres.

 

Because this wasn’t enough land to graze animals all year round, a group of locals started a petition to have land set aside as a common, for all commoners to share.


In 1853 the St Albans Common, comprising 2567 acres, was 
granted by Queen Victoria for the inhabitants of the Macdonald River. The grant was in perpetuity. It included a significant wetland and a lake which is prime habitat for birds and marine life.


Today, it is the oldest continuing working common in Australia 
and is responsible for ensuring farming can be viable for local people with small landholdings. It also allows public activities like Rural Fire Service training programs, and a recreational fishing competition which helps aid in carp reduction. As one of the most pristine bushlands around Sydney, it is a well-managed buffer for the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage area.


According to Commoner, Vera Zaccari: “There is a lot 
of voluntary work done by the Commoners to manage weed infestation and look after this ecologically sensitive area; the people in the valley see themselves as custodians for the greater good, and parts of the Common are healthier than some areas in the surrounding national park.”


There are currently 130 commons trusts in NSW that manage 
land used by commoners, but not all are as active as St Albans Common Trust, which has responsibly managed the land for over 160 years. The Common has made it financially viable to graze stock, and been a lifeblood for stock needing respite from drought, fire and flood. It is clearly an integral part of the small St Albans community, with well over a third of the community being Commoners, and is another example of communal land being preserved for the common good.


In late October 2016, the Commoners were alerted to a new 
Crown Land Management Bill being rushed through the NSW Legislative Council to repeal several Acts (including public reserves, stock routes, Crown Lands, etc).

According to Vera 
Zaccari: “It’s aim was to increase the inventory of Crown Land in NSW and to remove all protections that ensured Crown Land remained public. This Bill, if passed, would have meant the extinction of the St Albans Common and all Commons across the

State.”


The community was outraged, particularly with the speed 
with which the new Bill was being pushed through parliament.


“It is extraordinary that it did not attract more public 
attention. And, extraordinary that it was slipped in at the end of the Parliamentary session,” said Vera.


At an emergency meeting that united the community, a 
Community Action Group was formed to insist on the St Albans Common retaining its existing ownership and management by the local people.


From that night, an intense, highly professional and tightly run 
eight-day campaign was coordinated to call on the government to defer the Bill. The community rallied together and lobbied cross-benchers, blitzed the media and spread their story about deferring the Bill to save the Common. They even collected 6,000 signatures in three days, and delivered these to parliament.


The legislation passed, with amendments removing 
Commons from the Crown Land Management Act 2016. “We had ‘fee simple’ title to the land, granted in perpetuity. People had deeds in the bank with their names on them. We argued that the government couldn’t just come in and take what wasn’t theirs”, said Vera.


In February 2017, the government again proposed repealing 
the Commons Management Act 1989 so that it could dispense with Commoners and replace elected trustees with ministerial appointed trustees. One hundred and nineteen submissions were lodged objecting to the proposal, mostly from St Albans.

On 
April 21, a press release from the Minister for Lands and Forestry indicated the voices of St Albans had been heard and it was decided to not “change current arrangements”.


“Fortunately, we won our battle”, said Vera, “but the bigger 
battle for protecting public land in the rest of NSW now needs to be fought for each site.”


One thing’s for certain, the people of the Hawkesbury can 
clearly show us how to do it.


To find out more about St Albans visit 
www.stalbansnsw.com.au

 

The Crown Land Alliance is a dedicated network of people who had been working tirelessly to have the Bill deferred and draw public attention to what we in NSW all stood to lose. You can find out more about them here

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Margaret Johnson
It's a shame we have to "take our government on" but we will!

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