Interviewee: John Barker, born 1939
Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
for Baulkham Hills Shire Council
Date of Interview: 7th Dec 2001
Transcription: Glenys Murray, June, 2006
This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee
OK we’ve got as far as Baulkham Hills now, you were just taking up the position at Baulkham Hills Shire Council. What was the Council like? Can you describe it as it was in 1966?
Well I took the position of Assistant Subdivision Engineer, at that time there were about 35 people on the indoor staff of Council, about 35,000 population in the Shire and some 250 on the outdoor staff. I didn’t have very much to do with the actual Council until 1970 when I took over the position of Subdivision Engineer, having been the assistant. When I started I was given some fairly menial tasks to do, supervising small road construction works, being carried out by private contractors in conjunction with subdivision applications which had been submitted to the Council. I used to check the engineering plans to make sure that they covered all the matters that needed to be covered - that the standard and the widths and quality of the work which would come as a result of those plans was adequate to meet Council’s requirements. I’d then approve those plans and when the work was being carried out, I’d supervise the construction. When the work had been completed I’d then process the release of the plan of subdivision through the Deputy Shire Clerk. In those days, I would say that all the engineering requirements had been met and he would then take the step of checking the other outstanding requirements and would then release the plan to the surveyor or developer who would then take it to the Registrar General’s Office for registration.
So, for the first four years I was assistant to the Subdivision Engineer and he probably gave me most of the jobs that he didn’t want to do and he kept all the prestige ones for himself - all the ones that were big developments and I dealt with all the fringe operators, some of the fringe contractors, some of whom were difficult to get on with, one of whom thought that he could get me to carry out inspections in the field from my office by giving me a small sum of money in a brown paper bag. I soon put him to rest and told him that he didn’t have enough money to pay me and that I would be coming out to carry out the inspections and if it wasn’t right well then he would be told that it wasn’t right.
So that plan backfired huh?
That plan backfired on him.
I suppose that when you do work for a council you can be subjected to that kind of stuff...
I think there was a tendency to do that because other authorities such as Sydney Water, or the Water Board in those days, it was a recognised means by which their inspectors subsidised their salaries and they took payment from plumbers and drainers to sign off the work as being satisfactory and I think some of the people who were experienced in doing that work and got into the road construction work thought that the same system applied. It might have applied in other councils, it didn’t apply in Baulkham Hills, not as far as I or the Subdivision Engineer was concerned. We might get an odd bottle of scotch at Christmas time and some of those I refused to accept. One fellow offered me a bottle of scotch once and I told him to keep it and give it to his employees when they’d fixed the pits that I’d condemned. I’d condemned about fifty of his drainage pits on a subdivision.
Were you regarded as a sort of a hard man in Council?
I think so, I think I’ve always been able to make a decision and while they might have thought that some of my decisions were harsh, I think I got respect from the developers and the contractors because they knew that I would make a decision and that I wouldn’t dilly dally around and waste their time which some other people tend to do. One of the contractors, a fellow by the name of Wal Wragg (?) from Western Earth Moving once said to me “John you’re particularly difficult, thank God you’ve only got one eye, with two eyes you’d be bloody impossible” and yet we got on reasonably well together. He used to bluster and storm and carry on and I’d just keep saying no.
Where were the big growth areas, you talked about subdivisions, where were they happening?
Well in the 70’s it was generally around the North Rocks, Carlingford area, there were a lot of applications there, there was Baulkham Hills, West Baulkham Hills, subdivisions occurring then, and then a little bit later the Crestwood area was released and there was a lot of subdivisions occurring there. Some major subdivisions - the gas company did a major subdivision, it was called West Baulkham Hills and I supervised all the construction of those works.
Right, there’s been some publicity in the press lately about Rouse Hill subdivision, the Premier called it I think “pretty bad”, have you heard of this?
Well the problem at Rouse Hill is that the Council is obliged to ensure that developers create relatively small blocks. The Department of Planning requires fifteen dwellings per hectare, and to achieve this you’ve got to create blocks down to about four hundred and fifty square metres. You’ve got a block of four hundred and fifty square metres and you build a house on it that’s four hundred and fifty square metres of floor space and maybe two stories, but once you put the driveway and the paths in there’s not much grass left and so what you’re tending to get out there is large houses on small blocks and no real room for any trees.
The other problems out there are that the development has been very fragmented because its been driven by the Rouse Hill Infrastructure Consortium who finance the water and sewer rather than the government finance it. So by providing that finance they were able to dictate the rate and the areas where the land was released. They built the sewerage treatment plant at the north end of the release almost at Annangrove Road and they’ve been carrying out developments in that area for new housing. The problem being the roads are not adequate to get to the area, there’s no community facilities, there’s no schools and the people feel really isolated. So it’s the isolation, I suspect that caused the Premier to say that it’s an unsatisfactory development. The government has just agreed to put three hundred and twenty three million over four years into providing an upgrade of Windsor Road and Old Windsor Road so that at least the people in private cars can get to the area. They have also announced that within the next four years there will be six hundred million spent on transitways to the Rouse Hill development. These bus transitways will provide public transport where there is virtually none at the moment.
That’s the biggest problem at the moment, public transport is lacking in those areas.
Well yes, the only railway line in the Shire is 100 metres at Carlingford at the end of the line and all the rest of the services are provided by private bus operators. It’s not the same as having a government bus because the private bus owners only operate the bus to make a profit, and so late at night and on the weekends there’s very few bus services, so people end up having two cars per household or more and this further increases the problem of Windsor Road and Old Windsor Road traffic congestion that occurs, there’s been something in the order of forty thousand people move in to the Rouse Hill area with very little infrastructure provided. So it’s a catch up situation now, we are trying to catch up and get the roads in place and get the community facilities in place so that the people do have some facilities.
Now back in 1966 when you joined the Council you said that there were only thirty five thousand people in the shire, how many are there today?
Well something in the order of one hundred and thirty five to one hundred and forty thousand people, so its grown dramatically. The staff of the Council that was about 35 indoor staff and about 250 outdoor staff has changed quite dramatically too because the total number of staff now is about 530. That’s equivalent full time persons, but the outdoor staff is only about 130 so all of the additional reserves, additional roads have not resulted in an increase in the outdoor staff but rather a dramatic reduction. This has been achieved by contracting out a lot of the services and Council took a view about ten years ago that we wouldn’t go down the purchaser/provider split which some other councils were promoting and turn our outdoor staff into a business unit but rather that we would keep a minimal level as we believed to be able to carry out work so that we can keep our people employed but also to keep the contactors honest, because in some councils where they fully contracted out all their services they found that when they re-tended for works that the actual cost of the work has dramatically increased and they no longer have the capability of doing the work themselves, so they have no option but to accept the contractors price to carry out the work.
So in your opinion in hindsight how has it moved from doing in house to contracting out. Has it been beneficial to the council or not?
I think it has, I think we get more work done now for the dollar with all indoor staff, council staff doing the work. By contracting it out we’ve been able to get a lot of work done by the specialists and I think we’ve been able to achieve economies by doing that, but I think a mix that we determined is the mix that most local government will probably go back to, even those who have totally contracted out their services some time in the future.
Let me trace your career at Baulkham Hills Council from the beginning. What was the very first subdivision that you worked on when you joined the Council?
The first subdivision was a little subdivision in West Pennant Hills in Coral Tree Drive and that’s where the fellow suggested that he might give me an amount of money in a brown paper bag if I let him go ahead and build the road without inspections. That was only about a four lot subdivision. I think it took him about six months to build the short section of road that was involved. He kept on calling me up and saying the thing was ready, I’d keep going out and having a look at it and it was hopeless. I’d tell him so. In the end what I did was tell him that every time he rang me up and asked me to go out there and it wasn’t ready I wouldn’t come back for a week to look at it again. Finally after months and months and months, he finally got the work completed satisfactorily and the Council took it over.
Now you must have known a lot about concrete by then and other things, building laws, how much do you have to read and study to keep abreast of all the changes and so on?
Oh well, I did a lot of concrete work in Parramatta Council, I assisted in the building of a concrete road, Wharf Road in Ermington, and that’s still there. At Strathfield Council I supervised a section of Homebush Road, which is built in concrete and that’s still there. That’s probably a testimony to the quality of the work. And I’ve supervised a lot of other concrete construction over the time, of course the Uni course involved concrete construction, design, actual mixing of concrete, so I’ve got the technical expertise and the practical experience.
Did you find most of the contractors were up to scratch, that they’d do good work?
Some did and some didn’t, I remember at one stage there was an Italian who was pouring concrete curb and gutter and I was so frustrated with the way he was doing it that I said to him “this is the way you do it” and I took the trowel off him and I showed him how to trowel up and over the curb to get a nice smooth finish and he looked at me and said “how do you know that” and I said “because I know how to do it, that’s the way you should be doing it”
Usually Italians are pretty good with concrete, with tiling and so on.
Yes they are this one just didn’t finish off very well.
Did you deal a lot with the Councillors?
Not in the first four years. When I became Subdivision Engineer then I was required to attend Council meetings.
Tell me about that.
Well in those days Council was situated up in the main street of Castle Hill, the Council was run by the Shire President - a fellow by the name of Bernie Mullane, who all in all was President for 30 years. He was of Irish descent and of Irish temper and he had many occasions that he let me know that he was displeased at what I had done, however I managed to survive most of those episodes because I believe that I have never done anything that I shouldn’t have done and the recommendations that I’ve given were the best recommendations I could put forward. If the Council didn’t like my recommendation then they had the opportunity to take another course of action, which they quite often did.
You were involved of course with subdivisions but also with industrial development. Can you tell me about your activities there?
Yes well after I was appointed as the Subdivision Engineer in the early 70’s I became aware that in the Castle Hill industrial area there were approvals being granted which did not require any construction works to the existing roads. These existing roads had existed from the time when there were market gardens in the area and they were totally inadequate to carry the loads of industrial traffic, so I put a report to Council that suggested a number of alternatives as to how that problem could be overcome and the Council agreed to the one of the propositions that I put forward and then I became responsible for supervising all of the engineering works that were carried out in conjunction with these industrial developments as well as putting conditions on the actual approvals to make sure that the Council’s interests were protected. So that occurred in the mid 70’s and those conditions still apply today to any sort of development that is similar to that which started then. So I think I was instrumental in saving Council a lot of money in the long term by doing that.
What sort of industrial development was there in the Shire, say from the 1960’s?
There was very little. There was a very small industrial area at North Parramatta and a very small industrial area at Loyalty Road at North Rocks and that was it. One of the reasons for creating the Castle Hill industrial area was to try and get the small backyard operators out of their garages and out of their residential area and into an industrial area where they could rent units for mechanical repairs, panel beating and all that which was happening in housing areas and causing a lot of complaints to the Council. The Council had this idea and I think it succeeded fairly well because a lot of those problems which were evident at that time are no longer evident. Some people still carry out industrial type activities in their houses and their garages but at least now Council has the opportunity to close that down because there is somewhere else for them to go.
John, the Norwest Business Park is a recent industrial development, can you tell me about your input in that?
Yes, the Norwest Business Park was the brainchild of a fellow by the name of Doug Lanceley, who was the managing director of North Sydney Brick and Tile. North Sydney Brick and Tile used to have their brickworks at North Sydney, or St Leonards, and in the early fifties they decided that they would buy the land, a very large tract of land, between Windsor Road and Old Windsor Road, which was the area where they were obtaining their clay for their brickworks. In the mid fifties they decided that it was no longer economic to dig the clay out from what is basically almost Seven Hills and cart it all the way to St Leonards and then bring the bricks back to Baulkham Hills where all the development was about to occur and so they decided to shift their plant which they did and they established their plant in Old Windsor Road in the late fifties. However the amount of land they bought was far greater than the amount of land they would need to excavate for the purpose of making bricks. Doug Lanceley who was the managing director decided to create a business park. He went overseas to the States and to England and looked at a number of business parks and came back with this concept.
I was involved with him and his consultant in the planning of the business park and it was fairly hard going for a while but eventually the Council agreed with it and it started to develop. The problem being with all these entrepreneurial type activities the costs ran away and the budget was looking pretty lean, so Doug Lanceley transferred money from North Sydney Brick and Tile Company to Norwest Business Park. He was managing director of the company, but it was a family company and the other members of the family company decided that they weren’t so happy about supporting this brainchild of his, this concept of his, and they sacked him as the managing director. Unfortunately he took it to heart and he suicided as a result of that action.
When it first started as I said it was quite slow in developing but after a few years it started to pick up and more and more developments occurred. More new developments in recent times have been much more substantial and the Norwest Business Park is now a major business park in the Sydney area and the type of development has changed as well. There is now more office complexes and some major corporations have their headquarters there now.
The entire Norwest Business Park and North Sydney Brick and Tile Company was sold some years ago to Malaysian interests and they are now developing the entire area. A recent parcel of land with an area of approximately twelve hectares, which is about thirty acres, was sold for forty six million dollars to a pharmaceutical company for them to establish their headquarters and manufacturing plant.
So the Baulkham Hills Shire is attracting quite large companies then is it?
Yes it’s becoming, the Norwest Business Park is becoming the pharmaceutical centre of Sydney.
So what was your part in all that?
Well I was responsible for the engineering input in all the layouts, the designs, the supervision of the construction, so all the engineering input for the Norwest Business Park has what’s called onsite detention, which means that the water that runs off from the development is contained and let out at a slow rate. It was one of the first developments in Sydney to incorporate this concept and it’s now a concept that is being adopted everywhere so that after the development occurs, the runoff is no greater than it was before. This protects the creeks and the rivers downstream.
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