John Barker - Part 2


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 

Now the early subdivisions you worked on was as an Assistant Subdivision Engineer and you became Subdivision Engineer in 1970 wasn’t it?

That’s correct, yes.

Tell a bit about your career with Council since that time?

Well in 1979 the Shire Engineer indicated he was going to retire and Council called for applications for the position of Shire Engineer. At that stage I was number three in the order of merit in the Engineering Department and I applied for the position. The Deputy Engineer also applied for the position. After the interviews the Council decided that they would appoint me to the position rather than the Deputy Engineer, he wasn’t very happy about that and one of the reasons I applied was I knew that if he had been appointed to the position of Engineer I would have been looking for another employment because he and I didn’t get on very well, in fact he didn’t get on very well with the previous Engineer either. So I was successful and then within two years he left.

My first years as Shire Engineer were pretty difficult. I had a difficult time with the Shire President Bernie Mullane who wanted me to do what he wanted, not telling what I thought they should be doing and there were occasions when he would tell me that I should resign because he had lost confidence in me. I used to go home and talk to my wife and she used to support me and say “well don’t worry, councillors won’t be there forever or that councillor won’t be there forever” well then he did stay for a very long time.

‘Til 1987 I believe.

‘Til 1986. He was still there as a councillor in 1987, 1988, 1989 and 90 but he wasn’t the Shire President, but there was another councillor who was the Shire President at the time.

Now the population of Baulkham Hills was growing very rapidly over all those years and you must have seen quite a bit of development. What other things did you get involved with?

Well some of the major developments the athletics track, the Alfred Henry Whaling reserve. When I first started it was just a creek, a few trees with no development. The swimming pool was built during the time that I’ve been employed by council. A lot of new playing fields have been developed in that time. Of course the commercial centre at Castle Hill has dramatically increased from what was a small village centre down to a major shopping centre complex. The traffic, of course, has increased dramatically, it used to take me about five minutes to drive to work from West Pennant Hills or Carlingford and now its takes me about fifteen to twenty minutes to do the same trip because of the traffic congestion.

Baulkham Hills Memorial Swimming Pool, now known as Waves, was opened 11 March 1967

Well that’s the story of Sydney isn’t it? So what sort of changes did you instigate as Manager Engineering Services during your time with the Council?


Well I think I changed the way the Council staff built roads to start with. One of the things I had made all the subdividers and developers do was remove all the topsoil out from under roads before they put the fill in, so there wasn’t any subsidence or movement at a later date. Council staff hadn’t been doing that so it came as quite a shock to them when I went out on some of the construction jobs and told them that wasn’t the way I wanted it done. I wanted it done a different way. They said “we’ve never done it that way” and I said “that might be so but I want it done this way and that’s the way it’s going to be done” and it was done that way. And I think a lot of the roads that I’ve built have stood up to the traffic a lot better than some of the roads that were built using the previous method, which to my mind wasn’t a satisfactory method.

What else have we done? We’ve instituted programme maintenance rather than reactive maintenance, we contracted some of our parks and reserve work and then after three years we called tenders and the Council staff won the contract so, in my opinion, we’re as efficient if not more efficient than contractors and we’re capable of the quality of work which meets the expected standard. I think that to a certain extent is because of the directions I gave when I took over as Shire Engineer.

What about the M2, you had some input into that as well?

Yes I was the Council’s liaison officer between the Council, the community, the RTA and the M2 contractor, so for about two years I attended a lot of public meetings that were held between the members of the consortium, the RTA and the community. I saw my role to protect the Council’s interests, to try and mediate or conciliate in respect of any disputes, but to ensure that the quality of work that was done on Council roads met Council’s expectations. I think I achieved that. There were some areas where it was difficult to achieve but I think in an overall sense I achieved what the Council wanted.

Right that’s really given a great boost to transport in the Baulkham Hills area.

Yes I think one of the reasons for the dramatic increase in medium density housing in Baulkham Hills in the last three years has been the construction of the M2, because you have the bus service which provides from Windsor Road at Baulkham Hills a thirty minute service to Wynyard. Now there is no way anybody can drive a car to Wynyard in thirty minutes, there’s no way you can get a train from Epping or Parramatta that will get to the city in thirty minutes, so it’s made Baulkham Hills really close to the centre of the city. And the bus service is a bit expensive, it’s about ten dollars return per day, fifty dollars per week, but then when you take into account bridge tolls, parking fees in the city, it’s quite cheap.

Baulkham Hills Shire Council Chambers was opened 1982

Yes it’s certainly made it much more accessible, so did you have any input into the present Council building as well?

Yes, I was involved in the task group that decided to move from the main street of Castle Hill down to the present site in 1980. We did a survey of the people who came to the old Council Chambers. We asked what the problems were and whether they went anywhere else other than the Council Chambers. Ninety five percent of the people we surveyed said they only came to do business with the Council, they didn’t go anywhere else and ninety five percent said they found difficulty in finding somewhere to park. So Council decided to move the Council Chambers from the centre of Castle Hill down to a site on the corner of Showground Road and Carrington Road at Castle Hill, that building was completed in 1982.

It’s still a modern building, nineteen years old and I think it’s a better building than a lot of the buildings that have been built for other councils in the intervening period. It’s a very functional building and architecturally it’s outstanding. The design of the building was carried out under the supervision of a man by the name of Phil Zadro who ran Zadro constructions and his architect was a fellow by the name of Tom Simmett. Tom Simmett was also involved in the Hills Centre construction but in the case of the Council Chambers Phil Zadro ran the project and he kept it within budget, cost was about nine million dollars and the fact was that the Council paid for the building from the profits of land development it had carried out. Council had in the early 70’s decided that it would buy land and develop land and sell it for housing and take the profits rather than allow the other developers like Parkes Developments and Stocks & Holdings to take the profits and that was a really sound financial decision, although there are still some people who say Council should not be in that sort of activity, but it paid for the cost of the Council Chambers when otherwise the ratepayers would have had to pay for that, so there were substantial benefits in Council carrying out that commercial, entrepreneurial activity.

So what are you currently now responsible for in your position? (John retired in January 2002 and the responsibilites for today’s similar position have changed)

When I took over as Shire Engineer in 1979 I was responsible for roads, drains and parks. In the intervening period since 1989 I’ve become responsible for all community buildings, human services and emergency and bushfire services. These are all areas where as part of the restructuring of Council have come under my control. So I’m not only dealing with the things that I started off dealing with in 1979, but had a lot of other tasks placed upon me in the intervening period. In one way that’s been a very good thing because it’s given me an added challenge, things to keep me interested in the position and I think I’ve performed satisfactorily and maybe some would say more than satisfactorily in all the tasks that I’ve undertaken.

The human services tasks were particularly difficult because I don’t have any training in that area, nor did I have any real experience in that area. Human services is what’s called community services, it’s aged services, community development, long day care and child services and youth services.

Balcombe Heights Child Care Centre in May 2006. It was founded 1984 - the first in the shire

So when I took over responsibility in that area I told the people who were working in the area, that I couldn’t tell them what to do, but I would be asking them what they were doing, what were the options and if they’d made a decision, why they had made that decision. That was how I would make sure that I was satisfied with what they were doing. And that seems to work pretty well.

Is this in addition to the maintenance and construction activities?

Oh yes this is all in addition to that.

So it’s very different isn’t it from the original shire engineer’s job?

Oh very different, as I said even the community buildings area. There is two hundred and fifty buildings in the shire and that was a tremendous increase in workload. One thing I did lose about ten years ago was control of subdivisions and that’s now in the planning services group.

You’ve had enough experience with subdivisions already, haven’t you?

I think I have a fair experience in subdivisions.

What do you enjoy about the human services, the community services?

Dealing with people, I always like to deal with people, I like to try and satisfy their requests if it’s possible. My basic trait is as a conciliator, although I was told once that there is a dictator there waiting to get out. It’s the sense of achievement that you feel when you’ve resolved issues to general satisfaction. You’re never going to resolve issues to everybody’s satisfaction.

When you’re dealing with an engineering problem, it’s either right or it isn’t, but humans can be pretty unpredictable can’t they?

Very unpredictable, very difficult some people.

What sort of philosophy in your work have you carried with you all your working life?

I think the one I said from Parramatta Council, if you’re going to wait ‘til you can do something perfectly nothing will ever get done.

How do you think Baulkham Hills Shire is looked at by other outside of the shire, how do they see it?

Baulkham Hills Shire is a leading local government area in Sydney, I have no doubt of that. We’re leaders in many areas, leaders in administration, we’re very sound financially. From the problems at the end of 1990 when the Hills Centre was completed when the Council was bankrupt in all practical senses, we’ve now built our reserves up and we’re financially stable, we have no outstanding loans. We are being able to do more and more works each year as a result of the fact that we don’t have to pay the loans off. In years back it got to the stage where the amount of loans we were able to get were only sufficient to pay back the loans we already owed, so we were getting no benefit. About five years ago the Council decided it would not borrow any more money. We’ve done that and as I said we’ve now paid it all off and the Council is debt free with very substantial assets.

Is Baulkham Hills Shire regarded as a very desirable place to live by others?

One of the most desirable places to live in Sydney, if you want to live in the North West of Sydney. I suspect that Cremorne is also a very desirable place to live.

Well it’s quite different to Baulkham Hills, houses are smaller I think.

Yes one of the problems that we spoke about before about Rouse Hill is the fact that there is not enough room to plant any trees in the new developments. In the old developments a lot of those were just grass paddocks and they're now covered with houses, but because the blocks were bigger and the houses were smaller substantial trees have been grown. In a lot of these areas now there are substantially more trees than there ever were at the time subdivision.

Street tree planting in Castle Hill 2005

Has that been an initiative of yours to re-green the Baulkham Hills Shire?

Well the Council’s initiative was to re green, it’s very keen on trees, street tree planting, planting trees in reserves. It’s all part of a philosophy of trying to recreate the green treed environment. Of course it does have some side effects, when we get major storms and trees get blown over... we spent the last three weeks cleaning up from two storms around the shire. Large number of trees blown down or branches broken off.

Still it’s preferable to have trees than none at all. It looks pretty bare without trees.

Most people think so, but some people don’t.

Talking about environmental matters again, when did environmental impact statements really start to happen for the Council?

I think the concerns with the environment really commenced about ten years ago. Up to that stage there wasn’t a great deal of concern. Nobody worried too much about the silt that was running off from a new road, running down into the creek and washing into the river system. Over the last ten years the requirements have intensified and today anybody that is doing any sort of work that disturbs the soil has got to provide all the soil retention measures to prevent any material washing off the site, down into the creeks and rivers.

So there’s been a huge leap in consciousness.

A huge leap in the last ten years.

Right excellent. So this phenomenal growth that the Shire has had from thirty five thousand.

Thirty five thousand to one hundred and thirty five thousand or more.

That’s a hundred thousand people in thirty years.

So it amazing amount of growth and that’s one of the things that I look back on is the growth that’s occurred while I’ve been employed by the Council.

You’ve been part of that haven’t you?

I think I’ve been a reasonable part of that. Supervised a lot of the road construction, subdivision works.

What quality of life do you think the people of the Shire are enjoying then?

I think they enjoy an extremely good quality of life. As I said at Rouse Hill we’re having problems trying to catch up because of the fragmented nature of the development, but I think we’ve got plans in place to do that over the next few years and those people will then get the benefit from those works and services.

So are there any major problems that are facing the Shire today, there must be some.

Well I think the big problem facing local government is the fact that the state government is continuing to devolve responsibility to local government without providing adequate funding. The councils are required to do things like social plans and disability action plans which all involve not only studies but then subsequent expenditure, as a result of directions from the state government. But there’s no funding from the state government to do these things, so councils are being forced to take on a lot more social responsibility, previously the responsibility of the state government, without any sustenance or funds to do that.

So could there be a funding crisis, you mean?

Well the council can only spend money that it can raise from revenue, but it might mean that the services can’t be provided as quickly as they ought to be provided.