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Contents > Perceptions of Shopping Centre Development in Sydney: a celebratory or more complex history?by Bailey Matthew
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Business, Media and Government

All these benefits were loudly lauded in the local newspapers in which shopping centres advertised heavily. The papers covered construction phases in detail, building up feverishly as opening days approached (‘Army of workers’, 1966, p. 8). The openings themselves offered grand spectacles that filled the headlines while hundreds of bargains covered inner pages. The big shopping centres were said to herald a new way of life for suburban shoppers: a transformation of shopping from chore to pleasure: a site where domestic duties and leisure crossed over and became one. And like the politicians whose opening speeches featured heavily on their front pages, the media hailed entrepreneurial man for providing this new world in the suburbs. The Sun declared that at Roselands ‘the visitor’s first reaction is to wonder…at the sort of courage that was needed to sink six million pounds into a spot by-passed by commerce’. And that one could only ‘respect…the men who had…[this]…necessary courage’ (Barrett, 1998, p. 126).

Politicians of all persuasions praised the businessmen prepared to make such contributions to the passage of national progress. When NSW Premier Bob Heffron opened Miranda Fair in March 1964, he cited it as a wonderful example of the area’s rapid change declaring that in his overseas trip the previous year he had not seen such an impressive shopping centre. At the end of 1965, the new Liberal premier Robin Askin declared that Roseland’s ‘million dollar spread of merchandise… brings the city to the suburbs in a glittering way that must rival even the fabled Persian Bazaars’ (Barrett, 1998, p. 124). A year later he described Bankstown Square as ‘private enterprise at its best’ (‘Bankstown Square Special Feature’, 1966, p. 6).

At times the interests of politicians and businessmen overlapped in ways that were not entirely appropriate. During its attempts to have a green belt land release rezoned in 1960, Myer, much to the outrage of the local progress association, flew Bankstown councillors to Melbourne for a luxury weekend (The Torch, 3 April 1958; 16 November 1961, p. 1; 30 November 1961, p. 1; 14 December 1961, p. 18). Not long afterwards, Lend Lease, in what one of its project managers described as ‘a punt’, spent over £1 million on residential properties in Bankstown’s heart (Murphy, 1984, pp. 108-9). They then applied to have these properties rezoned, and to acquire public land in order to build what was to become Bankstown Square (Report of the Town Planner,1963). During deliberations, the company was approached with a bribe guaranteeing a favourable decision. They notified the police, a sting was set up with hidden microphones at covert meetings, £5,000 was deposited in a councillors pot plant, arrests were made, aldermen charged and council dismissed – although not before it had approved development (Sydney Morning Herald, 15 April 1964, pp. 6, 13; The Torch, 29 April 1964, pp. 1, 3-4, 20).

Where Bankstown Square’s development approval process was compromised by the corrupt activities of a local government, the construction of Westfield’s Eastgardens shopping centre in the early 1980s received extraordinary levels of support from the NSW State Government. The General Motors Holden at Pagewood plant closed in 1982, costing the area 1,000 jobs. Concerned about rising unemployment, the Wran government brokered a deal whereby Westfield and the W.D & H.O. Wills tobacco company would share the old GMH site (Botany and Randwick Sites Development Bill, 1982, pp. 626-7). As it was not big enough for both companies, the government threw in some public land to enlarge it. A neighbouring bus depot site was sold privately to Westfield for an undisclosed figure; land was rezoned in a matter of days; and there were claims that at least some transactions were signed in Canberra to avoid or delay paying NSW stamp duty. The hasty arrangements were carried out in secrecy, with little public knowledge prior to the announcement of the deal on 10 April 1982. When the rezoning was challenged in the Land and Environment Court by three smaller surrounding shopping centres, the government introduced legislation to overrule the court process (Margo, 2001, pp. 161-2; Sydney Morning Herald, 5 August 1982, p. 2; 26 August 1982, p. 3; 8 September 1982, p. 2; 15 September 1982, p. 10; 15 October 1982, p. 12). A key argument throughout the saga was the employment that Westfield would bring to the area.

These are just a few examples to illustrate the power of big business and its close relationship with government processes. In the case of shopping centres, this is justified by the perception of the benefits, outlined earlier, that shopping centres bring to communities. This becomes problematic, though, if this perception is changed. To illustrate this point, I want to now look at some of the less than beneficial aspects of shopping centre development.

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Contents > Perceptions of Shopping Centre Development in Sydney: a celebratory or more complex history?by Bailey Matthew