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February 4, 2023

NSW Health withholds hospital docs

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The NSW Government has offered Byron Shire Council the opportunity to buy back the Mullumbimby Hospital site. Photo Aslan Shand
The NSW Government is withholding critical documents on the state of the Mullumbimby Hospital site. Photo Aslan Shand

Hans Lovejoy

NSW Health bureaucrats have refused to release all documents relating to asbestos at the closed Mullumbimby hospital following calls from the Mullumbimby Hospital Action Group (MHAG).

Asbestos is known to be within one section of the hospital building, yet residents claim it is not a health threat as it is contained.

The Echo asked if NSW Health are prepared to release these documents and a spokesperson replied, ‘The extent of the presence of asbestos in the Mullumbimby Hospital buildings has been documented in the 2017 Hazmat Report which has been made available to the public.

‘This report informs the remediation and future management of the site.’

MHAG spokesperson Cr Basil Cameron told The Echo, ‘Our community is entitled to full disclosure and the reluctance of NSW Health to release all relevant information regarding asbestos is disappointing’.

‘MHAG has briefed Council on the background and will be meeting with Council this week for further discussions’.

As for where negotiations were at, Cr Cameron told The Echo, ‘As a councillor, I have met with the general manager and community groups in addition to ongoing discussions with the mayor and MHAG. It is important that the negotiations are informed by community opinion and vision.’

Buying back a community asset

The recent offer from health minister Brad Hazzard for Council to purchase the hospital site from the government is also facing opposition, with both Council and community group MHAG expressing their desire for the property to be gifted instead.

MHAG, with the support of the Mullumbimby chamber of commerce, say they have written to the state government stating that they do not want to buy back something that was previously gifted to them.

It’s a position supported by mayor Simon Richardson, who told The Echo that Council have also written to Minister Hazzard requesting the site be gifted to Council.

Lobbying needed

And it appears there is little the public can do regarding the secret transfer of management from a trust to government in 2010. As previously reported, the community member-led trust that managed the hospital from 1902 was inexplicably terminated after they failed to reach a quorum. No public announcement was made.

MP Tamara Smith told The Echo that after speaking to colleagues, ‘who are knowledgeable about laws around Crown lands, the short answer is that the minister can sell Crown land any time they like and they can dissolve trusts.’

‘The minister can do what she or he likes under the Crown Lands Act 1898, with a few exceptions and [my colleagues] don’t think Mullum hospital site fits those exceptions. The issue is a moral one, not a legal one in my opinion.’

Ms Smith provided The Echo with documents that indicate the Mullumbimby hospital site belongs to Health Administration Corp. She says, ‘The Government Gazette announcement [says] that they had acquired the land in 2010.’

‘Crown Lands shouldn’t have had any more involvement with it – it seems to us that the land is currently legally under health minister Brad Hazzard’s control and any lobbying to get the site used for the purpose(s) the community wants should be directed at him and probably the NSW premier.’

No consultation

‘On September 16, 2015 we asked the Area Health District media spokesperson about the sort of community consultation that would be taking place (I already had a commitment in writing from then-health minister Jillian Skinner that it would occur) and this is what they wrote back to us: 

Q: What form of consultation will take place to determine future use of the site?

A: This is yet to be determined. Consistent with NSW Health policy and NSW government asset recycling policies, property assets that are surplus to the requirements of NSW Health are usually divested with the funds raised being retained by NSW Health for reinvestment in new health facilities.

‘Part of the site acquired was occupied by the St Vincent De Paul Coolamon Villa aged-care centre; a resources centre; and some vacant land. These areas are in the process of being transferred back to Crown Lands with the remaining Mullumbimby hospital site being retained by the Health Administration Corporation.’

Former health minister ignores community

Ms Smith also supplied The Echo with an email to then-health minister Skinner’s chief of staff in September 2015 that outlines the Mullumbimby Hospital Action Group’s concerns over the lack of community consultation over how this land will be used in the future.

It reads, ‘[T]here are a lot of heartstrings tied to it as it’s been dedicated to the community for over 100 years.’

Ms Smith told The Echo there was no reply from Ms Skinner’s office.

She told the minister’s chief-of-staff at the the time that the group ‘has some fantastic ideas on how the site of the old hospital could be used for a community aged-care and social-housing precinct.’

‘All we ask is that the minister agree to a meeting with the action group, to be briefed before any decision is made. Whether that requires a visit on her next scheduled trip to visit the new Byron Bay hospital (which by the way is coming along very nicely, very exciting), or we could arrange to have MHAG delegates meet her in her parliamentary office.

‘It would mean a lot to the community up here if we could get at least a commitment for this group to be heard. If it’s not too much to ask, would your office be able to prepare a letter from the minister, agreeing to a meeting at her next convenience?’

A volunteer meeting for those wanting to keep the hospital land in community hands is held each Tuesday at the Middle Pub from 6pm.

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