Forty years on, has Tom Uren’s vision become permanently dimmed? On 6 Aug 1974 Tom Uren, the Federal Minister for Urban and Regional Development in the Whitlam Government succeeded in steering the Glebe Lands (Appropriation) Act (1974) through the Parliament.1 Under this legislation the Federal Government acquired the Glebe Estate, comprising 723 dwelling properties and 27 commercial buildings on approximately 57 acres, which had always been a working class area in which tenants rented from the Church of England.

The Glebe Lands, consisted primarily of the two Church estates of St Phillip’s and Bishopthorpe and were the remnants of what had once been a 400 acre grant to the church by Governor Arthur Phillip; land that had originally been ‘given over to the Rev. Richard Johnston … to clear and farm’.2 In 1824 the lands came under the control of the Church and School Corporation which was created ‘for the maintenance of religion and education of our youth of the Colony of NSW.’3 Much of the rest was subsequently sold off to private development, but St Phillip’s and Bishopthorpe were developed in the 1840s, 50s and 60s as Church-owned worker’s housing.

By the early 1970s the cost of maintaining the aged, deteriorating premises with income limited due to fixed rents, proved to be sufficient motivation for the Church to plan to sell part of its land. In addition, the NSW State Government was planning to plough major expressways through Glebe, further destroying the quality of life in an area already suffering serious urban blight. Action was needed to protect the community, its environment and its heritage.

The foundation of the Glebe Society in 1969 under the presidency of Bernard Smith was largely a response to these threats. The added significance of proposed Green Bans led by Jack Mundey and widespread public protest led to Tom Uren stating, on the eve of the Federal elections, that ‘no federal funds would be committed to the construction of urban expressways until their social and environmental impact was assessed’.4

Calls from residential groups, the Church and the Leichhardt Municipal Council requested the Australian Government to ensure that the lands remained under single ownership so that they were not fragmented. When ‘in April 1973 the Church of England suggested in its submissions to the Poverty Inquiry that it would be willing to sell the property to a public authority’5, the opportunity arose. The bill was enacted and the process of urban renewal in Glebe commenced. While fragmentation would have resulted in increased loss of low income housing in the inner city, public acquisition could ensure the continued provision of housing for low income earners and aged people in this area.

In recalling this ambitious urban rehabilitation scheme Tom Uren noted three main reasons for the purchase: ‘we bought the Glebe Estate … first of all, to protect the residents living there, secondly to protect the townscape which is over 100 years old, and thirdly, to prevent that freeway distributor from going and tearing the heart and soul out of Glebe’.6 It also merits noting that it was to be unique as it was also his intention to allow and encourage residents to have some input into the future of the community and its public housing.

Work on the $8 mil scheme to restore and redevelop the estate began on 9 Oct 1974, and at an average cost of $12,000 per dwelling, mainly consisting of reroofing, painting and interior improvements, intended for completion by 1979.7 In 1985 the Commonwealth transferred the Glebe Estate to the NSW Dept. of Housing 8, and today it remains under the control of Housing NSW.

Forty years have passed since this important urban project came into effect. Over that time weather and general ‘wear and tear’ have caused significant depredations to the housing stock. Additionally some premises have been sold off, with information from the housing authorities that the excessive cost of restoration has to be balanced against the potential income from sales which could fund the construction of new houses elsewhere. Fragmentation has indeed begun. Recently, there have also been continuous requests for adequate maintenance of the Glebe Estate’s public housing stock. Tenants find it extremely difficult to obtain repairs to their premises, and records from the local SES unit, of which I am a member, verifies that the majority of call-outs from residents in the Glebe Estate are to attend premises where inadequate attention to maintenance has resulted in damage from weather events of fairly minor significance.9 The cycle seems to be repeating itself.

If any further evidence is needed to illustrate the neglect of Housing NSW property, the small park at the corner of Catherine St and Mount Vernon St is a case in point. It is sadly overgrown and neglected, so much so that the plaque recognising the work of Tom Uren in the urban renewal of the Glebe Estate in 1974 is all but lost in the ‘jungle’ conditions surrounding it. Is the spirit of that historic project lost too? One hopes not.

Park at the corner of Catherine St and Mount Vernon St that contains the Tom Uren plaque (Photo: Virginia Simpson-Young)
Park at the corner of Catherine St and Mount Vernon St that contains the Tom Uren plaque (Photo: Virginia Simpson-Young)

A grass roots move to recognise the 40th anniversary of Tom Uren’s leadership and the significance of his foresight in protecting and preserving the Glebe Estate has recently begun.

Several events are being planned to commemorate the 40th anniversary by the Forest Lodge and Glebe Co-ordination Group, a network of community groups and agencies, community members, the Glebe Society and the Anglican Church.

With regard to the park containing the Tom Uren plaque, a campaign has commenced to restore the park to a user-friendly condition. Some neighbours of the park are planning to knit scarves to wrap the trees in, as a reminder of the anniversary. We may see a more colourful reminder if we next walk through the park on Wednesday 6 August this year. Better still, let’s hope that the impetus thus far displayed is sufficient for our community to take further action, to motivate Housing NSW to do better and to create an event later this year round this milestone. One never can tell; such action could lead to greater care of a community asset, both by local people and the area’s landlord.

Tom Uren’s vision of protecting an engaged and diverse community in the heritage-valued Glebe Estate might be able to be celebrated after all.

REFERENCES: 1 Solling, Max. Grandeur and Grit. Halstead Press, Sydney 2007. p 267; 2. Smith, Bernard and Kate. The Architectural Character of Glebe Sydney. University Co-operative Bookshop, Sydney 1973. p 13; 3. Smith, 1973 p 14.; 4. Robertson, Alan, Secretary of the Glebe Society, Letters to the Editor, SMH. 22/3/1973.; 5. Second Reading Speech on the Glebe Lands (Appropriation) Bill by Mr Tom Uren, Minister for Urban and Regional Development, in the House of Representatives – Thursday 11th Jul 1974. S74/19 Copy held in Leichhardt Municipal Library.; 6. Transcript. ‘Talking Heads with Peter Thompson’. ABC1 Monday 6.30pm. Screened 7/7/2008. ‘SMH 10/10/1974. Article ‘ Modest Start to $8million Project’. Copy held in Leichhardt Municipal Library.; 8. Solling. 2007 p 267.; 9. City of Sydney SES Unit. Compilation of Requests For Assistance (RFAs) from Glebe, 2012-2013.