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NSW public kept in dark on land sales

AAP logoAAP 8/09/2016

Millions of dollars worth of land has been sold off by the NSW government in closed-door deals that don't allow the public a say, according to a new report.

A scathing auditor-general's review found half of all Crown land sales and 97 per cent of leases between 2012 and 2015 were negotiated with just one party, with no public expression-of-interest process.

Minister for Lands Niall Blair said "there is no doubt that management of the more than 33 million hectares of Crown Lands in NSW needs to be improved, and brought into the 21st century" in a statement overnight.

The investigation by Auditor-General Margaret Crawford found the lands department complied with the law by publishing notices about land sales in its gazette and the local paper, but the public wasn't given a consistent chance to have a say.

"The Department routinely negotiates directly with a selected party for the sale or lease of Crown land rather than using an open, competitive process," said the report, released on Thursday.

"The commencement of a direct negotiation is not announced publicly, so the public is not aware of the transaction until after the decision has been made."

From 2012-2015 almost $22 million worth of land was sold and 27 high-value leases were approved - each worth $52,000 per year on average.

One secret deal involved the Paddington Bowling Club, which was sold to a developer on a 50-year commercial lease after direct negotiations with a senior government official.

A review sparked by community concerns later found the negotiations were inappropriate and the government withdrew its consent for the site to be turned into a for-profit childcare centre.

The auditor-general recommended the Department of Industry overhaul procedures to improve oversight and transparency.

Opposition spokesman for lands, Mick Veitch, said the community was being left in the dark by a government "veil of secrecy".

"This is a scathing report and (Premier) Mike Baird and (Deputy Premier) Troy Grant should sit up and take notice that the community can no longer be shut out of the process," he said in a statement.

Mr Blair said his department accepted all the recommendations and findings of the auditor-general, and would implement operational improvements as part of its response.

"Labor has no credibility on the management of Crown Lands in NSW. The previous Labor Government left behind a litany of examples of dodgy back-door deals, secrecy and maladministration of Crown Lands in NSW, and a former Labor Minister for Lands was found by ICAC to have engaged in corrupt conduct," Mr Blair said in a statement.

A new Crown Lands Management Bill 2016 is being drafted, and is due to be introduced into the NSW Parliament before the end of the year.

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