The Battle of The Rocks: November 1971 until 1975

NSW Builders Labourers Federation Union secretary Jack Mundey is arrested during the ‘green bans’ at The Rocks in 1973 which saved the historic buildings of Sydney's birthplace
The Rocks Green Ban with Jack Mundey, Meredith Burgmann, Nellie Leonard, Peter Wright, 1973 (source: The Glebe Society, originally supplied by Meredith Burgmann)
Contributed By City of Sydney Archives [044\044848]
(SRC14791. Originally CRS 543/111/78 (NSCA CRS 543, Negatives of Photographs from [CRS 69], George Clarke Papers, 1960-1979))
Nita McCrae formed the Rocks Resident Action Group when she was threatened with eviction from her Maritime Services Housing. On 24 January 1972 bulldozers were met by 30 residents. The ban, led by the Builders Labourers Federation, included Fire Drivers, Firemen, and AMWU.
The Rocks Green Ban – from November 1971 until 1975

The Rocks precinct is site of the first European settlement on Sydney Harbour in 1788. The NSWBLF green ban saved the oldest buildings, attractive foreshore parks and the character of this historic area from demolition to make way for concrete and glass office blocks. The union was also concerned also the invidious treatment meted out to the low-income residents: the cleaners, sailors, wharfies, pensioners, shop assistants and others who lived in this traditionally working-class, maritime neighbourhood. It halted the redevelopment project 'because the scheme destroys and ignores the position of the people affected'. Rocks Resident Action Group led by Neeta McCrae mobilised enthusiastically in support of the ban and working with architect Neville Gruzman, drew up a 'people's plan' for acceptable renovation of the area. It announced that, in the face of the usual apathy, inaction and favoritism of the government, it had been left to unionists 'to show leadership in protecting our citizens and their historic buildings'. The union position was stated clearly by Mundey in August 1973: 'My federation will lift its ban when the residents are satisfied with what is being put forward by the authority'. In March 1974, when the latest plan was again sent back to the architect, a reporter observed: 'the most powerful town planning agency operating within NSW at the moment is the BLF.' When the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority released its next set of plans the high-rise buildings were gone in conformity with the 'people's plan' and the ban was lifted. By the 1990s, the Ministry for Planning admitted that the green ban had resulted in the plans for the area being 'an overwhelming success', reflected in the millions of tourists who visit the historic area each year.

What is saved is not always safe. Post-Green Ban Sydney has been shaped by three decades of anti-union political rhetoric and a move away from public housing to more aesthetic-sounding and more selective corporate management as signaled by the towers of Barangaroo, a generic arts precinct and casino built on re-claimed wharves. In a media blitz on 19 March 2014, the NSW Minister for Family and Community Services, announced the government’s auction of 293 high-value public housing properties in Millers Point, Gloucester Street and the Sirius building in The Rocks. They announced the relocation or eviction of 590 residents.

Notes: Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann, Green Bans, Red Union. Environmental activism and the New South Wales Builders Labourers' Federation, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1998, pp 195–201


On the 50th anniversary of the Green Bans, the ideals of their struggle to protect heritage and environmental amenity for all to enjoy are more urgent than ever. In 2011 the Green Bans Art Walk and Exhibition (in two parts at The Cross Art Projects and The Firstdraft Depot Project Space), told the story of an inspired period, its charismatic leaders and grass-roots heroes. The project comprised a series of public guided walks between the exhibition venues functioned as a living instruction manual and moral compass charting stories of good and evil, creativity and conflict. Read more


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