Waterloo: Controlled development

Waterloo: Controlled development
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In 1980 the government agreed to consult with residents before re-developing Waterloo. Tower blocks of Housing Commission buildings were already built but the remaining surrounding areas were subject to consultation. Local resident Margaret Barry and the Chairman of the NSW Housing Commission, Jack Bourne, comment. Summary by Damien Parer.

The documentary is one of Tom Zubrycki’s earliest. His skill as a documentary filmmaker is evident in his ability to clearly outline the story. Zubrycki’s credits include Molly and MobarakThe DiplomatExile in Sarajevo and Billal.


Waterloo synopsis

The film outlines the history of the redevelopment of the Sydney suburb of Waterloo. Residents are interviewed and archival footage is used to outline the history of change in the area. The documentary emphasises the need for consultation and shows the results of more recent residents’ action groups.

Notes by Damien Parer


Education notes

This clip shows an aspect of the struggle between residents of Waterloo and the New South Wales State Government over development of the inner-Sydney suburb in the 1970s and early 1980s. Local resident, activist Margaret Barry, argues that houses in Waterloo need to be rehabilitated rather than demolished, however the Chairman of the NSW Housing Commission, Jack Bourne, claims that most houses in the suburb are 'very bad’ and makes a case for high-density development. The clip includes footage of houses being demolished, a building site and Waterloo residents protesting against the plan to clear houses to make way for high-rise development.

Educational value points

  • The NSW Housing Commission, which was set up in 1941, identified inner-city suburbs such as Waterloo and Redfern as slums, and developed a plan to demolish substandard housing and build high-density dwellings. Under this plan much of Waterloo was cleared between the late 1950s and 1970s. These slums were often a result of overcrowding, caused by a housing shortage that pushed up rents and forced many working-class families to share accommodation. Opponents argued that it would be less costly to renovate existing dwellings.
  • The Waterloo Public Housing Estate is the largest public housing estate in inner-Sydney, with public housing accounting for 82 per cent of all dwellings in the suburb. The estate has about 2,500 dwellings that accommodate about 5,000 public housing tenants. The NSW Housing Commission began clearing and developing the western part of Waterloo from the late 1950s. Development included the construction of three-storey walk-up flats in the 1950s, three- to five-storey balcony flats in the 1960s and high-rise housing towers of up to 30 storeys in the 1970s.
  • In the 1970s Waterloo residents successfully campaigned against plans to extend high-rise development into the eastern part of Waterloo, and as a result of this campaign the Government agreed to renovate existing dwellings and build 'in-fill’ houses instead of high-rise towers. The residents were supported by heritage groups and the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, which imposed working bans dubbed 'Green Bans’ on development. Today, this part of Waterloo retains much of its historic character through a mix of terrace housing and sympathetic new housing on vacant land.
  • Waterloo resident and activist Margaret Barry, whose own home was among those to be demolished to make way for a Housing Commission high-rise tower, led the campaign to save the suburb from redevelopment. Barry founded the Inner Sydney Regional Council for Social Development in 1974, and served as a Sydney City Councillor. Her contribution is acknowledged by the annual Margaret Barry Memorial Lecture.
  • The action by Waterloo residents was instrumental in forcing the NSW Government to consult the community about redevelopment. In the 1970s the Government was not required to consult residents about new development; however, as a result of the Waterloo campaign, community consultation became part of the development process in NSW. In 2004 some Waterloo residents again accused the Government of not adequately consulting them about plans to redevelop the Redfern-Waterloo Housing Estate in partnership with private developers.
  • In the 1950s high-rise flats were promoted by politicians and the media as a solution to the slum housing problem, for example in 1955 Picture Post ran an article entitled 'Build High to Clear the Slums’. The high-rise flats built in the following decades were however frequently criticised for their box-like appearance (architectural historian Max Freeland dubbed them 'human filing cabinets’), which residents often found alienating. Some residents also felt isolated and missed the community of the street, while supervising children in the streets below from many floors up was difficult.
  • The NSW Housing Commission was set up to provide affordable housing for low-income earners, but today it also provides homes for frail elderly people and people with a disability.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia


Tom Zubrycki
Jim Stevens
Tom Zubrycki
Ralph Schneider
Produced with the assistance of the Australian Film Commission's Creative Development Fund

Images of building sites and heavy machinery with the following voice- over.
Margaret Barry So we let the houses go that were beyond repair, but only on condition that our gesture would be matched by the Commission. We did get some action – plans were announced for buildings on two vacant industrial sites in the proclamation area but again, we had to wait two years more before building work could actually get started.

Title shows: August 1980. More building sites, then Jack Bourne at a press conference.
Jack Bourne Work has already commenced up there on 95 apartments and the carpet factory site – 35 apartments. But these have been designed specifically for young families and there are, for example in the cottage site, there are five 4-bedroom dwellings and 68 3-bedroom. We have never built exact size accommodation inner city and of course, private enterprise would not be likely to provide 4-bedroom accommodation in inner areas, it is an expensive undertaking. 
Margaret Barry They look like a step wedding cake. It was, certainly they are a far cry from what they had in mind in ’72 and ’73. But again, what is going to happen to the rest of the proclamation area?

Jack Bourne at a press conference.
Jack Bourne The housing in Waterloo is very, very bad – most existing dwellings – and of course, we wouldn’t get any increased population. That is the problem, that we must get more people into these areas and rehabilitation wouldn’t cope with that.

Protesters holding placards. Margaret Barry is interviewed among them.
Margaret Barry It is just playing a waiting game – who breaks first, who gives way? We constantly remind the minister that these are government assets and they ought to be looked after in such a state that they certainly could provide housing for families and relieve the housing crisis but all we have got is close them up and, blight quickly knock them over. Within the commission there are people who believe in rehabilitation, there are others to believe in redevelopment. Certainly on a cost basis, which is very worrying at the moment, one would believe that rehabilitation must be the answer – and spot buying. However, the realisation of the crisis – it seems to be that it is full bore, all develop, development, whatever the cost in dollars and people terms. The 1980s will be tougher, it’ll be a tougher game and a tougher fight. It is the same people opposing the same forces and the fight is definitely on.