Planner tells ICAC he was ‘stunned’ when council approved project against advice

A development adviser who dined with councillors and Chinese developers to discuss a major project at Hurstville has told a corruption inquiry the meetings were highly unusual.

Nigel Dickson told the Independent Commission Against Corruption on Wednesday that the meetings at cafés and restaurants in Sydney occurred in the years before Hurstville councillors endorsed the Landmark Square development against the recommendation of council planners.

On this particular matter, I had more interaction [with councillors] without any doubt by far than anything else in my professional experience, Dickson said.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption is investigating whether former Hurstville and Georges River councillors Vince Badalati and Con Hindi, and former Hurstville councillor Philip Sansom, accepted benefits in exchange for supporting projects in Hurstville from 2014 to 2021.

The ICAC is probing allegations the men accepted benefits – including overseas trips – from developers Ching Wah (Philip) Uy and Wensheng Liu and Yuqing Liu. It is also investigating if they failed to disclose a conflict of interest regarding their relationships with the developers.

The inquiry is focusing on two projects: an 11-storey apartment block on Treacy Street in Hurstville, and the Landmark Square project comprising 357 apartments, shops and a 200-room hotel.

The inquiry has heard Wengsheng Liu’s company One Capital had engaged Dickson Rothschild, a firm of architects, planners and urban designers, to prepare a masterplan and planning proposal for the Landmark Square development in 2014.

Nigel Dickson, the firm’s managing director, told the inquiry he attended two meetings at a Japanese restaurant with Hindi and Philip Uy, and the pair’s conversations were very informal and friendly.

Dickson told the inquiry it was highly unusual for him to meet with a client and councillor outside council premises to discuss a planning proposal or application that was before a certain council.

I can’t think of any other time in NSW where I’ve attended a meeting with a councillor to discuss a planning proposal . . . off-site, with a client, Dickson said.

The inquiry heard the St George Design Review Panel indicated it would not support the Landmark Square proposal in early 2016.

Dickson said Philip Uy met with Hindi to discuss the panel’s negative feedback. He said Hindi was known as a powerbroker in the area.

I had a sense that Cr Hindi would have a voting power on the application, and he could overturn, or bring along the other councillors, even despite having a negative report, Dickson said.

Dickson gave evidence he had attended meetings with the councillors and representatives of One Capital to discuss the progress of the Landmark Square planning proposal in early 2016.

On April 15, days before the matter was due to be discussed at a council meeting, the council’s assessment report recommended the Landmark Square development be reduced in height and size.

The council’s report suggested the height of the buildings should be 40 metres and 18 metres, instead of the proposed 65 metres and 25 metres.

The inquiry heard Dickson Rothschild consultant Michael Gheorghiu had emailed One Capital employee Elaine Tang about the report and suggested that discussions need to occur at the relevant political levels to make them aware of the recommendation.

Dickson said he understood that message to mean One Capital representatives should speak to the council.

Dickson attended the council meeting on April 20 and told the inquiry he was momentarily stunned when most councillors voted to support plans for buildings of 60 metres and 25 metres.

It was a complete overturn of the council staff recommendation, Dickson said.

The inquiry continues.

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