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BY WENDY BACON

Residents shut down a WestConnex construction site in Concord for two hours on Tuesday morning to protest against what they call the ‘sham’ approval of the M4 East  tunnel, the tollway planned between Homebush and Haberfield in Sydney’s Inner West.

The demonstration followed days of protesting at drilling sites in Tempe on the route of the second Westconnex tunnel, the proposed New M5 which is yet to be approved.

“The Baird Government has treated the people of NSW with contempt in its attempt to bulldoze the WestCONnex toll road through,” said Save Ashfield Park (SAP) spokesperson Paul Jeffreys, who joined a group of 20 residents to block the gate to the site.

“Construction contracts for this toll road were signed before this approval was even granted, so we knew the process would be a total sham. And the sloppy environmental impact statement (EIS) on which this approval was based reflected that.”

Residents, some of whom were attending their first direct action protest, said they have been betrayed by the NSW Planning Department, which rejected highly critical reports by independent traffic and environmental experts hired by local councils. Objections from nearly 5,000 residents and community groups were also ignored.

Final construction plans that will allow tunnelling to go ahead are not yet been finally approved. This did not stop Liberal and National Party politicians turning out in force on March 4 for a ground breaking ceremony at the Concord tunnelling site attended by Federal Minister for Major Projects Paul Fletcher, NSW Minister for Roads Duncan Gay and Local State MP John Sidoti. They repeated the now familiar mantra of $20 billion economic benefits, free flowing tollways and thousands of new jobs.

The media event was aimed at making the unpopular WestConnex appear inevitable and was probably organised for the purpose of public relations to minimise damage from the issue as the Federal election approaches.

So far WestConnex has been restricted to preliminary work in Concord It has bulldozed a hockey field leaving a denuded site onto which it plans to bring a huge tunnelling machine which would work 24 hours a day over more than two years to extract hundreds of truckloads of waste a day. The hockey field has been shifted to what was previously open space.  The Concord site is part of the Canada Bay local government area. This Council has been less critical of the project compared to nearby Ashfield, Leichhardt and City of Sydney Councils. It is unhappy with the project nevertheless.

Before approval was granted in early February, Canada Bay Council sent a report to the NSW Planning Department complaining that AECOM, the company responsible for the Westconnex EIS, had failed to address concerns about traffic congestion on local roads, long delays predicted for major intersections with the Westconnex, pedestrian safety and the “social and economic impacts of WestConnex project on residents, displaced residents, youth, businesses and workers.”

Canada Bay Council’s report was just one of a number of responses from government agencies and Councils urging the government to do more work before the Minister for Planning Rob Stokes gave his approval. But these responses were not published on the Planning websites until after approval was granted.   NSW Health’s final response also noted a lack of transparency in the reporting of health risks, the possibility of more people being adversely affected by night time noise levels and a failure in commitment to “vulnerable individuals.”  The failure to make these reports public before approval has further angered campaigners who are also incensed by the chaotic publication last week of a record number of 12,000 responses to the New M5 tollway. Of these 99.91 per cent objected to the project.

After weeks of delay, the NSW Planning Department compiled the 12,000 submissions into 140 PDF documents.  Many residents cannot open these PDFs and others cannot find their submissions because they have not been numbered or have been rendered anonymous. The Planning Department has already admitted that some of these problems are caused by “system failure” or “human error.” Contrary to NSW Planning Department normal practice, the Council and government department submissions, which are nearly all critical of aspects of the project, have been published separately but instead been dumped at the bottom of the list of PDFs, which means almost no one would find or read them.   At the same time, the Planning Department published AECOM’s Response to Submissions which rejects nearly all criticisms, often by either repeating the original EIS report or postponing solutions for reducing impacts until the ‘detailed design’ phase after approval. It fails to engage with serious critiques from independent experts.

WestCONnex Action Group spokesperson and Haberfield resident Sharon Laura said that the Baird Government “is doing everything it can to shut down transparency around this $16.8 billion taxpayer-funded project.” She urged Councils and public servants to stand up for residents at every step of the way while residents continue to protest. She said the community had been “let down down so badly that we have no choice but to take peaceful direct action to stop WestCONnex subverting democratic planning processes”.

The stop WestConnex campaign continues to grow with new anti WestConnex groups are forming in Rozelle in the Inner West and Arncliffe in the Inner Southern suburbs. In Newtown, the City of Sydney is flying Save Newtown Stop WestCONnex flags from street poles. Campaigners have also begun handing out leaflets in the Western suburbs explaining how a lack of public transport, car dependency and heavy WestConnex tolls will make life more difficult for residents in Sydney’s West.   With no funding in place for the recently announced plans for a third leg of Westconnex between Haberfield and St Peters, the Baird government must know that it will require more than PR ceremonies to stop the  political momentum that is turning Westconnex into a touchstone for poor planning and hidden deals.

And if anyone thought the transport needs of NSW rural regions were being better looked after by the government, their illusions were crushed this week when the Baird government announced 11 more rail stations would have no staff and there would be staffing cuts at another nine. Mackville, Broken Hill and Taree are among those towns affected.   Greens spokesperson for Transport MLC Mehreen Faruqi reminded Premier Mike Baird, who lives on the Northern Beaches,  that many do not live in a world “where everyone can afford to drive or fly everywhere.”

“While the government is quite happy to pour billions into unscrutinised, wasteful urban motorway projects, the basic transport needs of regional people are being completely neglected. Regional rail services are essential to communities across the state, and must be well funded,” she told City Hub.