BY WENDY BACON
When the Minister for Planning Rob Stokes announced two weeks ago that he had approved the Westconnex M4 tunnel between Homebush and Haberfield in Sydney’s Inner West, few were surprised.
Despite serious concerns raised by City of Sydney, Marrickville and Ashfield Councils and independent experts, as well as thousands of objections from community organisations and members of the public, it was hard not to be cynical. After all, the Minister sits in the same NSW LNP cabinet that signed off on a $2.7 billion dollar public contract to a Leightons, John Holland and Samsung C & T consortium to build the tunnel in June last year. This was long before the M4 East EIS had even been submitted or full business case justifying the whole Westconnex project completed.
But even though approval was on the cards, Stokes’ decision still came as a shock to many Haberfield residents who would bear much of the immediate brunt if construction goes ahead.
Westconnex Action Group campaigner Sharon Laura whose home is close to the M4 East exit told City Hub “people are angry and very distressed. They feel abandoned by government and treated with contempt by the Department of Planning.” She said the threat that bulldozers could move in to demolish scores of solid houses, apartments, gardens and trees in a few months followed by years of hundreds of noisy construction trucks a day and tunnelling was still sinking into her community.
But campaigners are not giving up. Two days later, after Stokes’ decision, angry anti-Westconnex campaigners occupied the entrance to the Planning Department in Sydney’s CBD during lunchtime. Renaming it as the Department for “Rubber Stamps”, they warned that their protest was just the start of a direct action campaign.
NEW BUSINESS CASE FINDS NEGLIGIBLE BENEFITS
This week a further question mark was thrown over the project. A new independent report has delivered a scathing verdict on the latest business case and the viability of the whole $16.8 Westconnex project.
On Tuesday the City of Sydney released its independent consultants SGS report on the Updated Westconnex Strategic Business Case that the Baird government had kept under wraps until November last year. SGS Economics and Planning consultancy describes the Westconnex business case as a “a confused document filled with contradictions which does little to address the wide ranging concerns about WestConnex.”
The report finds that Westconnex’s claim that the overall project would have a BCR (Benefits Costs Ratio) of 1:71 is incorrectly quoted and that this figure should be a less positive 1:64.
The report said that in reality the BCR would be likely to be far lower due to a number of factors. Many of the findings of the government’s modelling are unexplained. Some figures appear counterintuitive.
“This raises some doubts about the effectiveness and accuracy of the transport demand forecasts and the economic benefits claimed for the WestConnex project.”
The report also finds that construction costs have been conservatively estimated. If these increase as is likely, the BCR would fall from 1.64 to 1.10. Some costs have not been accounted for at all including the reduced health benefits from less public transport patronage.
SGS found that after taking into account these and other issues, Westconnex “is likely to be marginal at best…. it is quite possible that the actual BCR for WestConnex is less than one. New South Wales taxpayers will be exposed to the risk of the project not succeeding in the short to medium term. Given this and the lack of strategic justification, the decision to proceed with WestConnex is questionable.”
The consultants are pessimistic about the project being stopped given the stage it has reached but Westconnex Action Group spokesperson Pauline Lockie welcomed the new report and told City Hub that “this report confirms everything we’ve been saying all along: WestConnex will be a financial disaster that will do nothing to ease Sydney’s traffic congestion.”
She called for a halt to the project while there is a Federal audit and an Inquiry.
Greens Westconnex spokesperson Jenny Leong issued a media release which stated it was “high time the Premier pulled his arrogant Roads Minister in to line”
The omissions identified in the report, along with the swathe of incorrect or misleading assumptions in the traffic modelling and social impacts demonstrate the desperate lengths the Roads Minister will go to…. It’s crucial that Premier Baird steps in and takes control of this WestConnex disaster before it’s too late.”
WESTCONNEX WANTS TO OVERRIDE M5 CONDITIONS
Even before this latest City of Sydney report, Stokes would have been aware that his approval of the M4 East project would further arouse public anger. In his media release, he promised that “after considering the disruption on local residents and in response to issues raised during consultation”, he has imposed “strict and unprecedented approval conditions.”
But Westconnex Action Group’s Kathy Calman who lives next to the old M5 motorway told the protest rally that these conditions would not be worth the paper they were written on. She said that already her own ‘personal experience” was one of living through a nightmare. She explained that noise walls removed for Westconnex preliminary works on the old M5 in Beverly Hills in South West Sydney had stayed down for months longer than originally promised by Westconnex.
Calman also described promises of conditions as hypocritical because the Westconnex EIS application currently being assessed for the new M5 tunnel asks for approval to destroy critically endangered bush that was saved as a condition for the old M5.
Even before the announcement that Stokes had approved the M4 East, Westconnex was trying to push ahead with the M4 East.
Before construction can begin, the Planning Department must also approve a number of construction management plans that require consultation with Council.
Ashfied Council planners were unimpressed when Westconnex sent them 1000 pages of technical management plans wanting their comments by January 21, nearly two weeks before approval was even granted.
After reviewing the plans, Ashfield Councils Director of Planning and Environment Council Phil Sarin advised Council that staff were continuing to receive requests for comments “within unrealistic timeframes and the draft plans suggested that Westconnex had disregarded Council’s EIS submission.
Save Ashfield community group members and Haberfield residents took their concerns to a Council meeting on February 9 got solid support from Ashfield Council.
Council decided to brief a senior barrister and seek expert advice for a legal challenge against NSW Roads and Maritime Services’ offer of compensation for parts of the Reg Coady reserve, a highly valued open space in Haberfield, which RMS is compulsorily acquiring for Westconnex.
The Council also voted not to agree to management plans until detailed design plans are lodged and all extra post approval requirements are published on the Council website so that residents can read them.
Staff at the council also reported that while Westconnex reports claim that there had been “extensive stakeholder engagement throughout the project”, consultation had in fact been ‘minimal’.
A council motion calling on the Secretary of the Department of Planning and Environment to hold a “public hearing on the poor quality of the community consultation related to the M4 East EIS”
Test drilling or preparatory works on Reg Coady Reserve for WestConnex were withdrawn by the Council, allowing elected Councillors to decide all future applications from Westconnex. The follows Marrickville Council’s withdrawal of permissions for Westconnex to drill on its Council lands.
Ashfield Councillors also confirmed the right of residents “to peacefully protest at Reg Coady Reserve and any other sites owned or managed by Council.”
All Labor and independent Councillors supported the motion with only four Liberal Councillors opposed.
With the controversial EIS process for the M4 East behind him, the tone of Stokes’ media release announcing the approval was placatory. He promised “opportunities for ongoing community involvement in the design of the project”. But campaigners say this has a hollow ring. The future looks more like trench warfare rather than yet more highly managed WestConnex consultation sessions.
Wendy Bacon is an editor of the People M4 EIS and has also spoken at Westconnex Action Group rallies.