OPINION: WENDY BACON
If you hold a community consultation session well away from the site of a massive development, on an early Winter’s evening in a registered club, it’s bound to affect the turn out. But if that’s what you want, the setting is perfect.
My first memories of community involvement in planning go back to the early 1970s when the residents of Woolloomooloo stood around a huge board to create a miniature ‘people’s plan’ of how they would like their neighbourhood to develop. At the time, the ’Loo had just been saved from wholesale demolition by a union ‘Green Ban’ and a decision by the Whitlam Labor government to save low income housing in the inner city.
The events were part of movements that led to the NSW Land and Environment Act being passed in 1979. Since then, there have been many a set back for communities wanting a say in shaping their environment.
The WestConnex Delivery Authority (WDA) boast that they conduct “extensive consultation with the community”. But while millions of public funds have been spent on communications advice, the decision making around the Westconnex motorway represent a new low in community consultations.
After months of waiting and before any business case or environmental impact statements were published, the design and detailed route were recently revealed for the M4 extension tunnel. Some residents in Homebush, Croydon, Concord, Haberfield and Ashfield received the bad news that their houses could be acquired or perhaps even worse, they would be left near tunnel exits, ventilation stacks or congested roads that will take the overflow from those who choose not to pay the costly tunnel tolls.
The only information line that residents were given is the 1300 660 248, which is the general NSW government service. You won’t be put through to WDA at all unless you explain the details of your request. Some people have been left hanging on the phone for 20 minutes while one resident found that the government phone line put her through to a communications consultant working for private contractor Leightons who recently won the billion dollar contract for this section of the Westconnex.
WDA scheduled three ‘information’ sessions over a week of which the first was at Wests Ashfield Leagues Club.
In a media release, WestConnex CEO Dennis Cliche promised that “detailed questions” would be answered.
“This is an important opportunity for people to find out more information about the M4 East and what it will mean for their community,” the release quoting him as saying.
As I headed to the first community session in the Wests Ashfield Leagues Club, I was not feeling optimistic about finding answers to my many questions, but I certainly didn’t expect to be escorted from the Club at the end of the session.
The first thing you saw as you headed in the door was a sea of poker machines and a large security guard. Being a registered club, you had to sign in as a temporary member. I had no photo ID but eventually my senior citizen’s card was accepted so I was allowed to enter.
Upstairs, there were more staff taking personal details. Inside, residents moved between information stations staffed by WDA and Roads and Maritime Services communications, engineers and air quality staff. Most of the questions at Ashfield were about air quality.
Groups tended to gather around better informed residents who as veterans of such sessions had thought out questions in advance. One of those residents was Save Ashfield Park member Kerry Barlow who is concerned about air quality issues.
An earlier version of the WestConnex tunnel was going to emerge at Ashfield Park but the park has now been saved. The motorway has moved to the other side of Parramatta Rd taking houses from within the Haberfield conservation area. The suburb will be overshadowed by tunnel ‘portals’, a large ventilation stack and traffic pouring along the old Parramatta Road.
Later, Ms Barlow told me that streets around her home were not notified about the information sessions.
“We only knew from contact with residents whose houses are being acquired,” she said.
When she asked questions about the availability of air quality monitoring, she was told that she must wait for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to be released later in the year. She first asked for the data a year ago.
On my way out, I thought I would take a photo of some poker machines to make a point on twitter about what I saw as an inappropriate venue.
Wouldn’t a school or church hall closer to the site have been more accessible for residents with children, busy workers, disabled residents or those without cars?
A manager saw me take the photo and demanded I give him my phone. I refused and that’s how I came to be promptly marched from the club. I was back outside with local WestConnex Action Group campaigners and Save Ashfield park mob who were having no trouble collecting signatures for their petition that there should be a halt to the Westconnex motorway until a full business case, EIS and the findings of a parliamentary inquiry are released to the public.
The trouble with the Westconnex version of community consultation is that it leaves residents angrier not feeling better informed.