By Peter Hehir
It’s now abundantly clear that the Sydney Motorway Corporation and the RMS have absolutely no intention of repairing any family homes damaged by WestConnex construction, despite this being a legal obligation.
The Department of Planning and Environment have also failed the community, in not enforcing compliance of this requirement.
The SMC and the RMS have an inequitable advantage over residents. They place the burden of proof onto the resident, yet refuse to provide access to important documents, such as vibration measurements, geotechnical reports and as-built designs, for review by engineers independently engaged by residents, whose homes show obvious damage. Damage that coincides with the tunnelling and associated drainage works.
Dozens of home owners above the tunnel route, from North Strathfield to Beverly Hills, report that their claims for property damage have been and continue to be denied.
Post construction dilapidation reports designed to obfuscate the most likely causes of damage; blame drought, settlement, defective guttering and or downpipes or even a dripping garden tap – whilst ignoring the obvious impacts that deep-excavation, de-watering, new drainage, vibration and blasting from WestConnex construction would have on adjacent homes.
Letters denying any responsibility are routinely issued to residents who complain that their homes show serious structural damage.
The strategy the RMS use to avoid their obligation to repair structural damage, is in the first instance, to categorically deny that their construction has caused the damage. The brief appears to be “deny all claims”. They will then resort to the sort of spurious reasons outlined above to explain the damage.
This makes absolutely no sense when many of these homes have stood the test of time for the best part of a century; through a great many far more serious droughts than those experienced of late. Some may even have had leaking gutters, rusted downpipes and dripping garden taps at some point in their history and yet have remained structurally intact.
When pressed, the RMS will undertake a “further assessment” which is a bit more detailed than their original scant one-page document, which seems to be based on a pro forma standard rejection letter.
In one case the engineer engaged by the contractor stated that even though the new M5 drainage had likely caused a change in groundwater and soil moisture content, in his opinion, the subject property was ineligible for consideration as it fell “outside the zone of influence”.
However, no factual evidence was provided to back up that finding. In this instance construction was just 30 metres away and had permanently interrupted the groundwater flow causing the clay based soil to dry out, resulting in differential settlement and the subsequent inevitable structural damage.
Clearly they have no intention to honour a single damage claim. It’s iniquitous that an infrastructure project should leave families with significant repair bills. If the RMS have nothing to hide, why do they continue to conceal the requested documents proffering the flimsy excuse of “security reasons”? Whose security one wonders?
The realities of construction, particularly with large infrastructure projects, are that there are invariably cost overruns. The tender documents for Stages 3 A and 3 B of WestConnex specify a fixed price contract.
With unforeseen costs this means that there will almost certainly be nothing left in the budget to settle claims of structural damage to homes in Camperdown, Leichhardt, Annandale, Rozelle, Lilyfield and Balmain.
This probably explains why claims associated with the works along the route from North Strathfield to Beverly Hills are routinely denied. The RMS has failed in their duty of care to protect, mitigate and repair the homes they have damaged. The DPE are also complicit in that they have failed to carry out their obligation of project governance.
Recent reports of corruption within the DPE in relation to mining approvals give serious cause for concern, raising questions about WestConnex and undue influence by the NSW Liberal Government and the RMS.
The evidence given at the recent Parliamentary Inquiry into WestConnex was damning.
The ALP may be having misgivings about their long standing support of WestConnex, as the NSW Branch’s judicial inquiry has now morphed into the promise of a Royal Commission; should they win the NSW State election in March.
This concession is something that residents opposed to WestConnex have been pressing for over the past three or four years and is one that the community needs to ensure the ALP delivers on.
Because costs associated with having the issue resolved in the courts are well beyond the resources of many people and could also drag on for years, the contractors will obviously look to extend proceedings for as long as possible in the hope that most residents will simply give up in frustration.
In the run-up to the election, the ALP should seriously consider giving the following undertaking to those with WestConnex affected homes; that they will shift the burden of proof onto the principal contractor to demonstrate that the tunnelling and drainage works were not responsible for the damage!
If there is a change of Government in March then surely this is the decent thing to do.