Thursday, October 20, 2016

Important Anti-WestCONnex win


Anti-WestCONnex campaigners scored a win last week when Westconnex postponed its plans to knock down scores of trees and begin road widening for the New M5 along Euston Road, Alexandria.

If completed, these plans will dramatically impact on Sydney Park, removing its Eastern boundary, hundreds of trees and pouring 63,000 more cars a day along its borders and into already congested local roads.

“This is a huge win for the community given WestCONnex told residents these works would last for up to eight weeks,” said WestCONnex Action Group (WAG) spokesperson Janet Dandy-Ward. The work only continued for 6 days instead of 8 weeks which was to be immediately followed by road widening works.

While work has been stopped before, this is the first time that Westconnex has actually been forced back as it pursues its relentless passage across Sydney with consturction for the M4 East and the New M5 tollways.

As a result of the reprieve on the northern end of the Park, campaigners have moved their 24 hour a day protest camp to the other end of Sydney Park where demolitions across a large swathe of St Peters are planned to begin before the end of the year. Buildings slated for demolition include a state significant industrial warehouse and scores of sound homes including a row of heritage terraces and an original brick carter’s cottage with stables.

As City Hub   goes to press, campaigners are holding a vigil outside what was the home of Shelley Jensen. Ms Jensen, a woman in her early sixties, has lived in and owned one of the heritage homes opposite Sydney Park for 16 years. RMS has taken over her three bedroom home and forced her to move to two months temporary accommodation in a one room apartment. The $960,000 RMS paid her for the property will not allow her to live anywhere in inner Sydney. She described the process through which she has lost her ‘anchor’ as ‘terrifying’.

Several other forcibly acquired St Peters owners and tenants are also being evicted and placed in temporary accommodation while two others are still refusing to move. One of these is Shelley’s neighbour Richard Capuano who has refused requests to move this week. He is one of a number of residents and business owners who have taken their claims to the NSW Land and Environment Court on the basis of unfair RMS valuations.

These events are political dynamite for Premier Mike Baird who this week promised a ‘fairer go’ in the future for home owners. This ‘fairer go’ includes a pitiful extra $50,000 compensation for hundreds of homeowners whose homes were acquired for up to half a million below market value. The government also finally released the “Russell Report’ which had been kept secret for 2 years. The report documented unfair forced acquisition processes and recommended reform.

Mr Capuano told the Sydney Morning Herald that the changes were ‘insulting’ and demanded a full review into the acquisition process for WestConnex and for “residents to be recompensed for what they were cheated out of”.

Local Greens MP and WestCONnex spokesperson Jenny Leong welcomed reform but described the changes as a ‘bandaid’ solution.  “Community pressure on the Baird Government has forced it to respond to a multitude of serious and legitimate concerns” but “bandaids won’t make this project work for the people of NSW. The whole WestConnex project is deeply flawed and I’m calling again for an urgent inquiry. We need to rethink the whole thing right now.”

In the aftermath of the aborted work on Euston Road, the NSW Planning Department is investigating a number of complaints that the construction consortium, which is led by CIMIC (previously called Leightons) breached conditions during its work last week before it packed up and left.

Under planning approval conditions, Westconnex is required to do a ‘Tree Report’ to justify damaging or potentially damaging any tree during construction. Although these arborists’ reports  tend to simply justify what Westconnex wants to do anyway, they are an essential step in the planning chain. Westconnex did not publish a tree report before it set up its construction compound on Euston Rd.

The City of Sydney, which is strongly opposed to Westconnex, complained to the NSW Planning Department about the missing report. A report was filed but initially was not considered adequate. It was eventually only given conditional approval more than two weeks later.

“We know from the tree report WestCONnex finally submitted for the site that they planned to destroy over 160 trees there before moving on to road widening works. But thanks to the constant vigilance of the community, they only destroyed two substantial trees – and completed just a few days’ work.”

Even those two trees were only destroyed after more than 25 campaigners lay on the road in front of a truck before being dragged away by riot police. Work was then stopped again after residents reported a nest which was housing live birds in a tree that was about to be chopped down.

As well as blockading the site, residents reported breaches of planning conditions to Westconnex and the NSW Planning Department. Westconnex has denied breaching any conditions.

In a letter responding to a Westconnex Action Group complaint, the Sydney Motorway Corporation (SMC) the publicly owned private company that is in charge of the tollways, claimed that it had not actually begun work before a tree report had been approved. City Hub   however took a photo of excavation equipment working on site before NSW Planning had its conditional approval for limited tree destruction.This has been forwarded to the Department of Planning.

Westconnex can also only work within land it lawfully controls. On Tuesday, City of Sydney staff visited the site and observed that Westconnex was working on land inside the park. This incident was reported to the Planning Department. In a letter to Westconnex Action Group member Rhea Liebmann this week, Westconnex stated that fences were only placed on City of Sydney land for public safety during tree destruction. However City Hub   has also seen photos taken three days after the tree destruction that show a fence well inside the Sydney Park boundary. On the same day, workers were observed shifting fences while they were working.

More than 100 campaigners have been rostered to maintain the protest camp which has now relocated with City of Sydney support to near the wetland on the South East corner of the site. This corner will be chopped off if the road goes ahead.  The temporary reprieve gives the campaign space and time to ramp up its campaign to protect the park while its focuses on the impending destruction in St Peters.

“We know Mike Baird’s prepared to reverse his decisions to save his political career. We urge him to rethink WestCONnex before he’s remembered as the Premier who ruined Sydney,” said WAG spokesperson Janet Ms Dandy-Ward.

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