'No Answers' At Hostile Community Westconnex Meeting


It may be a cliché, but it’s fair to say Westconnex boss Denis Cliche was alone in a crowd as he tried to flog the $15 billion Westconnex Motorway to a packed out Enmore Theatre last night.

Around 1000 angry locals voiced, heckled and booed their opposition to Westconnex, a new matrix of Sydney toll roads proposed by the New South Wales government.

The 33 kilometre motorway, if it goes ahead, would link Western Sydney to the CBD, Port Botany and the airport, and as the CEO of the Westconnex Delivery Authority, Cliche is responsible for planning and building it.

The authority is also responsible for consulting with the public, but opponents at last night’s community meeting don’t want to negotiate. They want the whole project canned in favour of public transport solutions.

“If this is truly community consultation, then they should cancel this project because the community has spoken and don’t want it,” Westconnex Action Group organiser Emma Pierce said.

It’s a view shared by the City of Sydney Council, the Greens, Marrickville Council, and the nearly 2000 protestors who rallied against Westconnex in Newtown earlier this month. 

Concerns over the project centre on how effective it would ultimately be at linking Western Sydney residents to the CBD, and the community health impact it would have on inner city neighbourhoods like St Peters and Haberfield.

Last night, at a separate meeting, Lord Mayor Clover Moore tabled the first independent analysis of the project, which essentially expanded on the signs of inner west residents at Enmore Theatre: “Lies”.

The report slammed the Baird government’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure spend, arguing it would not benefit Western Sydney but would damage suburbs in the inner west.

The SCG Economics and Planning report found that the purpose of Westconnex and the challenges it is trying to address are unclear.

“Westconnex will not deliver for Western Sydney, or for taxpayers, or the travelling public,” Moore said.

The new tollways, she argued, would not increase Western Sydney residents’ access to jobs, particularly because 90 per cent of those who work in the city use public transport to commute.

In fact, the additional tolls and parking costs associated with Westconnex could leave the commuters it is designed to help $48 out of pocket each trip, the report found.

For inner west residents, the concern is that they’ll face the cost of huge increases in traffic and dangerous levels of carcinogenic fumes.

A key concern is that the ‘new M5’ tunnel, the third of three construction phases for Westconnex, will surface in St Peters near Sydney Park, funnelling traffic onto King Street and, although the Westconnex Delivery Authority denies it, potentially transforming the bustling Newtown strip into a constant clearway.

At last night’s emotional public meeting, one pregnant resident said she moved to Campbell street in St Peters specifically because it is across the road from Sydney Park, where the interchange would be constructed.

“Would you take your kids to a park that is right next to smoke stacks and a six-lane motorway?” she challenged Christopher Swann, a Westconnex Project Manager.

Another local, who has worked on major traffic projects, said he had recently sold his house at a $200,000 loss because of Westconnex.

He, and many others, wanted Swann to address some of the concerns which have been given voice by the City of Sydney’s damning report, but Swann “cautioned” against reading too much in to it.

“The kind of modelling that’s necessary to really understand a network as complex as Sydney’s is not something that can be completed in a matter of days and weeks – it really is a matter of months and years,” he said.

It’s a response that, for many residents, was grimly ironic, given the highly secretive nature of the project.

The council report is the best publicly available modelling to date for the people of Sydney’s inner west, 41 of whom have been told their houses will be compulsorily acquired to make way for the St Peter’s tunnel interchange.

New Matilda spoke with one of those 41 home owners, Pauline Lockie, before the community meeting. She has been given until early 2016 to vacate her new family home.

“I’m furious because we actually spoke to them in July before we bought the property to ask if they had any plans in the area and would be affected by Westconnex and they lied to us, essentially,” she said.

“They said that they didn’t have any plans, all that they knew was that there would be an exit in St Peters somewhere, and we’ve subsequently found out, of course, that they were busy negotiating to buy the interchange site at the same time they told us that.

“All of this is going ahead with no public business case, no transparency, no plans, no environmental statements. It’s just a hideous example of planning.”

“The process has been appalling,” according to Labor’s candidate for Newtown in the upcoming state election, Penny Sharpe.

She said Labor expected more oversight, independent analysis, and a public business case before this sort of project goes ahead.

“To build infrastructure, you need to build community support and the only way to do that is to be transparent and to not do things like give people notice on their properties when there hasn’t even been an environmental impact statement done on the project,” she said.

New South Wales Labor supports some elements of the project, but not others, like the St Peters interchange.

But Sharpe’s Greens counterpart in Newtown, Jenny Leong, told New Matilda that “the reality is that all along the Westconnex route the community is being done over by this process”.

“The interests that are being served are the interests of the Liberal government, who is backing Abbott in his complete obsession with roads; the corporations that are very close to the government and their agenda to put public money in to private projects that will still lump the taxpayer with a whole lot of tollways and expenses over the long term,” she said.

You can explore the interactive Westconnex Map here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.