By Wendy Bacon and Nicole Gooch
(The People’s EIS interviewed Aurelia Roper-Tyler on October 12. Aurelia’s story is just one of thousands across the 33 kilometre Westconnex route. Her story adds some depth that is entirely missing from the EIS Social Impact study. Indeed the GHD consultants who did the social impact study did not interview affected residents for their report. You can draw on individual stories for your submission or tell your own story. The People’s M4 EIS welcomes contributions.)
Aurelia lives in Underwood Road, Homebush. Underwood Rd is the site of the proposed tunnel entrance and ventilation stack for the Westconnex. If the project is approved, houses would be demolished and residents left behind would experience increased traffic, pollution and noise impacts above safe levels. Lots of the vegetation that softens their urban environment would be stripped away.
The first Aurelia ever heard about the Westconnex M4 East tunnel was when her father-in-law rang her in December 2013 after he saw it on the evening TV news.
The next thing she knew a local paper was on her doorstep asking her if the house was going to be knocked down. Aurelia soon realised that her home was frighteningly close to the tunnel entrance.
She rang Strathfield Council who in turn suggested she ring the Westconnex Delivery Authority (WDA). They told her that her home may or may not be acquired and directed her to the WDA’s website. Aurelia says it had “pretty pictures but we really didn’t get much information from it”.
The WDA then went into “damage control” and assigned the family a “liaison officer”, who appeared to know very little, and who later left with no hand-over to the next person. Earlier this year, WDA declined to meet with the family at all. Finally in July, Aurelia received a letter confirming that the house would be acquired.
The family’s roots go back in Homebush for decades. Her husband’s family moved into the area in 1973 and can remember the stressful, noisy and disruptive construction of the M4 that cut a swathe through their community.
Aurelia and her husband moved into the Californian bungalow with its big backyard a decade ago just before their twin boys were born. One reason for the move was so that they could be nearer family. They decided they would like to stay and poured their life-savings into renovating their home. It had been barely a month since the end of the renovations when news of the Westconnex broke.
The Roper-Tyler home in Underwood Rd
At that stage, the boys were attending their local Catholic school just a short distance down the street. When they first heard of the Westconnex, the family was distressed – they had not desire to move or for the property to be acquired. Aurelia begun attending information sessions on the Westconnex and says that, “after looking at the detailed maps, it hit me that we need to get out of here”.
“I realized there was going to be a ventilation stack right behind our house, (in the latest plans it has now changed to be in the front) and the entrance to the tunnel was going to be a hundred metres from our front door.”
“I am a huge believer in global warming, and pollution, and I thought, we can’t live here. They gave us a timeline of construction (several years), and I realised there were going to be lots and lots of issues with the constructions that were happening here. So I felt we needed to move.”
By then the neighbours had received acquisition letters, but she hadn’t. Her home would be left, the last house standing, next to a laneway. “We were going to be this little house left on its own, with a three lane tunnel entrance on the other side. It was a really, really, difficult situation, because we were wanting to sell, but we couldn’t as nobody would buy.”
Like many others left in the dark by the WDA, Aurelia and her family then went through a long period of anxiety and depression from stress not knowing what was going to happen. Aurelia felt she was “in limbo land”, which was made worse by the fact that WDA didn’t seem to know either what was happening.
Finally, half way through this year the chosen route was made public and Westconnex told her they would acquire her house. She’s happy now that a decision has been made and they no longer have to deal with constant uncertainty, but the thought of loosing their home and suburb still fills her with grief. The disruption to an “already busy family life” was also difficult.
“We are already busy with schooling, family and our own careers, and then you have this additional, absolutely unforeseen pressure, and it is huge.”
Westconnex originally offered $400,000 less than their own valuation for the house. Aurelia and her husband stood their ground but worry that many wouldn’t have the capacity to do the same. She knows some who were panicked by the whole situation and just took anything they were offered. She worries about what happens to the more vulnerable.
The family will soon move to an apartment nearer the CBD. The boys were awarded a scholarship to attend St Mary’s Cathedral School in the city. Aurelia will however have to travel much further to her work in Concord.
One of her frustrations is that many people want to believe Westconnex’s line that the tollway will solve local traffic congestion. (Even the Westconnex EIS doesn’t pretend that this would occur so they are going to disappointed).
Aurelia describes her neighbourhood as having very strong ties. The children all ride their bikes up and down the streets and people look after each other. Aurelia and another friend take it in turns checking in everyday on, their 96-year-old neighbour, but now everyone in the street is leaving except him, and he is very stressed about that. “It’s killing our neighbour, he has already had three falls because he is so worried about it. Everyday he comes around to our house to ask when are we leaving.”
Overall, Aurelia, who works as a social worker in the mental health field, found WDA to be “unhelpful”. She is dismissive of the free counselling offered by the WDA to help deal with the loss of their house.
“Free counseling from a person that is actually causing you grief. It’s ironic. You’re the perpetrator, I’m the victim, you are giving me free counseling so I can deal with your behavior. I think it’s ridiculous.”
Her husband Jeremy’s grandmother lived in Short St in Homebush, 40 years ago when the M4 came through. It cut her off from the rest of the family on the other side of the road. Before that, she could walk across Short St. to the Church, the pharmacy, the shopping centre and her family. Back then the neighbourhood had the qualities of what planners today call ‘liveability’.
Then Short St got cut off and she had to make her way all around across around the motorway until she couldn’t anymore when she was in her 80s.
“20 years later we are doing exactly the same thing, with promises of a wonderful new road.”
There are hundreds of residents living in the Underwood Rd area of Homebush. The project has not yet been approved but if it is, those left behind are going to experience a dramatic deterioration in their living conditions. There will be 24 hours tunnelling for several years during which trucks will remove thousands of truckloads of spoil. A small park and its picnic tables were removed months ago, long before the EIS was even lodged. When the tunnel is open, the noise will still be above acceptable limits for some of those occupying buildings called ‘sensitive receivers’. Some will receive noise treatment ( this depends on a range of factors including cost; final decisions are not made until construction is well underway). The EIS does not recommend noise mitigation for residents living above the first floor in apartments. The local Catholic Church Our Lady of the Assumption will experience ‘high’ impacts.
Aurelia told us that while she objects to the way WDA has gone about the destruction of her community, she might have been prepared to accept some damage if the overall project was worthwhile. But having examined more closely the Westconnex claim that it will vastly improve the situation for those affected by paralysing traffic congestion in Sydney, she found the evidence did not stack up. She then became a key campaigner for her local area. For that and many other reasons. she will be putting in a submission objecting to the M4EIS proposal.
The People’s EIS will be publishing more individual stories soon. Here’s a submission from Haberfield written by an anonymous resident.