By Wendy Bacon and Nicole Gooch
This is the second in our series that feature individual stories. This post tells the story of Kevin and Ann, two residents of Homebush who are in their eighties.
The People’s EIS has already published Aurelia’s story from Homebush. We interviewed Aurelia because she could speak directly about the experience of having her home compulsorily acquired by WestConnex. But she is also a social worker and is concerned about the stress and social disruption caused by the WestConnex project even before it is approved.
It’s not just the people who are forced out who are affected by WestConnex. Aurelia told us about Richard her 96-year-old neighbour in Homebush whose house has not been purchased. She and her neighbour keep in touch with him regularly. Everyone is leaving except him: “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.”
WestConnex was required to include a social impact study in the EIS. This is Appendix M. The NSW Planning Department required that this section of the EIS should report on the impact of the M4 East on communities from planning through to operation of the WestConnex. GHD was hired to work alongside AECOM to produce the social impact study. According to its website, GHD is a global services company that operates in the “markets of water, energy and resources, environment, property and buildings, and transportation.” It provides, “engineering, architecture, environmental and construction services to private and public sector clients.” It is not a specialist in social impact studies.
People’s EIS caught up with GHD consultant Anne Mithieux at a Strathfield EIS exhibition session in September. She explained to us that GHD did not interview any people whose houses were being acquired directly which probably explains why her impact study contained very little detail and described the stress and disruption that is already occurring along the M4 route as if it was a future event. She saw her task as recommending mitigation for the impacts of a project that was going to happen. (This is the sort of attitude that is fueling critics’ apprehension that the Planning process is a set up.) She was not uncaring but is not very familiar with the area she was studying. She seemed a little surprised about the intensity of the impacts that were already happening.
Two weeks ago, the ABC interviewed Arthur Alibrandi who told the ABC News that his 82-year-old father, Joe who has lived in his unit for nearly 50 years, had been offered an amount by WestConnex that would make it “physically impossible” for his elderly father to stay in the area.
In response, Premier Baird told the ABC, “At times, there has to be a provision for the majority, there are difficulties for some people as part of that… We’re doing everything we can in terms of compensation, looking after them, provide provision for a new home.”
This statement reveals a similar detachment and apparent lack of knowledge on the part of the Premier. According to the SMH, Slater and Gordon Lawyers, who are representing about 70 property owners affected by WestConnex compulsory acquisitions have found that offers are 20-50 per cent below what clients’ properties are worth. This means that residents quite unexpectedly are not only losing their homes but feel they have lost control over where they can live altogether.
Since we published Aurelia’s story, Aurelia and the People’s EIS have begun to hear stories of more people who are being forced out of their homes.
Kevin : another story from Underwood Road
Kevin and Ann (not their real names) are both in their eighties. Five years ago, they moved to Homebush, a community along the M4 route that will be hit hard by the WestConnex.
Initially, Kevin wasn’t bothered by the WestConnex because according to earlier plans, it would have bypassed his home. But in June this year, he was told WestConnex would compulsorily acquire his home and he and Ann must move out by April. As anyone who lives in Sydney would know, nine months is not nearly enough time to unexpectedly sell and find another home.
When Kevin and Ann moved into their home five years ago, they expected to stay there for the rest of their lives. They had specifically chosen the house because it had no stairs, was walking distance to the train station and shops, and in a quiet street.
When interviewed for the People’s EIS this week, Kevin said,
“I am very unhappy about the WestConnex. I can’t find anywhere to replace my house. I am very old, in my 80s, so I thought the place where we are living at the moment, is our home. But I can’t find anything to replace the house that is near the station and the grocery shops. There were a few houses on the market, but they are too expensive. There is no way to get one of those houses, with the money I get from our house.”
“They’re going to acquisition it, they’re going to buy it by force.”
The situation is “very stressful. Particularly for aged people like me.” He describes the search for a replacement as a “nightmare” that may have “shortened my life expectancy”.
He laughed when asked if WestConnex had been helpful. “No. Just one way instructions.”
“WestConnex is not helping to find a new house. It did a valuation and that’s it. The amount from WestConnex may be fair, but I can’t find anything to replace the house with the money from WestConnex.”
WestConnex GHD report warns of serious risks to residents, especially vulnerable ones
The GHD report did find that the acquisition process could carry ‘significant social risks’ (Appendix M, p. 96)… including ‘inaccessibility of equivalent housing at a comparable cost…relocation health risks…[and] altered access to social infrastructure’ as well as potential housing stress due to higher rent or house costs. It is ‘expected that the majority of owner-occupiers would aim to relocate within the local area’, and effects may be compounded by the timeframe of just 9 months for some households to be relocated, market volatility and reduced housing stock available to relocate into (Appendix M, p. 68).
It also noted that the “stress and anxiety” could lead to “impacts on health, well-being and quality of life, which have been worsened by the uncertainty and the changing footprint of the project with some dwellings originally to be acquired now not, and some originally not impacted now required for the project (Appendix M, p. 68).”
It found that the impacts would likely impact vulnerable households but that even less vulnerable households would be affected as “land acquisition would increase property demand in the local area with some households with only nine months to identify alternate properties”. (Actually it is less than nine months for Kevin as some property owners have been told they must be out of their houses by April next year.)
“Overall it is anticipated that the social impacts of relocating for many of the directly affected households would be major short-term impacts. In some cases, where households are unable to relocate locally, the social impact may involve an extended recovery time to re-establish social networks and daily routines for work, study and recreation. Alternatively, where households need to incur higher levels of debt in order to remain in the local area, increased mortgage or rental stress may result in greater and longer term social impacts.”
Short term impacts are defined as between 1 and 3 years. (Appendix M p. 23). Major impacts are substantial ones that the report states could be mitigated, although it does not explain how this might happen after residents are forced out, which is in the process of happening at the moment. So for older people this could be very serious. The stress and forced relocation could shorten their lives, particularly for those who do not have strong family support networks.
Given the lack of any in depth or direct investigation by GHD, it is disturbing that the consultant repeats and appears to accept the word of WestConnex at face value. On page 87, GDA reports:
WDA is also providing an independent service to vulnerable households (e.g. elderly, those suffering an illness) to help assist with their relocation. This service aims to provide assistance with tasks such as finding a new property (either to rent or purchase), arranging removalists, disconnection of services (electricity, gas etc.), attending appointments with solicitors and other tasks associated with relocating. With nine per cent of people in the region over the age of 70 years and 4.6 per cent
needing assistance for their daily needs, this support will be imperative to mitigating relocation disruption.
On the basis of this statement, the report concludes that “minimising dislocation of affected households from their existing socio-economic networks is a key consideration in avoiding social risks to those affected by property acquisition.”
GHD report out of touch with residents’ experiences
While the WDA statement quoted in the GHD report does represent the official version of what is happening, it doesn’t represent what residents would have told the consultant had they been asked. The problem is that with five months to go until they empty their homes and move to new houses, residents such as Kevin claim that support is simply not there.
WestConnex Action Group Haberfield spokesperson Sharon Laura told the People’s EIS, “I hope those who are currently in the process of trying to negotiate just terms for the loss of their homes are not panicked into accepting what is first on offer by WestConnex/RMS.” She recommended that residents negotiate hard like Aurelia to get the best deal – and not leave their current home until they have found a suitable replacement for the home and community they are losing.
“In Haberfield and Ashfield, there are owners and tenants, who have received their PANs (notice to settle on agreed price, either as an owner or tenant), and who are being hassled to leave their homes before Christmas. Many have no idea of where they will re-locate. Some, who may have been offered a ‘good price’, say that even with this, they cannot afford to purchase or rent back in Haberfield or Ashfield. So much for ‘just compensation’ and a just process of acquisition. Money provides no ‘just compensation’, when a person or family is forced out of their community against their will, and in an such and untimely manner. Why should anyone leave until they are ready and have got something decent to move into?”
The WestConnex Action Group rejected Baird’s assurances that the government is doing all it can to support people and called for a halt to forced acquisitions.
There are also serious impacts for residents living in aged care facilities and for tenants who may find it impossible to find or afford comparable accommodation in Sydney.
How to make an objection: