Why no extension for consultation ?

For months, local councils, MPs and groups opposing Westconnex have been asking for an extension of the consultation period. The minimum period is 30 and groups requested either a minimum of 60 days or three months. When the EIS turned out to be 5000 pages, the community groups renewed their calls including staging a ‘read-in’ of the EIS at the Department of Planning. The Department granted 45 days and this was extended for a further ten days when Westconnex failed to file all the documents correctly.

On the face of it, the requests for an extension for such a huge project would seem very reasonable – the refusal to provide an extension or even to give reasons for not providing one fuels community fears that the process is only a sham.

This letter was sent by one of the People’s EIS team Wendy Bacon to the Senior Planner responsible for the M4 East assessment in the Department of Planning Brent Devine on October 13, 2015.

Dear Brent,

Thank you for speaking with me this morning. The point of my call was to express my concern about the lack of time granted to the community to respond to nearly 5000 pages of EIS. Originally the community was only given 45 days, although the community affected by the Northconnex was given 60 days. This seemed unfair and disproportionate given the difference between the projects. The period was extended after Westconnex failed to properly file their documents.

This is a huge EIS report and its social impacts are complex and affect thousands of people and a number of communities. It is hard to think of an urban project that could have more impact than the Westconnex series of tollways. On the other hand, the EIS documents are not easy to absorb or to handle. There is much repetition and the actual analysis is often hard for the public to identify. I have found that important material is in the appendices so one cannot rely on summary chapters. The task is not made any easier by the lack of page numbers in some sections. PDFs are also difficult to deal with, especially when one is trying to check similar material in different technical reports.

My greatest concern is that a number of serious technical issues have arisen which could affect the health and safety of communities that many feel require independent advice. Given that the communities have very limited resources, it is necessary to seek advice from volunteer qualified advisors who can only address these issues out of hours. With only 20 days to go, these issues cannot be dealt with adequately by the community. Even Councils are stretched to respond. I am particularly concerned about this because I was told by a consultant at the EIS session in Strathfield last Saturday that she did not consult with Ashfield Council on the actual route of the project. Businesses were also not consulted directly. This means that this is the first and perhaps only chance that communities have a chance to respond to the EIS on the actual route which is quite different from that originally proposed.

If the law allowed for hearings or even merit review, the time restrictions might not worry me as much or seem so unjust. However given the amount of public money at stake and the risks to health, safety and the future mobility of residents and visitors to our city, it would seem to be foolish not to allow the more adequate period of at least three months for consultation.

Please acknowledge receipt of this email. There are many community complaints about Westconnex’s poor approach to community consultation. Now residents and groups tell me that they are worried that they will not be able to get their submissions done in time.  I trust you will respond very soon as time is running out.

Yours sincerely,

Wendy Bacon

After 10 days, I sent this follow-up email part of which read:

Dear Brent

I have tried to call you – maybe I missed your call back.

I wrote you a quite detailed letter and I expected to at least get some reasons back.

There are now 11 days to go….

I do not know why the government is being so unreasonable but Minister Stokes office says it is up to the Planning Department in which you are the responsible person although not ultimately the decision maker.

There are massive flaws in the EIS and I think the community should be given the time to respond.

On October 22 with 11 days to go, I received this response from Brent Devine:

Hi Wendy,

I realise it has been over a week since your email, and I have escalated your request to the executive staff.

I will follow up and can hopefully provide a response shortly.

Brent Devine

A few days later I received a letter from the Executive Director Priority Projects Assessments Planning Services David Gainsford declining my response but offering to post my letter seeking an extension as a response to the EIS. I was asked to communicate my consent back to Ms McCourt.

Here’s a slightly edited version of what I wrote back:

Dear Ms McCourt

After waiting more than 10 days for a response from the Department about the an extension for submissions to the M4 East I received a letter from David Gainsford Executive Director Priority Projects Assessments Planning Services.

Disappointingly this letter provided no reasons for not extending the submission period, other than to state it had already been extended from the ludicrously short minimum period of 30 days due the “anticipated level of public interest.”

The level of interest is indeed high. This is because many critics of the project are seriously concerned that Westconnex is a short signed and damaging project for Sydney in the 21 century. The are concerned that rather than helping solve Sydney’s transport problems, Westconnex will saddle the public with traffic congestion for decades to come as well as great financial costs including loans that will be paid off over many decades .This project has grave implications for impacted communities including health costs that have not been properly assessed in the EIS. To quote Sydney psychiatrist , “Westconnex is slow moving disaster for local affected communities. The disaster is easily avoidable and should be avoided by not proceeding headlong with this project.”

I note that you say: “As part of the assessment process, the proponent will prepare a response to all submissions received. This response will be made publicly available on the Department’s website. I can assure you that the Department will conduct a rigorous assessment of this proposal and carefully consider all issues raised in submissions prior to making its recommendation to the Minister for Planning.”

In the light of this guarantee, I look forward to reading a detailed response to the many arguments that have been raised by critics of the Westconnex which do not so far appear to have penetrated the closed thinking of those who prepared the EIS reports. It was disappointing to see that there was no engagement in the EIS with the significant criticisms raised by SGS Consulting that were hired by City of Sydney earlier in the year to prepare a report that was widely publicised. It is reassuring to know that you will consider “all submissions” as many citizens have gone to considerable trouble amidst busy lives in the short time available to address the issues.

I would expect that it would take a considerable amount of time to rigorously assess all the submissions and carefully consider the issues raised. I suggest that as part of your assessment you make good the failure of the Social Impact Assessment to consult with residents in affected suburbs. I find it alarming that public dollars have been spent on a social impact assessment that consisted of a a desktop review and some consultation with Ashfield Councils, other Councils and some organisations in 2014 on a different route, plus a few questions to organisations sent via Westconnex communications staff in 2015. In 2015 Ashfield Council was not consulted at all and there were no direct communications by the consultant with residents affected.

Thank you for the offer from Mr Gainsford to publish my letter as a response. You have my consent. Although it will not be necessary as I can upload it as a response myself along with this letter.

Yours sincerely,

Wendy Bacon

The planning staff all seem like reasonable people on the phone but nevertheless their decisions do not seem reasonable. They are treating the public very shabbily. I’d still like to know – who actually made this decision not to grant an extension – the Premier Mike Baird, the Minister for Planning Rob Stokes, the Minister for Roads Duncan Gay or the head of the Sydney Motorway Corporation – Dennis Cliche? Why the rush – because the contracts were let before the planning process?

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