Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Further development in Green Square must stop

I am becoming seriously concerned with the continued massive population expansion and the massive proposed increase in density in the area known as Green Square. The largest urban revitalisation project, I would venture, ever undertaken in this country is occurring several precincts, including Victoria Park, North Rosebery, Zetland and Green Square. This was subject to a speech to parliament recently, the video of which you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBXkE6FflTU&feature=youtu.be

The sum of these developments is anticipated, upon completion, to house some 60,000 residents. That is 60,000 new residents. I am talking about an average density of 20,000 people per square kilometre. To put that in perspective, a square kilometre in the City of Melbourne houses around 8,000 people. 

I accept that an increasing number of people want to move into the city. Who can blame them? Sydney is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Increasing the housing density is an obvious and logical solution. While I do not oppose development, I do oppose carelessness, and that is exactly how I would characterise the haphazard, piecemeal planning policies of successive NSW governments. These policies have not only caused unbelievable traffic gridlock but failed to address the infrastructure needs of new and existing residents.

One cannot plan for and build increased housing density without planning for the associated infrastructure. Green Square is an example of planning failure. The largest urban revitalisation project in this country is an example of planning failure. The increased housing density has been created without infrastructure, and huge increases are still to come. Apart from gridlocked streets, the schools and hospitals are full, ambulances cannot get through the streets, people cannot get on buses at peak periods and buses cannot move in the streets. It is an example of how planning has not worked.

Planning for future population density must include planning for infrastructure to support that population. Roads, public transport, schools, hospitals, water and sewerage, social services and associated infrastructure must also be planned and paid for. In Green Square the population density has increased without a corresponding increase in infrastructure. There is no funding for that infrastructure. There are no plans or solutions. It is not a solution to suggest that a light rail network could be built in the never-never. The solution is to plan and to fund. Funding can be partly by developer contributions. There must be an understanding of the infrastructure that is needed. 

Every school in my electorate is full, including Catholic and independent schools. The primary schools and all but one high school are at capacity. There is increasing demand for the Minister for Education to fund inner-city schools. People are crying out for places for their children as families move into areas where there is high population density. A moratorium on any further population density increases is needed right now. That will give the Government time to catch up. Without that, the current intolerable situation will become worse.

If you look at the skyline from the Eastern Distributor you will see the cranes in the air, that is fine, but what is happening on the ground is not fine. The million dollar apartments sold in Zetland without car parking will be the ghettos of tomorrow unless infrastructure is constructed and supported. There is nothing wrong with increasing population density, but this is an example of planning failure by successive governments that have stupidly handed the decision to developers.

Exhibition period of 'New M5 WestConnex' EIS must be extended

After the NSW Government waited for Parliament to rise before releasing the ‘New M5 WestConnex’ Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), I have written to the Minister for Planning, Rob Stokes MP, who under part 5.1 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 has carriage of the EIS consultation phase, to request an extension.

I have for months been requesting detailed studies about the impact of flow on traffic from the Minister for Roads Duncan Gay[1] and I now demand that the Government allocates sufficient time for local Councils to do the work that questionable engineering firm AECOM[2] and the Government failed to do in the EIS.

The EIS released by the Government on Friday does not contain any detailed long term traffic studies of the flow on impact of traffic emerging from the St Peters interchange into the suburbs of Mascot, Eastlakes, Kensington, Kingsford, Erskineville and Alexandria, not to mention other areas, such as to the inner city or to the east.

The EIS for instance mentions the widening of Euston Road to six lanes, but does not study the impact that those six lanes worth of additional traffic will have on suburban roads. It doesn’t consider the impact of traffic from the 60,000 new residences in the Green Square Precinct, the University of NSW traffic or even airport traffic.

They’re attempting to bury the EIS under a pile of Christmas wrap and fireworks.

The timing of this report makes the Government’s desire to avoid scrutiny plain as day. Apart from confirming our worst suspicions of this project, the EIS has raised serious questions about the viability of this project.

The Government must extend the exhibition period to allow for detailed analysis by Councils, town planners, traffic engineers and residents. Ultimately the least the Government could do is give people in our Councils, with meaningful qualifications and experience the time necessary to submit a substantive response.

This is what happens when a Government outsources its responsibilities to investment bankers. The WestConnex will be a catastrophe for our local roads. You can download a copy of my letter to the Minister here.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

$17bn for 30 Seconds - Most Expensive Traffic Jam in Australia’s History

With a $17bn price tag, the Government can’t afford to get this one wrong. The WestConnex EIS released yesterday  by the NSW Government shows that the $17bn WestConnex is the most expensive traffic jam in Australia’s History.

Contained on page viii of the ‘New M5’ Environmental Impact Statement’s Executive summary is the traffic modelling which the Government is relying on the validate the entire WestConnex Project.

Yet this traffic modelling, by AECOM, an engineering firm who recently had to pay $280 million to settle a lawsuit for a similar project (see) shows traffic can be expected to improve in the St Peters area by as much as 30 seconds to one minute during peak hours.

The situation doesn’t improve for commuters relying on bus travel, with a number of services expected to see a 20% or more increase in travel times.

Roads in the St Peters/Alexandria community are already in a perpetual state of traffic gridlock.

This is the most expensive traffic jam in the country’s history.The Government is wasting $17bn on turning our local roads into glorified parking lots.

Spending $17bn of taxpayer money to improve commute times by 30 seconds isn’t just irresponsible it’s idiotic.The fact that bus services will experience delays of 20% or more is just beyond belief. At least the Government is consistent about they handle major infrastructure projects.

This is what happens when a Government outsources its responsibilities to investment bankers. This document highlights the true incompetence of the Liberal Government

Thursday, 26 November 2015

WestConnex - the most expensive traffic jam in Australia's history

The NSW Government has treated us all with total disrespect and contempt by arrogantly waiting until Parliament rose for the year before releasing the seriously flawed, 319 page, Business Case for the WestConnex project.

The document reveals that total costs for the project have, to date, blown out by an unbelievable $7 billion in taxpayer money. It also shows that the Government is still not in possession of a complete map, final designs or complete traffic modelling.

The cost benefit ratio as contained in the document estimates $1.88 generated for every dollar spent, but with the rate of cost increases, it’s doubtful that the Government will ever see a return on its investment. This is not how to run a State or properly use taxpayers' money. 

This is the most expensive traffic jam in the country’s history and the Government can’t even produce a complete map or a final design for the project.

The project was initially priced at $10 billion and has now blown out to over $17 billion, almost $7 billion more in projected costs.

At this rate, the Government will be lucky to deliver the project for under $30 billion.

Think of all the worthwhile projects -- schools, hospitals, police, teachers -- we could have for this money.

At least the Government is consistent about how regularly they screw up major infrastructure projects.

This document highlights the true incompetence of a Liberal Government that can’t deliver a project on time, or on budget.

It’s like the CBD South-East Light Rail Line, which has blown out to a price tag of over $2 billion without ever laying a single inch of track.

These surfers and merchant bankers on the Government benches are content to dig up our communities for a project that their own document says won’t work. They’re like used car salesmen, trying to sell Sydney a dud or a worthless bomb.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Ron Hoenig's Heffron Gazette - November 2015

Residents should have received their copy of the November 2015 edition of my newsletter called the "Ron Hoenig Heffron Gazette". It is available for download here:

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Liberal Government goes easy on CSG Polluters

The NSW Government is today trying to sneak legislation through Parliament which would significantly reduce penalties for Coal Seam Gas and Petroleum polluters, restricting the powers of the NSW Environmental Protection Authority to prosecute offenders. 

The Liberal Party has buried deep in its bill, a provision to remove severe penalties for CSG and Petroleum polluters " "wilfully or negligently causes any substance to leak, spill or otherwise escape in a manner that harms or is likely to harm the environment" . The ability to prosecute polluters before the Supreme Court and the imposition of meaningful penalties such as prison sentences and steep financial penalties will not apply.

The Government is removing meaningful deterrents for CSG and Petroleum miners and protecting those guilty of damaging the environment in NSW from penalty. 

Whilst anyone else responsible for a spill or leak, which causes harm to the environment, can face severe penalties like prison time, the same level of penalties not apply to CSG miners. 

This is why the public loses faith in politics. The People of NSW should have confidence that the Government will stand up to CSG miners in NSW and enforce environmental protections. 

We deserve a Government which guarantees that CSG and Petroleum miners who damage our environment will face severe penalties. Offenders should feel the full force of the law.
The Labor Party supports a moratorium on CSG mining in NSW until all of the Chief Scientist’s recommendations are adopted. This is what I told parliament today. https://youtu.be/ELmn1aq7zJ0

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Council Amalgamations - Are Councils "Fit for the Future" or are they being "Fitted up"?

Labor's Shadow Minister for Local Government Peter Primrose MLC today at the NSW Annual Conference in a very thought provoking speech, really nailed it. It exposed the failed logic and suggested the real motivation behind Mike Baird and his governments attack on local councils. I could not do justice to Peter's speech so I publish it in full below.

"Thank you very much for your invitation to speak here today. 

I doubt that anyone here doesn’t believe local government can do better. But the same applies to state and federal government, and the private sector. 

Labor has already begun the process of developing and announcing its local government policies, rather than simply being reactive. For instance while Labor has already banned property developers from standing as Labor candidates at any level of government, Labor Leader Luke Foley has now called on the Premier to legislate to ban developers and real estate agents from standing at all future council elections. He has also called for campaign spending and political donations to be capped in council elections, just as it is at state elections.

Destination 2036 was the product of a genuine process of consultation. The Government met with Mayors and General Managers to work out how things could be done better. 

Then for reasons people still are not totally clear, T Corp – which essentially has the job of buying and selling debt – also got involved in assessing local councils. 

Then there was the under resourced Independent Local Government Review Panel. Its 65 recommendations highlight reforms that we should examine closely and that we all should take seriously, not just those few dealing with mergers and amalgamations. 

Even the highly respected author of that report, Professor Samson, has publicly criticised the government for being obsessed with forced mergers at the expense of other his other proposed reforms.

Most recently, the chaotic Fit for the Future programme has seen IPART assessing costly reports prepared by councils to justify their continued existence, but unable to provide the parliamentary committee with any details about precisely what models and algorithms are being used to compare and assess councils. 

And until yesterday the Government had steadfastly maintained the position that councils would not be allowed to see what IPART said about them, because the whole process and the report would be kept secret. Of course, we always knew that we would learn bits of what was in it, when selected leaks to the media started appearing bagging local councils as being unfit and deserving to be sacked. 

One thing – I am not aware of any rallies or public meetings that have been organised anywhere by citizens demanding that their councils be forcibly amalgamated. That has to tell you something about the public sentiment.

I have been joining with local community groups to demand that councils should be able to view the IPART determination and present their case to the Government as a ‘right of reply’, prior to the Government making any final decisions about their future. While the Premier still seems uncertain about the details, I am pleased that in his address yesterday that he seems to be heading in roughly the same direction. But as always, the details remain elusive. The Minister today seemed to be suggesting it will not a right of reply, but rather simply a last chance to voluntarily amalgamate rather than be forced.

The Government should allow any council deemed ‘unfit’ to put forward an alternative proposal to being forced to amalgamate. For instance, instead of blocking proposals for innovation, the Government should be encouraging councils in the Sydney metropolitan area who wish to do so, to combine with neighbouring councils in a joint organisation model. 

Can I be very clear about one thing - Labor supports structural reforms such as amalgamations, but only where they have demonstrated local support and there is a good business case. They must be voluntary. Our clear and unambiguous policy is that Labor does not support forced amalgamations. 

Yesterday Mike Baird told you that he supports very large councils, and that bigger is better. Without a scrap of evidence, indeed despite the research evidence, he maintained the fiction that rates would go down, more infrastructure would be built, and there would be free ice cream and fresh scones for all if only councils were made much larger. No one has yet been able to explain how forcibly merging two or more struggling councils does anything more than just create one big council with even bigger funding issues.

The Premier is not evil. But he is just not listening to academic experts. He’s not listening to Local Government NSW. He’s not listening to experienced general managers. He’s not listening to the great majority of dedicated local councillors. And he is certainly not listening to the many community organisations and residents. They are all saying with one clear voice – Mr Premier, there is just no evidence that bigger is better. It doesn’t matter how many times you and your Minister repeat the claim, there is just no evidence. There should be no forced amalgamation.

If Mike Baird pushes ahead with non-voluntary amalgamations, we will work with local councils and the community to oppose him. The Labor Opposition will fight to maintain due process through the Boundaries Commission process, which the government has already threatened that it wants to ‘streamline’. This process should include Local Government representation and reflect all the factors that the Boundaries Commission must consider in the current Local Government Act, including employment, local values, financial disadvantage and community identity. 

In particular, community views must be strongly considered and rigorously canvassed by the Boundaries Commission when it considers amalgamation proposals. Any legislative changes being considered by the Government regarding amalgamations should be released immediately to allow time for the community and the Local Government sector in particular, to be consulted. 

Specific infrastructure such as Local Water Utilities should remain in the hands of the local councils which own them as these utilities contribute significantly to the strategic capacity of councils.

As a former Shadow Minister for Finance, my take on the purpose behind this muddled process is pretty simple. Fit for the Future is just part of a financial fix for the state government. 

It’s not really about making local government more efficient, any more than it has been about genuine consultation with key stakeholders to get the best outcomes. 

Remember the recent cog ads the Baird Government ran about how local government was “broken” and needed fixing? These ads were not the product of a government wanting to consult anyone. They were about convincing a sceptical public that local government in NSW deserved to be punished as it wasn’t up to doing the job.

The ads were totally political and totally meaningless. But despite the obfuscation we did eventually find out how much they cost the public of NSW. The Minister finally answered my question on notice – the cost was $730,307 for advertising space, and $262,474.30 for the so called creative development. That’s a million dollars wasted on some pretty tawdry propaganda.

I will ask you this - how ‘Fit for the Future’ do you think the NSW Government would be if the Federal Government had frozen its GST payments, and at the same time loaded it up with a pile of additional responsibilities? At the very least, the NSW Government today should be leading the charge to have the Federal Government unfreeze the indexation of financial assistance grants.

The most recent cost shifting survey by Local Government NSW has identified a financial burden of $520 million per year being placed on councils as a direct outcome of cost shifting.

And this is the crux of my problem with Fit for the Future. It’s all really about moving more debt onto local government and off the books of the state government. The state government knows like everyone else that there will be an inevitable reduction in its recurrent finances over the next couple of years as the property market starts to cool. 

That’s how markets work. But unlike in the past, this time the government won’t be able to rely on the profits coming from state owned corporations to help its budget position, because these are being privatised. 

Think about what the Minister has promised.

Bigger and better councils which are Fit for the Future will be given additional responsibilities to match their improved status. Roads, maintenance of infrastructure and recurrent services that were previously the responsibility of the state will be handed over to these shiny new super councils.

The Minister has also promised that to pay for these new responsibilities, these new mega-councils will be able to borrow money from T-Corp. But of course the councils will have to pay back the loans of course, with interest along with T-Corp’s service fee.

So how do you pay it back? Well, the Minister has also promised to make it easier for these new councils to get a rate variation through IPART. So councils will be able to raise rates, to pay T-Corp for the loans they have had to take out, to pay for additional responsibilities cost-shifted onto them by the state government. 

That’s what Fit for the Future is really all about. It’s not about being made fit for the future - it’s really just about being fitted up for the future.

I will not stand before you today and promise that a future Labor Government will abolish rate pegging. It remains a bi-partisan policy, and I am not going to mislead you. But before anyone starts threatening forced amalgamations or sackings, we should have a complete review of how local government is funded in New South Wales. 

The state government set the financial benchmarks that councils were required to meet to be deemed Fit for the Future. These benchmarks were highly controversial. The government needs to be open and transparent about cost shifting, and really needs to listen to what local government is saying about finances. 

There is no magic bullet, and we may not all agree with the outcomes. But if the Premier agrees and we begin going down this road instead of the dead end of Fit for the Future, Labor will walk with him, as I believe will the whole of the local government community.

We need to begin that process by properly and honestly examining the rampant cost shifting by other levels of government onto local government. Otherwise the outcome of any reform process will be a wasted opportunity to ensure local government can deliver the services that local residents really want and need. 

Thank you for listening to me."