This is a story about King Street, the main street in the suburb of Newtown where I've lived for 31 years. It's one of the most popular and relaxed streets in Sydney.
Earlier this month, the NSW government announced its intention to extend weekday peak hour clearways on King Street to 12 hour clearways in the weekends. There's lots of evidence that by removing parking to allow traffic to move faster, clearways kill off street life and small businesses.
It's a very local story but it's also linked to a much bigger story about the deceptive and dishonest nature of the WestCONnex planning process.
Firstly, I need to explain for those not familiar with WestCONnex that its is a 33 kilometre network of proposed tollroads being developed by the Sydney Motorway Corporation (SMC), a private company, set up and owned by the NSW government for that purpose. There are plans for even more tollways to sprout from WestCONnex to the North and South. Plans are also underway to tear down more trees and widen roads through to Moore Park in the east to cope with the extra traffic that will pour out of tollways. LNP Premier Gladys Berejikian plans to sell 51% of SMC to a consortium that will have the right to charge tolls, increasing at 4% an annum, for 40 years. The residents of less wealthy parts of Western Sydney will bear the brunt of these unfair tolls.
In August, the Environmental Impact Statement for Stage 3, the M4/M5 tunnel across Sydney's Inner West that will cost more than $7 billion to build, was lodged with NSW Planning. The EIS was prepared by international engineering firm AECOM, which has a commercial stake in WestCONnex and surrounding urban developments. (I've written about AECOM here and here ( For more links on AECOM see below.)
AECOM admits that the EIS is little more than a concept design, 'indicative only' of what a chosen construction consortium will build and operate. The EIS is being processed under the NSW Critical State Infrastructure provisions which greatly diminish community rights in the planning process. Public submissions will close on October 16. After that date, the community has no legal right to further public input, hearings or appeal to the courts. The EIS is 7000 pages long - this story is just about one part of that EIS. but it demonstrates its underlying dishonesty.
In Sydney's property boom, Newtown has gone far more upmarket than many of its long term residents ever imagined or desired. King Street too has changed. We've watched the butchers and 'fruit and veg' shops close down and the clothes and shoe shops open up, Even so, King street still feels more relaxed than almost any other place in Sydney. It's a neighbourhood to which people flock to eat, drink and shop but it also has schools, local markets, many younger renters and in its heart, the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre, which campaigns for affordable housing and the rights of the mentally ill. I love its curved streetscape and afternoon light on its painted facades.
Many residents believe that WestCONnex threatens to threatens even more of what we enjoy about our community. To understand why we feel that you need to understand a bit more about WestCONnex.
WestCONnex arrives in Newtown
On Melbourne Cup Day in 2014, the Federal government announced that Stage 2 of the WestCOnnex would end at a massive spaghetti Interchange in neighbouring suburb St Peters which is adjacent to Sydney Park at the South end of King Street. Scores of homes in St Peters and thousands of trees would be swept away. The WestCOnnex Action Group and Save Newtown groups formed to fight the proposal. These groups joined other grassroots groups such as No WestConnex Public Transport Now and Save Ashfield that were already campaigning to stop WestCONnex.
Apart from being aware that tollways do not solve traffic congestion and concern for our neighbours in St Peters facing eviction, there was immediate concern that the traffic that would spewing out of the Interchange would swamp King Street, leading it to be declared a clearway by the NSW Roads and Maritime Services (RMS). The RMS has the power under the NSW Roads Act to declare any road in NSW a clearway.
In early 2015, 3000 people marched down King Street for a rally to Sydney Park. It was the largest action against WestCONnex since it was announced in 2012.
A few weeks later, WestCONnex CEO Dennis Cliche booked the Enmore Theatre for a presentation that they hoped would allay concerns. He assured residents that there would be no clearways in Newtown. The hostile capacity audience delivered a unified NO not just to clearways but to the whole of WestCOnnex.
Newtown Greens MP Jenny Leong went on to win the seat of Newtown, campaigning against WestCONnex. NSW Labor lost the election partly partly because it supported WestCONnex M4East and a version of Stage 2 WestCONnex.
Local community group Save Newtown focussed its campaign on King Street. More than hundred local businesses posted their Save Newtown sticker on their shops. Newtown Business Precinct was also actively involved in campaigning to save the street.
When the EIS for the New M5 was released in late November 2015, Save Newtown, WestCONnex Action Group and other groups began collecting thousands of submiissions in the street.
Then in December, there was an unexpected announcement. Labor Federal Member Anthony Albanese scored a meeting between himself, the Minister for Roads Duncan Gay and the Newtown Business Precinct that represents the small business owners of King Street. Later Albanese issued a release stating that Duncan Gay had guaranteed there would be no clearway. While not committing to oppose WestCOnnex, Albanese was able to portray himself as the one who saved King Street. Facing a Federal election for the overlapping seat of Grayndler, this was no bad thing for Albanese. The idea of a King Street Gateway was floated. Other than an arrow pointing away from King Street, it was never clear exactly what this would be but it helped diffuse the hot local political issue of King Street.
Of a record 12,000 submissions that were submitted to the EIS, more than 3000 came from the King Street campaign and thousands more from online campaigns WAG and Greens MP Jenny Leong and Jamie Parker. The City of Sydney and Marrickville Council expressed strong concern for Sydney Park and King Street in their submissions.
The next step was for RMS to submit AECOM's response to submissions which despite the thousands of submissions, it took just five weeks to prepare. The Response to Submissions was very clear. In a number of places in the report, AECOM clearly stated that the government had guaranteed that there would be no clearways and that RMS was committed to negotiating for the King Street Gateway but that would a separate project.
The New M5 was duly approved by NSW Planning in early 2016 and the campaign continued. But with the focus now on the destruction of 1000 trees and demolition of a massive tract of St Peters, the heat had been taken out of the King Street issue and many believed that it at least had been saved. But Save Newtown convenor Greg Ricketson and others were never convinced. He argued that there was no way that WestCONnex could go ahead without threatening King Street. The interchange would already push up to 71,000 thousand extra cars down Euston Rd into the neighbouring suburb of Alexandria. Many of those cars would be heading for Newtown and other suburbs
Jump forward to AECOM's M4/M5 EIS in August this year with an even shorter period of submissions. The EIS is 7000 pages so it would be easy to miss the Cumulative Impacts Report. This report is about considering how projects happening at the same time will impact on construction noise, dust and traffic congestion in the same area. For example, if 100 extra diesel trucks are generated by one project and another 100 diesel trucks by another project, an EIS that ignored the second project would be bound to be inaccurate. But there is a hitch. The EIS consultant may not have all the necessary information to do the report. This is exactly what happened in this case. AECOM's Cumulative Impact Report excludes certain projects including the King Street Gateway. According to a Table in the EIS, AECOM was not able to obtain any information from RMS about the King St Gateway, so that was excluded.
AECOM was paid millions by RMS to do the EIS report. So how could this happen? At information evenings, AECOM people told members of the public that they were not able to find out what was happening with the Gateway because RMS wouldn't tell them. RMS staff present said that they weren't allowed to talk to RMS staff who had the information about the Gateway proposal. This was so absurd that it left many wondering: Are we living in Sydney 2017 or in an episode of the ABC satirical series Utopia?
In September, came the anticipated reversal. RMS said weekend clearways were back on the agenda for King Street. While some argued that no parking could be welcome because visitors shouldn't be bringing their cars to King Street, there is strong evidence from elsewhere that the atmosphere created by thousands of cars flying down King Street would deter visitors altogether. The Minister for Roads Duncan Gay, who had met with local MP Anthony Albanese, was no longer around to explain the reversal. Gay retired in May this year and has since gone begun a new career in the roads business.
The following weekend, thousands of people angered by the possible 'death' of King Street flocked to sign submissions opposing WestConnex Stage 3. Then came yet another reversal.
Federal MPS for Grayndler and Sydney Antony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek made fresh submissions to NSW Roads Minister Melinda Pavey. They announced that she had guaranteed that there would be no clearways in King Street.
As Albanese and Plibersek would be well aware even if the guarantee has been made (there was no joint statement), it only lasts as long as Pavey is the Minister for Roads.
RMS have now announced that they will begin working on King Street in early 2018. This work is not officially linked to the clearways policy. Meanwhile, the Inner West Council have done a traffic study showing that traffic will increase on King Street if Stage 3 goes ahead.
You can't blame residents if they expect it is only a matter of time before 7 days clearways are introduced on King Street if the WestCONnex Stage 3 tunnel between St Peters and Haberfield goes ahead.
Update March 2018
Since I published this story, RMS has begun working on King Street. Stage 3 Westconnex has still not been approved. I understand that that design work is being done on the Sydney Gateway, which involves landscaping and a design that will steer traffic away from King Street onto other local roads including Euston Road. The Newtown Business Precinct is confident that King Street is saved. In my view, the question of whether King Street will eventually turn into a clearway remains an open one. Even if King Street is saved, the answer is not to shuffle traffic from one road into someone else's neighbourhood.