Documents forcibly disclosed from the NSW government by order of the State’s Upper House show high level political interference in the planning approval process for the controversial Windsor Bridge replacement project. The project has been strongly criticised for the damage it will do to Thompson Square, Australia’s oldest public square. 121113 Thompson Square Protest 003

The documents revealed show how in less than a month following the political interference, the Department of Planning changed from a position of opposing the application to one of supporting it. This was despite none of the Department’s external consultants supporting the application.

See report in SMH here.

Background

The Roads and Maritime Service (RMS) is seeking planning approval for the construction of a $65 million replacement bridge across the Nepean River at Windsor.

Local community groups have opposed the plan arguing that it will irreparably destroy the heritage of a Macquarie town and Australia’s oldest public square.

They also argue that a far lower cost option would be to repair the existing serviceable bridge for a fraction of the cost. The government’s independent consultants assess the cost of repairing the existing bridge at just $15 million.

Timeline:

4 October 2011: The Windsor bridge major projects application was lodged with the Planning Minister as the consent authority

1 July 2013: Department of Planning internal Summary of Project opposes the application finding repairing the existing bridge was in the public interest.

22 July 2013: Following pressure from Coalition backbenchers the Acting Chief of Staff of the NSW Premier’s office contacts the COS of the Roads Minister and the Planning Minister ensuring: “they are fully aware of the importance of delivering the road and that local MPs .. are very supportive of the need to improve the region’s roads and at the heart of this is Windsor Bridge.”

1 August 2013: Despite being in receipt of draft expert reports from heritage, traffic and engineering consultants not supporting the project Department of Planning produces a draft report recommending approval.

16 August 2013: Final reports from heritage, traffic and engineering consultants received not supporting project.

20 September 2013: Final recommendation in support of project signed off by Director General of Planning.

14 November 2013: NSW Upper House orders all the relevant documents to be produced in face of opposition from the government.

A good example of the kind of advice that has been ignored by the Department of Planning in its most recommendation to approve the replacement bridge comes from the external engineering consultants who wrote this:

It appears the optimum option is some combination between the RMS and the Pearson Wedgewood options which will be able to provide a viable option to refurbish and strengthen [the existing bridge] to carry T44 loading with a load factor of 2 which will be sustainable for the next 25 to 50 years, and not build a new bridge at this stage. Then at some time in the future a bypass alignment can be identified, approved and built which avoids all the damage to property, heritage values etc. So with a relatively modest expenditure (approx. $14.5m) the bridge can be serviceable for the next 50 years within which time an alternative route will have been identified and agreed.

Comment by Greens MP and planning spokesperson David Shoebridge:

“On 1 July this year the NSW Department of Planning’s own internal assessment was that the new bridge should not be built and the public interest was best served by refurbishing the existing bridge.

“The planning staff in the department found that repairing the existing bridge would fix local traffic problems, protect heritage and save taxpayers at least $50 million dollars compared to the government’s preferred option of building a damaging new bridge.

“But in just one month the department of planning did a u-turn and went from a position of supporting modest repairs to the existing bridge to recommending the government’s preferred option of a costly, new bridge.

“The only thing that changed in that one month was that the Premier’s office intervened to make sure Minister Hazzard’s office knew of “the importance of delivering the road”.

“In the face of independent advice from the departmental planners, the political fix was in, and by 1 August the department produced the first draft report that recommended a new bridge be approved.

“Amazingly the new recommendation was made more than a fortnight before the Department received the final heritage, engineering and traffic reports.

“All the independent reports, whether heritage, engineering or traffic, recommend against building a new bridge. They all agree that the public interest, our heritage and the budget are best served by repairing the existing bridge and fixing the approaches.

“Building a new bridge and approaches through Thompson Square will destroy Australia’s oldest public square and irremediably damage existing Aboriginal heritage.

“This is all about politics, with the Coalition and Roads and Maritime, sticking blindly to a ‘new road at all costs’ approach.

“This ugly political process has directly implicated the Minister’s office. To retain some shred of public confidence in the planning process Minister Hazzard should immediately refer the decision to the Planning Assessment Commission,” Mr Shoebridge said.