The NSW Greens are calling for an inquiry into the accountability of the state’s roads service and the way it manages critical infrastructure projects.
The party’s Tamara Smith said, across the state, communities were in a “David and Goliath” battle with the Roads and Maritime Service (RMS) over the impact of road building within their backyards.
From across her Ballina electorate to the West Connex project in Sydney, Ms Smith said she was being told about an imbalance of power between the needs of road building and the rights of residents.
She said across the state, the amenity of residents was being shattered by road building and critical infrastructure projects, such the Pacific Highway upgrade.
“If the noise levels aren’t acceptable, if peace and enjoyment is lost, if your property is devalued, the resident has no recourse through common law,” Ms Smith said.
“It’s not on your radar until a highway is going through your home, or next to your home and then what happens is confidentiality clauses mean the concerns never come to light.
“There’s going to be more and more infrastructure being built and we just want to redress some of the imbalance.”
Ms Smith said there was an imbalance of power when it came to the relationship between the RMS and individual residents.
“It’s like a scene out of [the movie] The Castle, that’s exactly what this is.”
“You don’t have the right to say ‘No, you’re not going to compulsorily acquire my property’; you don’t have a right to say ‘No, you’re not going to build a four-lane highway 200 metres from my wildlife refuge’; you don’t have any say,” she said.
Ms Smith said it went beyond accountability, and said the RMS needed to be transparent in its negotiations with individual landholders.
“You get individual residents having to negotiate with a delegated body and they never know what anyone else has — it’s a very divisive process,” she said.
As the member for Ballina, Ms Smith sits on the government’s Industry, Investment and Regional Development Committee and said she would propose the committee headed up a fresh inquiry into the RMS.
She said the last time the state’s roads authority was called to account was in its previous incarnation as the RTA (Roads Traffic Authority).
That was in 2005 when an inquiry into the Cross City Tunnel in Sydney looked at the communication and accountability between the RTA and the Government.
Independent ombudsman needed
Ms Smith wants to go further than an inquiry and will propose legislation for an independent ombudsman to be appointed to help people affected by major infrastructure projects.
She met with unhappy residents from Meerschaum Vale and representatives from the RMS and Pacific Complete last weekend.
She said some people in the area had seen their property values plummet because of the route selected for the Pacific Highway upgrade.
Lack of consultation
For resident Keith Hammond, the highway will be about 300 metres from his property.
“We’re on a hill and right below us will be the highway, there’ll be noise, pollution and fumes, and lights from the night, out here of a night there’s nothing, just stars, so we don’t know whether we’re going to be able to actually cope with it because it’s just heaven here,” Mr Hammond said.
But he said he had been in the dark about the details and the RMS had been hard to pin down for answers.
“No-one has had contact with us as far as wanting to look at the property or anything else really, so it’s been minimal … really it’s just us going to meetings and we don’t know when a lot of the meetings are on, we’ve missed meetings because we weren’t notified … so that was our complaint earlier on,” he said.
RMS speaks out about communication
The head of the Pacific Highway upgrade, Bob Higgins said communication could have been better with the residents in Meerschaum Vale.
“There were some aspects of what’s happened in terms of the consultation, yes we need to fix … [but] to say nothing’s happened is quite incorrect,” Mr Higgins said.
“I think there’s a bit of a lack there of actually providing that information or how we provide that information because some residents have been provided it and some have not, so there’s inconsistency there,” he said.
Mr Higgins said the RMS was on track with its community consultation responsibilities.
“My own personal view, it’s not a ticking the box exercise,” he said.
As for the need for an ombudsman, Mr Higgins said there were adequate regulations in place to make sure the RMS was doing the right thing.
“There’s a lot of government agencies that are checking us and making sure that we comply — whether that be the Department of Planning and Environment, whether it be the federal environmental agencies, whether it be EPA — there’s a whole range of checks and balances,” he said.
“After that and then on top of that the community do hold us to account.”