Time running out for East West Link

Time running out for East West Link. Andrew Herington

Only a government blind to public opinion can afford to shoot its own umpire.

Yet that is exactly what has happened on the controversial East West Link.

After considering over 1,470 submissions and holding 30 days of hearing, the Assessment Committee appointed by Planning Minister Matthew Guy to adjudicate on the project’s Comprehensive Impact Statement has produced a detailed report running to 389 pages.

It comprehensively catalogues the failings of the design produced by the Linking Melbourne Authority and proposes a series of major changes to both ends of the Eastern Section, which runs from the Eastern Freeway through Royal Park to CityLink. The Committee also makes a strong recommendation to go back to the drawing board to find a new route for the elevated freeway viaduct section through Flemington and Kensington.

There are 43 main recommendations made by the Minister’s own Assessment Committee, but he has only accepted around 12. Another dozen of the more significant recommendations have been watered down using words such as “investigate”, “redesign”, “where possible” and “minimise”. It seems that on nearly half the recommendations the Minister has not given a specific response and it remains unclear whether they are accepted, to be modified or simply ignored.

The Minister’s announcement foreshadows partial redesign to address some of these concerns. However there is no explanation how this will occur, by whom and through what process the variations are to be approved. The bidders have their own, still secret, designs, and the winning design will not to be revealed until the contracts are signed. It seems that the Minister intends taking personal responsibility for approving the final design without any further public process.

There is similarly no clarity about the timetable or process for a promised Property Impact Report which will determine which additional properties are to be acquired. Nor is there any defined process for when acquisition notices will be served and when properties will need to be vacated. The Government has rejected the Committee’s recommendation that historic houses including those in Bendigo St, Collingwood and north of Alexandra Pde should be retained, the massive Hoddle St flyover redesigned and the temporary construction bypass road scrapped.

This continues the intense secrecy and pervasive political intervention around this project. Its construction is to take more than five years and the benefits have only been measured for the year 2031. Yet the Government insists there is a dire urgency to finalise the design, issue approvals and sign contracts before the State election in November.

There remains no public business case, no traffic forecasts for when the freeway would open, no proof of “congestion busting”, no decision on the level of tolls and no disclosure of how much taxpayers will be subsidising the road over the next 30 years.

The Napthine Government has to explain why, having set up a rushed six month process to assess the East West Link, it has now ignored the expert advice it produced.

The Committee comprised six senior planning experts appointed by the Government. There were no community representatives and the hearings were dominated by the LMA barristers and paid technical witnesses.

Yet the community groups and people whose homes were being acquired felt they got a fair hearing. They were supported by the Melbourne, Yarra and Moonee Valley Councils who funded barristers to cross examine LMA witnesses and provide contrary expert evidence.

The Assessment Committee nails the core problem when it tempers its criticisms of the LMA. “While the Committee is critical of aspects of the Comprehensive Impact Statement and the position of the LMA, it recognizes that all parties involved in this process have been working under challenging timeframes”. In other words it was all too rushed to work.

The government response has left the community asking how it is possible to sign a contract for something that is still very much a work in progress. The Minister is hiding behind a fiction in saying his approvals are the equivalent of a planning permit and “building permits will still be needed”.

There is no second public process. From here there are only secret negotiations with the bidders and a personal sign off by the Minister. The Minister has also “called in” the Heritage listing of Royal Park and – despite the unanimous support for this measure in submissions – is likely to reject it to avoid complicating the LMA’s task.

However, there are still numerous obstacles to overcome – including the commitments the Government itself has now made to redesign various sections. The tender process has a long way to run with the bidders having to make major changes to their design and a complex contract needs to be negotiated.

Beyond that, the contracts need legislation to pass Parliament (with or without Geoff Shaw) to become binding. In addition scrutiny looms for the project in the Senate, the Supreme Court and by the Auditor General.

It is time the Premier concedes his pet project cannot be redesigned and validly contracted before the State election. He should give Victorians a say by releasing a final design, disclosing the business case and delaying contracts to early 2015.

Andrew Herington is a Melbourne writer and former Labor Advisor who worked closely with community groups on the East West Link panel hearings.