Grose River Bridge crossing map

Today, I’m writing about the proposed bridge across the Grose River that forms part of the deal struck when the Redbank development was approved at North Richmond.

First, I’ll repeat something I’ve said before: If I had been on Council when the Redbank development at North Richmond was put up, I wouldn’t have voted for it. It worsens the congestion at North Richmond and across its bridge. The scale of the development was not compatible with the area, and the rural landscape created by the keyline dams scattered across the Peel property were better preserved as open space.

However, my current Liberal colleagues on Council are correct when they say that there was one thing that made Redbank compelling, and that was the provision of a new bridge across the Grose River, entirely at the developer’s expense.

I want to dispel some misunderstandings about where things are at. Councillors received a briefing on this matter just a few days ago. Our deliberations should always be led by the official reports that come to us in the lead up to a vote, but there’s incorrect information circulating in the community and the need for other tiers of government to be equally engaged with us makes this commentary worthwhile.

The Redbank developer signed what’s called a “Voluntary Planning Agreement” (a VPA) in August 2014. The VPA can be accessed here. The co-signatories were Hawkesbury Council and the RMS. The most significant obligation this VPA conferred was the provision of a “Multispan bridge, approach roads and intersections for crossing at Yarramundi of Grose River”, which would have to be approved by the time the 341st lot was sold. This threshold will be met by about March 2018, based on the current rate of lot sales.

The developer has taken out large advertisements in local papers declaring this approval is “stuck” in Council and “may take years to resolve”.

Redbank river crossing gazette ad

This simply isn’t true. The developer was given a choice about the mechanism by which the approval process for the bridge could proceed. They were advised about what would be required at a meeting in July 2015. They lodged a D.A. in April 2016, and then nominated to have the mechanism changed to what’s called a “Part 5” process only in August 2016. This was exhibited until September 2016 and is ongoing. There are a couple of documents outstanding, including a Crown Lands Merit Assessment. The necessary document for Approval to be considered by Council will be a revised Plan of Management, which could be available by late 2017 or early 2018 – in time for the lot threshold defined by the VPA.

It’s worth noting that this VPA also included a lot of other benefits to the community that have already been delivered, such as $2.5M to upgrade Bells Line of Road, Grose Vale Rd, the Terrace, Old Kurrajong Rd, Yarramundi Lane, Bosworth St and March St. It will also deliver 15 bus-shelters, concrete paths in Peel park, $1.35M to upgrade North Richmond Community Centre, the dedication of land with utilities for a future Child Care centre, and maintenance of all open space for five years prior to dedication of the land to Council into perpetuity. Not a bad outcome!

The developer now says that they would prefer to see a sum of $24M given over to “Council and RMS” to build the bridge themselves. But the reality is that only 5% of the money would come to Council, and that the RMS will not build the bridge with the money. RMS would be constrained to put the money towards “other improvements” to state roads between Richmond and North Richmond, but at time of writing, they have no projects to which the money could be profitably put. It is unlikely the Grose River bridge will cost only $24M to build, so why let the developer off the hook so cheaply? The developer has to supply the bridge regardless of the cost.

Similarly, there is a fantasy going about that taking this money will make a “third crossing of the Hawkesbury” happen all the sooner. This just won’t happen. The cost of duplicating North Richmond bridge is north of $200M. There is no connection at all between this bridge proposal and the widespread calls (including those of me and my Liberal colleagues) for a third crossing. It has no bearing on the merits of the now-advanced plans to replace the bridge at Windsor, and the Grose River bridge has never been advanced as being “the third crossing” that is needed. To be sure, it is a third crossing, but it’s not a crossing of the Hawkesbury River.

The developer’s advertisements make it seem like this clause to hand over money in lieu of building a bridge is something they can do unilaterally. They can’t. Nor can they “demand” that someone else build the bridge in their stead. And it’s not like the $24M is sitting in their bank account and burning a hole in their pocket. If the handover option was consented to, the money would trickle in based on future lot sales and could take over a decade to pay down. It’s a bum deal, and we’d be fools to take it.

It is against this backdrop that the current political debate is unfolding. A Facebook group titled “Hawkesbury Needs a Third Crossing” seems absolutely bent on opposing the Grose River crossing, which is “a” third crossing, and that strikes me as perverse. CAWB would willingly conflate the debate about the Grose River crossing with the current plans to replace Windsor Bridge, when they aren’t even remotely related. Others will claim that because the Redbank development was a matter that came before ICAC, the whole development is “tainted”. Three of the four Liberal Councillors, including myself, weren’t even around when that was approved and as unsavoury as that episode was, the claim does nothing to negate the advantages of having the bridge built now that Redbank is a reality.

What this boils down to is that the contractual obligation to build a bridge over the Grose River is the thing, the biggest thing, that made Redbank even remotely palatable. If Council decided to knock back the bridge, it would be cutting its nose off to spite its face. It would be refusing the major community benefit that flowed from the Redbank development, and it would be making a decision for largely political reasons.

Our Mayor recently released a “FAQ” statement that repeated some of the clarifications that I’ve just laid out. These statements, bar one, were agreed to by all the Councillors as necessary to clear up the confused discussion after we were briefed on the matter by Council staff. It was not, as one facebook commenter breathlessly declared a case of “In a grubby political river of misinformation the Mayor shines a light on the FACTS!!!” Please…

The Liberal Councillors fully supported the suggestion that Council rebut some of the claims the developer put in their advertisements. However, and unhelpfully in my view, the FAQ defensively reacts to the accusation that the “Non Liberal Councillors are holding up the bridge.” Neither me nor my Liberal colleagues have made that claim. What I have said is that, from this point forward, if Council is the body which determines the fate of the bridge, then most certainly its fate lays with the non-Liberal Councillors, who are a clear majority in the chamber.

I and my fellow Liberals took support for the Grose River bridge to the September 2016 election as a key plank of our campaign. Here it is on our election handout material…

It is also true that there are other Hawkesbury City Councillors who have expressed their trenchant opposition to the Grose River bridge. I don’t name them here because it is for them to make their own public statements on their position. But make no mistake: The decision is very much in the balance! My recommendation is for members of the public to hold the feet of all Councillors, Liberal and non-Liberal alike, to the fire and to make them state their position on the bridge clear to the community. We have. It is not enough to hide behind process and say that they aren’t prepared to say anything until a report comes to Council that’s about to be voted on. This is an agreement that Council, the Developer and the RMS inked nearly three years ago to do a certain thing. There’s plenty of information in the public domain, and which they should be across. Do they support this bridge or not?

It is my view that the vast majority of Hawkesbury residents, and especially those who endure the torturous ordeal of North Richmond traffic day in and day out, can’t wait to see this bridge built. They recognise that it’s not a complete fix (it will reduce the traffic across North Richmond Bridge by over 30%), but more significantly, it’s costed, timetabled and ready to go. Hawkesbury Council is doing its own part to prepare the necessary approvals for consideration by Councillors in early 2018. Hawkesbury residents west of the river understand that the best solution, even a partial one, is one that arrives within their lifetime, and is already paid for. If the non-Liberal councillors have seen the extensive information to hand, are not prepared to back the proposal, they should say so clearly.

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