The family home flooded because they live next door to development

James and Nadine lived in Harkness Road in Oakville, squarely in the area we call Vineyard Stage 1, a location of intensive subdivision caused by the North West Growth Sector.

The Vineyard Stage 1 subdivision area
The Vineyard Stage 1 subdivision area

Their home was nearly, but not quite at the top of a hill. The developers over the road had already razed the houses that had stood there since the 1970s – family homes that had stood on acreage properties at the crest of that hill, and had eaten into the land like you'd take the top off an egg.

Prior to the bulldozers arriving, rainwater drained off the top of the hill equally in all directions. But since the excavations began, the hilltop opposite was now a shallow, muddy basin. But that basin now had a spout, and the spout was pointed squarely at James and Nadine's home, which sat at the bottom of a sloping driveway.

When the rains came in March 2022, that water filled the basin, which had been constructed with no sedimentation control, and poured out of its lowest point – the spout opposite their home. A muddy slurry ran through their home to a depth of some inches. James and Nadine's property were ruined, and they estimate the damage into the tens of thousands of dollars. Recent arrivals to the home, they had not yet taken out insurance.

This story is a tragedy. It parallels that of many other Hawkesbury home owners on lower land whose houses were also flooded out by the rising of the river to 13.7m at Windsor, a height not seen since March 1978.

The earthworks had knocked the top off the hill like you'd knock the top off an egg, creating a shallow basin with a spout.
The earthworks had knocked the top off the hill like you'd knock the top off an egg, creating a shallow basin with a spout.

But James and Nadine's story is distinct in two respects. The first is that this house had stood there for decades, and the elevation in Harkness Road meant the property had never flooded before. It was well above the riverbank properties that flooded in early 2021 and March 2022.

The second reason, and the reason James and Nadine have engaged me to advocate for them, was the substandard response they had received from Hawkesbury City Council.

James and Nadine never wanted to go public with their story, until months had elapsed and they came to the conclusion that publicity was the only way they could get answers to their questions.

 

Timeline:

First week of March - rain event, home flooded.

Second week of March - Council contacted seeking help

25th March - Clr Lyons-Buckett and myself contacted about non-response from Council.

28th March - I attend the Harkness Road property and record video, part of which is in the main video above and which was sent privately to Council staff to lay out the problem clearly.

12th April - Clr Lyons-Buckett and myself speak directly to the General Manager after a Council meeting to ask for a response. One is promised.

20th April and 13th May - Having had no response from Council, Councillors are again asked to chase the matter. I speak to our Director of Planning by phone.

13th May - An email from the General Manager to James and Nadine says "I’ll follow this up with my team and get back to you as soon as I can."

June 3rd - James and Nadine decide to go public given the complete lack of a satisfactory response from Council.

June 14th - The Hawkesbury Post makes a media request directly to Council. It is not answered by date of this publication (June 21st).

Three months without a satisfactory answer. This is not good enough.

As a Councillor, I pledge to represent residents when they have issues with Council. I'm not here to defend Council when the level of customer service they deliver is not up to standard.

Who wears the liability here?

  • Is it the developers? They've now written to James and Nadine and told them all communication needs to be through their insurers.
  • Is it the contractors? The excavations they performed allowed water to pool on the site and pour through a home that had never flooded before. When I visited the site in March, no sedimentation controls were present. When I visited on June 3rd, I could see they had belatedly been installed.
  • Is liability with Council? Were there conditions of consent that were not enforced.

I have been calling for reform within Council, especially in the area of our planning, compliance and enforcement divisions, for some time. This story just underlines for me how chronically under-resourced Council is in this area. I get more comments from ratepayers about this than many other issues.

I am bringing this issue to a wider audience because even as a Councillor I have been unable to get timely answers to my questions. Let's hope this does some good.

 


Talking with Hawkesbury Business Owner Darren Pead about Windsor Mall

Darren Pead is committed to the economic health of the Hawkesbury, running Guy Stuff, Lollies 'N Stuff and Delicious Desserts – all in Windsor Mall.

He’s also passionate about how we present and promote our town centres, balancing renewal with enhancement of our wonderful heritage.
Council has spent the last three years developing a strategy for renewal in our town centres as part of our participation in the $18.75M Western Parkland City Liveability Program.

A hilarious early rendering of how the Windsor Mall renewal might look. No thanks.

Darren has travelled the world to look at how other historic townships put their heritage front and centre, and asks if we’ve gotten the mix right.

Embedded path medallions could be innovative wayfinding to guide walkers on a Heritage Trail linking Windsor Station to Thompson Square.
An example of a historic precinct done right - Temple Street in Boston

Recently the community has affirmed it wants the rotunda and the gas lanterns preserved and restored in Windsor Mall, but Darren points to the huge proportion of the available budget being lost to just one aspect - uprooting and relaying all the paving, when repairs to the existing paving (badly needed - no argument) could unlock millions to get better value from the project as a whole.

I don’t want to see wrought iron seating replaced with sterile, Westfield-style bland street furniture.

The most recent iteration of the town centre renewal plan suggests bland, modern street furniture unsuited to a historic precinct.

A heritage trail could link Windsor Station to Thompson Square with medallions embedded in the pathways and an extension of heritage-styled lanterns down George St.

Darren and I would like to see the plan - otherwise excellent, given one more pass by Councillors to ensure that the money is spent where it will do the most good.
We sat down and had a chat this week and it makes for a fascinating conversation.


The sorry state of historic Bardenarang Creek, Pitt Town

Pitt Town local Gordon Douglas was on the phone with me, as he often is. "Nathan, have you seen the state of Bardenarang Creek since the floods? It's terrible!"

That afternoon I went to the famous Friendship Bridge on Pitt Town Bottoms Road to see for myself, and saw the reason for his concern.Repeated floods have left the creek in a very sorry state, with tattered plastic sheets from local farms spectrally draped in all the trees and choking the waterway.

The site has significant historic importance too. This was the site of the very first meeting between europeans and the Darug Aborigines in 1791. When I helped locals pull tonnes of rubbish out of that creek at a Clean Up Australia event a few years ago, I saw local pride in caring for our environment. But this is beyond the ability for volunteer groups to remedy due to the volume of debris and safety concerns.

I've raised this with Council staff to see whether creek-cleanups like this can be scheduled into our ongoing flood recovery works.


Hawkesbury Council Rates 2022

Are you paying too much in Council rates? News from the 2022-2023 Hawkesbury Council Budget

Hawkesbury Council's rating system is broken and unfair. However, there are developments I'd like to share with you.

For context, I've been advocating for reform of our rating system since I was first elected to Council in 2016:

There are many causes for the problem, ranging from distortions in land value caused by our proximity to nearby development, but two key changes introduced by the previous Council had a huge impact.

The last Council, under Mayor Lyons-Buckett and continuing under Mayor Calvert, introduced a 'Special Rate Variation' that drove everyone's rates up by a third, when the relevant rate-cap was (mostly) tracking inflation. It bears remembering that three of the Councillors who voted for that rate-hike were not returned when they stood for re-election in December.

That Council also changed the rating formula that varies the mix between a flat-fee (called a 'base rate') and your land value, moving the base rate from 50% to 30%. This has made distortions between land value and household income more acute. I'm pleased to report I voted against every such rate-hike in the last chamber.

Emphasising land value is a recipe for volatility (since it's the Valuer General who sets land value, not Council) and unfairness when land value becomes unrepresentative of a suburb in a way I'll explain below.

The 'base rate' used to be set at the maximum the legislation allows, at 50%. The last Council reduced it to 30%, making the system less fair.

In calculating your rates, Council should be mindful of the principles in the Council Rating and Revenue Raising Manual, a document put out by the NSW Government through the Office of Local Government. Particularly, the principle articulated by the economist Edwin Cannan a century ago:

But the same document warns Councils that placing too much emphasis on land value in calculating rates is 'at best only an approximation' for:

The new Council elected in December 2021 resolved in January to model changing the 'Base Rate' back to 50%. That's a move that I support. Those figures will be on public exhibition soon and the budget will be adopted to take effect July 1.

The common criticism is that people on acreage properties are rich and can easily afford higher residential rates, but the data reveals a different story.

The Hawkesbury Social Atlas displays a range of statistics about our area, including median weekly income broken down by suburb:

One analysis could be to compare median household income to median rates within the same suburbs to get a sense of fairness.

Weekly income and annual rates are figures with roughly the same magnitude (say $1000-$3000). It's not as though a ratio of one is a magic number – it's arbitrary, but it does allow for a comparison that factors in both rates and the 'ability to pay' principle.

Caveats: Such an analysis is just a guide – comparing the median-this to the median-that doesn't account for those that lay on the outer edges of those bell-curves. I know pensioners on below-median income sitting on land that just happens to be close to development that they loath and want no part of. Go and talk to them about what it's like to be taxed off the farmland that they and their parents grew up on.

Nor does this analysis touch on the other factor mentioned earlier – the relative access to services. Many residents of outlying suburbs live on dirt roads, and are far from the centralised services they are subsidising with their rates, while enduring other disadvantages. Setting rates with blunt tools isn't a science, as much as I wished were otherwise.

But this at least attempts to address the equity issue that is frequently raised by my colleagues in the chamber when they speak openly of 'rich acreage landowners' vs 'poor suburbanites' in built-up suburbs.

Here is what that comparison looks like for some suburbs under the current base rate of 30%:

Here's what that means: Suburbs above a ratio of one are relatively advantaged, meaning that the rates they are charged are low compared to median household income in that suburb. Suburbs below the ratio of one are disadvantaged, meaning that rates are relatively expensive compared to income. In a fair system, one measure of fairness would be our ability to drive rates in suburbs towards the same ratio.

Now, here's what those ratios would look like for the same suburbs under a base rate of 50%:

Those suburbs who are paying not just double the average rates, but double even after factoring in relative income, move towards fairness. And other suburbs move in a modest way towards paying their fair share, and again, even after accounting for income.

If you want the raw figures, without adjustment for income, here is the preliminary modelling on a per-suburb basis for 2022-2023 rates in a range of Hawkesbury suburbs with a range of base-rates. These aren't final but will probably reflect figures which will be put on exhibition soon. Again, the base rate is 30% at the moment, and I'm advocating for it to move back to 50%.

A change to a 50% base rate is not a complete fix. It's cold comfort for residents in Oakville and Maraylya, enduring increased traffic from development and potholed roads being told that instead of paying well more than twice the rates as elsewhere, they'll now be paying only slightly more than twice even accounting for income.

Worse, the pensioner rebate on rates has been stuck at $250 for years and no longer keeps pace with our desire to give older people a hand, and Council has not addressed this in this year's budget. But any move towards fairness is a positive step.

Could we do more? Council can't set the base rate above 50% as that's limited by legislation. IPART released a long-delayed report into Council rating structures

Hawkesbury Council predicts it will take in $44M of rating income over 2022-2023 from 24,615 residences, 625 farms and 1617 businesses.

In 2016-17 that figure was $30.5M over 23,370 residences, 582 farms and 1509 businesses. In other words, Council revenue from rates have risen by 44% when the cumulative inflation rate over the same period was 11.6%

I’d say most Hawkesbury residents are prepared to pay rates that contribute to the common good, but their sense of a fair go is offended when they consider that some suburbs are paying two or three times the amount of rates of other suburbs with comparable income and access to services.

I'll continue to advocate for a fairer go while ever I remain on Council. If you don't already follow me on Facebook, Instagram or YouTube, please consider doing so for updates.

 

 


The Hawkesbury-Nepean River Floods - March 2022

Flooding has again struck our community for the second time in 12 months.

This flood has risen to 13.7m (as measured at Windsor - which tends to be the benchmark), beating last year's flood of 12.9m making it approximately a 1-in-20 year event.

This video was taken when the waters still had about 2 more meters to rise.

I'm indebted to the excellent Hawkesbury Flood Statistics facebook page for making excellent real-time data available about river heights and closures.

Here's their summary after the waters subsided:

 

 

 


A New Accountability Measure - Report cards on Councillor Attendance and Expenses

Click here to see the video.

You're entitled to expect that your elected Councillors turn up to as many meetings as they can. It’s a critical part of our job.

Sadly, I've seen that this hasn’t always been the case. When the Hawkesbury Gazette sought figures on Councillor attendance in 2019, it found fragmented data. I was acknowledged as having among the best attendance records of any Councillor.

I resolved to do what I could to improve accountability.

Legally, Councillors can only be censured if they miss multiple formal Chamber meetings, but in my opinion that accounts for only about a third of what Councillors do. Data is either not collected, or not summarised relating to attendance at briefings, workshops, committee meetings and community consultation sessions.

So, I moved a motion at our Council meeting on February 8th that will cause a report card on Councillor attendance to be presented annually and before elections which covers a wider range of meetings and events that Councillors attend.
In the course of debate, the motion was widened to encompass reporting of Councillor expenses and to demand proof that Councillors got value and shared the knowledge they got out of any conferences we attend, and I thank Councillors for the constructive input that improved the motion.
I was surprised that some Councillors opposed this sensible measure of accountability.
This video summarises the debate, but if you want so see the full remarks of the other Councillors, they're here.

Condolence Motion for Dick Petrikas of Tennyson RFS

We lost one of the Hawkesbury Community's greats recently with the passing of Dick Petrikas from Tennyson, at the age of 83.

Dick ran his business on Tennyson Road selling all manner of farm equipment for over 50 years. He spent 43 years as Captain of the Tennyson RFS from 1976 to 2001 and further 14 years as Deputy until semi-retirement in 2015.

Dick, his mother and sisters fled their ancestral home in Lithuania towards the end of WW2.

Travelling by rowboat, they were intercepted by fisherman and ended up interned in a migrant camp that was eventually liberated by the British.

The family decision to emigrate to Australia instead of Britain was apparently sealed by the impression the family gained of Australia from watching Chips Rafferty movies.

They arrived at the Migrant Hostel in what is now Scheyville National Park, just up the road from where I live, in 1948 and the rest is history.

Dick and his family have been fixtures in the Hawkesbury Community ever since. Dick’s business traded with Colo Shire Council and Hawkesbury Shire Council.

He was awarded the National Medal in 1993 and had since added two clasps for his extraordinarily long service.

Dick could be proud that his whole family went on to become contributors to the Hawkesbury community in their own right in the RFS, SES and elsewhere.

I acknowledge Dick’s wife Julia, and their children Chris, David, Merien, Greg and Steve.

I enjoyed speaking with Chris, who is himself decorated with the Australian Fire Service Medal to put together these notes.

Dick left behind 11 grandchildren, 8 great grand-children and more are on the way.

We’ve lost too many of our local greats recently, with the passing of Aub Voller, then Albert Newton, Peter Speet, Lionel Smith and now Dick Petrikas.

I invited my fellow Councillors to join me in a moment’s silence to mark Dick’s passing.

This video also shows the remarks made by my colleagues Councillor Les Sheather and Councillor Mary Lyons-Buckett.

 


Professor David Flint AM and The Hon. Philip Ruddock AO

Celebrating 70 years of Her Majesty's reign

 

Professor David Flint AM and The Hon. Philip Ruddock AO
With Professor David Flint AM and The Hon. Philip Ruddock AO

I was honoured today to be invited to the official service to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Accession of Her Majesty the Queen, with Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC, Governor of New South Wales and other dignitaries, held at St James' Church in Sydney.

What an absolutely extraordinary life our Queen has had. She has reigned over the life of both our nation and the wider Commonwealth with grace and wisdom. She has been served by fifteen Australian Prime-Ministers (and coincidently, fifteen British ones).

I support the Monarchy because at its best it represents selflessness in service to others, and the modelling of ideals that rise above the rude acquisition and preservation of political power. I also laud the Royal Family’s patronage of over 3000 organisations pursuing voluntary service, or charities, or good architecture, or the Arts, or environmentalism (in some cases, years before such causes became mainstream).

The miracle of our Constitutional arrangements is that the Monarch, custodian of all those powers which are often used to oppress people elsewhere who suffer under authoritarian regimes, are guarded by a figure who by custom and precedent will never use them.

The idea that a government can only govern so long as it has the support of the people? The principle that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to laws? The idea that the justice system should treat everyone fairly and equally? These are principles that are safeguarded by the Crown. That’s the reason why when you walk into a Court you see the Royal Coat of Arms rather than a State crest. The Crown upholds our rights.

I feel suspicion when people seek to replace the system that has given us peaceful and democratic government for centuries on a whim, or in the service of empty symbolism, or to politicise a realm that is refreshingly absent from it. Australians have and will continue to reject that.

But I am hopeful that all people, Republicans and Monarchists alike, can unite today and celebrate Queen Elizabeth for what has unquestionably been long life given in service to others.

I’m pictured here with the Hon. Philip Ruddock AO and Professor David Flint. Thanks to the Speaker of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly The Hon. Jonathan O'Dea for taking the photo!

Long live the Queen!


On ABC Breakfast Radio about Warragamba Dam (again)

This morning I was interviewed on ABC Sydney's Breakfast show by James Valentine (whom, I recalled, I used to watch on the 'Afternoon Show' as a kid). The well-worn subject was whether to raise Warragamba Dam. I appeared before on the same subject in 2019.
 
Why the renewed interest? The release of a report by the IUCN - a UN environmental body, critical of the Government's EIS for the project.
 
And here's why it's frustrating to participate in public debates like these. Intermittent headlines from this group or that denouncing the project, but which usually turn out to be less than they appear on further scrutiny.
 
The EIS for the project runs to over 8000 pages. It's an extraordinarily detailed document that took three years to develop by scientists and experts.
 
And this report from the IUCN - a body that employs a thousand people and has an annual budget of $200M?
Four pages. Two of which are preamble and recapitulation in the conclusion.
 
I don't accept the argument that the 0.05% of the World Heritage Area enduring temporary inundation will be damaged by the project. Nor do I see the project as a stalking horse for unfettered development on the floodplain. I support the project because there are 140,000 people who live and trade on the floodplain, and I don't want them to die, or see their houses flooded, possessions ruined, or livelihoods destroyed.
Recently, Hawkesbury Council voted to reaffirm its traditional support for raising Warragamba Dam, and I am pleased that the complexion of the chamber has changed to permit that - as much as I disagree with my fellow Councillors on other issues. And it remains stubbornly true that this project should and will go ahead, barring a change of government at Federal or State level.
Our valley will flood again, and we should be prepared.

Hawkesbury Council rejects critical flood safety measure – Again!

Our community has known we have to 'Live with the River' since the time of settlement. Our relationship with the river and the inevitability of floods mean we're forever torn between the blessings of rich soils and the river's deadlier moods. My own ancestor was killed in Windsor in the flood of 1809.

But human ingenuity has given us the ability to dam rivers, and we're now told that raising Warragamba Dam by 14 meters will reduce the frequency and severity of flooding here by 75%. That it would reduce the number of homes flooded by 5000. That the damage bill would reduce by $3,000,000,000. We need that. If only we had it in March – it would have spared 500 homes and reduced the flood height by 3.5m.

The new EIS is open for public comment until the end of November. Here are all the EIS documents, and I strongly suggest you start with the Executive Summary, given that the whole EIS is 8092 pages long. Council would be completely negligent on behalf of our community, who endure the highest risk of flooding in Australia, if we didn't make a submission. Submissions run until the end of November. You should consider making a submission (look for the link in the top right corner)

I'm appalled that a majority of Councillors are so wedded to their ideology that, at last night's meeting, they voted even that down. The video above summarises what happened at the meeting.

That's right - they voted down even putting forward our own community's concerns in a document to the State Government.

I know not everyone agrees on this issue, but this is reckless and treats the 600 families whose homes were flooded out in March with contempt.

And yes, this absolutely should be an election issue.

I have of course been very, very active on the subject of flooding over this five-year term of Council: Here's a list of all my videos and motions before Council on this subject.