Defeated in the effort to ensure fairer Hawkesbury Council Rates

Last night the Mayor moved a Mayoral Minute to try to make our rating system fairer. We failed. The vote was defeated 8:4.

Some suburbs in the Hawkesbury are suffering under Council rates that are anywhere between 50% higher to 300% higher or more than other suburbs.

This is despite those families having similar incomes and similar access to Council services.

The point I made was that the guidelines laid down for fairness in rates requires us to be mindful of both the ‘Benefit Principle’ and the ‘Ability to Pay’ principle. Rates should be proportionate to both.

Unfortunately, our area is suffering from a good deal of land speculation caused by our adjacency to the North West Growth Sector, something I’ve written about and made videos many times before.

Let me encourage you to listen to the Mayor Patrick Conolly and myself as we make our case. My remarks are from 2:20 in.

Straight talk about Development

I was with Garry Cotter being interviewed at Hawkesbury Radio and the subject turned to development in Sydney generally, and the Hawkesbury in particular. How can we balance the destruction of urban sprawl with Sydney’s need for housing?

On reflection, I thought this two-minute segment sums up where I’m coming from.

Where do your other Hawkesbury Councillors stand on this and other issues?

Do they ever publish? Make videos? Do interviews? Speak publicly?

You’re entitled to know where your elected representatives stand on issues. If you want my view on an issue that isn’t already written about on this site, just ask.

What are the facts about raising Warragamba Dam?

In any given year, what are the risks of your house burning down, you getting sick, or you crashing your car?

Low, I hope. These events have a low probability, but serious consequences. So we weigh the risk, and take out insurance.

So it is with our floodplain. There have been 124 floods in the Hawkesbury-Nepean since the 1790s. We had one this year (a baby — between 1:5 and 1:10 probability), and worse ones are a statistical inevitability.

The NSW Government 2017 report, Resilient Valley, Resilient Communities says that the damage of a bad flood could be between $5 billion and $7 billion dollars, considering that 134,000 people live and trade on the floodplain.

In a bad flood, 90,000 of those people would need to be evacuated. 12,000 homes would be inundated.

The report also says that this risk could be reduced by 75% if Warragamba Dam is raised by 15 meters, saving lives and slashing $5 billion from the damage bill. A wise investment, I think.

The cost would be that, in those rare rainfall events, a fringe of land around the current high waterline of Lake Burragorang would be subjected to temporary inundation, amounting to 0.04-0.05% of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Crucially, preliminary modelling suggests the most sensitive areas of the catchment, like the Kowmung River and its tributaries, would not be affected at all.

There is a lot of misinformation put about concerning the Warragamba Dam raising project. That it’s a stalking horse for development on the floodplain. That it will ruin a world heritage site. That it’s about increasing Sydney’s water supply.

These claims are not true — even though these issues are important. The project is about protecting life and property. I observe that most people who are opposed to the project don’t live on the floodplain. They live elsewhere, high and dry. They endure no risk to themselves, their families, or property. They are entitled to their views, but have no stake in the outcome.

The attached video is an interview I did recently when I was approached by someone doing some academic research from my alma mater, the University of Sydney. I summarise many of the points I frequently make about the project, and Hawkesbury Council’s attitude towards it.

I’ve written about this subject many times before:

A Masterplan for Colbee Park at Mcgraths Hill

Colbee Park in McGraths Hill is one of our most used, and most neglected sports fields. I should know, as a Soccer Dad whose child’s club was based at the park for a decade.

Despite near constant use from the Oakville United Soccer Club, the Oakville Raiders Baseball Club, the Hawkesbury Hornets BMX Club, frequented by dog-walkers and near the pleasant wetlands of Killarney creek, the park also suffers from limited parking that turns into a quagmire with a breath of rain, insufficient seating, has little shade, an open drain that cuts the park in two, and buildings so inadequate that sports clubs have had to use shipping containers to stow their club’s gear. The baseball club lost all their uniforms and gear when it flooded earlier this year.

Hopefully, this can begin to change. Council will consider the exhibition of a new masterplan for Colbee Park at our next meeting.

The plan includes upgraded fields, new play equipment, better parking, proper amenities and storage for clubs (including a female change room), seating and shade structures, a Pump BMX Track, and a footbridge over the Creek for nearby Arndell school.

The only thing missing is funding to make it happen within ten years. I’ll keep advocating on that front.

The draft Masterplan can be seen as attachments to our Business Paper for our Council meeting of 8/9/20 (Item 170), at this link.

I’ll let you know when the plan is open for public comment. If you’re a user of Colbee Park, I encourage you to have your say.

Speaking to Ray Hadley about Planning Panels

This morning I was invited to speak to Ray Hadley on Sydney Radio station 2GB about two issues.

If the streaming link above for the audio does not work, try this direct .mp3 sound file link.

The first issue is the prospects for two Development Applications that have been lodged for a concrete recycling plant at Ebenezer.

Both DA’s are problematic for a number of reasons, including the loss of tree cover, noise and dust within 700m of a local primary school, the excessive fill proposed, some land use conflicts, and the increased burden on road maintenances from truck movements. Many Ebenezer locals have contacted me with their concerns.

However, this particular application draws our attention to a much broader issue, and that’s the role of planning panels.

Prior to 2017, most DA’s were voted on by elected Councillors. Less contentious ones were processed by Council staff under delegated authority, and only state significant developments were sent to external panels.

In 2017, the news was full of rare bad apples in local government, like Salim Mehajer, whose corrupt behaviour tainted the reputation of Councils as fair judges of development proposals. So the State Government revoked the ability for all Sydney Councils to vote on DA’s and mandated that all DA’s are to be assessed by independent panels of unelected bureaucrats.

There are five Sydney Planning Panels and four Regional Panels. Matters go to a Local Planning Panel if there are more than 10 public submissions, if it’s Council’s own DA, or if a matter requires advice. Matters go to a Regional Planning Panel if the value of the proposal is over $20 million, if it is State Significant Development, or “Designated Development‘.

Unfortunately, I think the pendulum has swung too far, and democracy has been eroded, even though the impulse — to reduce corruption, reduce red tape, and stimulate the economy, is a worthy one.

The key here is to strike balance. Programs like “Yes Minister” incisively reveal a productive tension between the public service and elected representatives. Public servants are a professional class, and may have institutional memory and significant subject expertise in an area.

However, appointed delegates to Planning Panels may also be people who do not live in the area in which their decisions affect people, are less connected with local sentiments, and are not truly accountable — they ‘have no skin in the game’, and if they make an unpopular or incorrect decision there is little democratic remedy.

When I make a decision on your behalf, I have a vested interest in listening carefully to your concerns. If I get it wrong, you get to vote me out, and that’s as it should be. This balance between the mechanistic letter of the law and the democratic prerogative of elected representatives usually works well.

People approach me and your other Hawkesbury Councillors regularly expecting that we will represent their concerns on development applications, which is a fairly core function of Council. We have to disabuse them of our ability to influence or vote on matters of public interest, because of this change, even though most Councils are run well and can be fair judges of the merits of an application.

Some among my colleagues argue that Council’s role is to set the frameworks for development, such as our Local Environment Plan (LEP), Developer Control Plan (DCP), Local Strategic Planning Statement (LSPS), Residential Land Strategy, Rural Land Strategy, and so on. But Council’s process for updating these documents, which is ongoing, has been interminably slow, and has us relying on outdated documents that are sometimes years old. Our DCP, for example, dates to 2002!

I feel I’m in good company in seeking a review of the extent of planning panels, joining Liberal Councillors in other Councils in branding this an over-reach.

Protecting the Cumberland Plain woodlands

Update: 9th October 2020. I have made a submission to the State Government on the Conservation Plan. Read it here.

This week the State Government placed the Draft Cumberland Plain Conservation Plan on exhibition for comment.

This is a significant document for a number of reasons, although it has some failings which my submission to the Minister will seek to remedy.

The Cumberland Plain is a generic term for the (mostly) flat geographical area laying between eastern Sydney and the Blue Mountains, encompassing Western Sydney from the south near Wilton to the north including the Hawkesbury-Nepean floodplain. The forests and grasslands it used to host have been significantly fragmented by urban development, and previous attempts to create woodland corridors or “green lungs” for Sydney have been eroded over the decades, which I’ve written about before, and explained in a video.

The first thing to observe is updated maps relating to the location and extent of the M9/OSO road and infrastructure corridor are a part of the plan, and now formally exclude areas north of Richmond Road. This is heartening, but our community will not have certainty until the final extents are gazetted, which is in my opinion, signficantly overdue.

While we’re on the subject of corridors, the Draft EIS offered alongside the RMS proposal for the M9 included maps which purported to show the extent of Cumberland Plain Vegetation (of various types) along its path.

However, these maps were greatly at variance with other maps, such as NPWS maps, which showed significantly greater coverage.

I pointed this out at the time, both in an article and a video showing exactly how the extent of Cumberland woodland has been underestimated. I also created a Google Earth Overlay comparing the two.

The northern extent of the proposed M9 corridor (as at 2018, not now) downplaying the extent of woodland in the vegetation study created by Transport for NSW.

The green areas above represent “Threatened ecological communities” and the hatched areas represent “Cumberland Plain Priority Conservation Lands”.

A vegetation study created by the National Parks and Wildlife service. This shows that TfNSW have vastly underplayed the significance of the remnant Cumberland woodland (specifically, endangered shale forest) in the corridor area.

Looking through the 3256 page Draft Assessment Report in the new plan that has been released, it would appear that few actions to update vegetation coverage maps have occurred in the Hawkesbury, in favour of study areas closer to the Aerotropolis closer to Badgerys Creek. I would have preferred that a Conservation Plan incorporating the Hawkesbury took at least some time to update the relevant studies to snapshot the state of the Cumberland vegetation in  the Hawkesbury. Instead, the focus is overwhelmingly on the southern areas subject to more intensive development.

Downy Wattle, Acacia pubescens

One representative example of this is the treatment of an iconic species prominent to the Hawkesbury, such as the Downy Wattle (Acacia Pubescens).

A 2003 NPWS study showed 116 known populations of the species, with just over half of those known populations containing fewer than 20 stems. There are sites in Windsor Downs, Mountain Lagoon, Pitt Town and Scheyville are the major sites in the Hawkesbury LGA, and yet the draft Assessment Report instead targeted study areas on Penrith, Badgerys Creek and Wilton.

Considering the State Government’s use of maps in their planning that are seriously out of date, or which disagree with other data, I hoped the Government would take the opportunity to do new work to establish current coverage and biodiversity threats to what’s left – especially in those areas of the Hawkesbury that will be likely subject to the greatest development pressure within the time horizon of the plan (out to 2056), like Vineyard, Oakville and Maraylya.

Submissions have been extended to 9th October 2020. I encourage you to make your views known.

Mental health, psychological abuse and health regulation

I’m putting this post here to welcome those who are arriving at my site as a result of being quoted and linked in the August 2020 piece on VICE titled “I lost my wife to a cult”, which is, sadly, the story of what happened to my own family.

It’s a tragedy, and painful to recount, and something I’ve tended to be private about with respect to my role as an elected Councillor. I consented to participate in the story because of my desire to raise awareness of an important issue.

I believe most people expect government to have laws against the exploitation of the vulnerable. For myself, I am committed to that fight.

In recent years, Australia has conducted a debate on religious freedoms. We live in an open, pluralist society. It is fundamental to our national character that freedoms of belief, association and expression are respected.

But how do we deal with those who abuse the sense of purpose and hope that many find in faith, and use the cloak of religion to commit objectively evil acts?

It is not a rising tide of secularism that represents the worst threat to mainstream religions — believers that keep to social norms and who do genuinely charitable work in our communities. Rather, it’s a minority of “bad apples” that exploit the respected place of religion in our society.

Our laws discern a difference between belief and conduct. If you commit an assault, or perpetrate a fraud upon another, we accept these as clear breaches of a moral code and the law will bring you to book.

But if you lure someone into a cult, suppress their critical thinking faculties, change their name, poison them against the affections of their family, and rob them of years of their life, then the law, presently, is silent. It is an act equally as violent as a physical assault or a fraud — and indeed, often combines elements of each.

Back in 1998, the Australian Standing Committee of Attorney’s General formulated something called the Model Criminal Code. It was aimed at harmonising laws between the Commonwealth, the States and Territories. The Model Code contained a proposal to introduce an offence of Psychological Abuse, both to account for cult abuse and some aspects of domestic violence.

Despite the objective merit of the proposal, and my personal advocacy to the then NSW Attorney General in 2012, no Australian State ever saw fit to adopt it into their statutes.

This has been an area of advocacy for me for many years.

Further reading:

My other piece, Confronting Those Who Prey On The Vulnerable.

Older pieces on my other (personal) blog about cults.

My presentation to the national conference of the Australian False Memory Association. The first half of the video elaborates on the story appearing in the VICE piece linked at the top. The video from 26m00s on describes my political advocacy in this area.

On the opening of the new Windsor Bridge

I was privileged to have a sneak peak of the new bridge before it opened with Robyn Preston MP

The new Windsor bridge opened to traffic this weekend. This is a major milestone, and the project has dominated local politics for a decade.

After so much Ill-feeling and unnecessary delay, I think this is a project the whole community should be proud of, and I say this as a local representative who felt very much caught in the middle by those passionately advocating for and against.

I didn’t entirely agree with those who thought of this project as a rape of Windsor’s heritage. But I did agree that building a replacement bridge in the same location condemned a very historic square to another century of heavy traffic, when it offered a wonderful opportunity to build a bypass. I said then and still say that this was a missed opportunity.

“Slated for demolition”… except it never was.

I also disagreed strongly with those who put out misinformation — saying for example that heritage buildings around Thompson square were “scheduled for demolition” when they never were, and the protesters knew that. They also said that historic brick barrel drains that had been covered up over a century would be destroyed, when in fact the project afforded the chance to do some unique archeology and then cover them back up, just like they have been all this time. We now have a documentary record and a host of artefacts we never would have otherwise had. Piers for the new bridge were moved so that they didn’t disturb the drains. 

Some wonderful archeology was uncovered by the project, which never would have been investigated otherwise.

Nor did I see overwhelming merit in retaining a narrow, inadequate bridge whose visible structure was an ugly concrete deck added in 1924. The oldest part of the bridge, best able to be described as having heritage value, were the iron pillars driven into the river bedrock in 1874 — some of which will be retained in the construction of a viewing platform (which the protesters opposed!) 
These things inflamed passions and tested friendships needlessly.

Of course, any protest started by people who care deeply about heritage or local amenity also attract carpetbaggers — people who care less about the issue, but who beadily seized an opportunity to create political friction for their own ends.

For years, I saw protests in Thompson Square with unsavoury types loitering around the edges — leather clad union thugs, federal politicians who had nothing to do with the project, Greens activists, even the late Jack Mundey, former BLF tsar and Communist Party candidate (but otherwise the saviour of The Rocks — see, people aren’t all bad).

It became a circus. At the last election, at least three people gained election to Hawkesbury Council on the back of this tide of protest, only to spend the last four years sticking their heads in the sand, opposing reasonable collaboration between Council and the RMS, and almost guaranteeing that the community input they sought election on would rarely reach the right ears. It’s been very frustrating. 
I think many people who genuinely care about heritage have been used.

It’s worth noting that today’s opening of the new bridge isn’t the end of the project. I’m hopeful that the completed landscaping will reunite the sundered halves of Thompson Square caused by the cutting dug in 1934, greatly expanding the useful space to the public, and underlining that Thompson Square has been a changing and evolving space since the beginning.

The opening of the old bridge, 4th November, 1874. This bridge shares only certain elements with the present structure. The whole top deck was replaced in 1920.

I’m confident that once everyone sees the completed project, people will reconsider whether all the noise and hand-wringing were worth it.

Hawkesbury, enjoy your new bridge. Maybe your great-great grandchildren will fight to preserve it as a piece of the area’s heritage in 2166, the year in which it will be as old as the current bridge retired at. 

This video, courtesy of Robyn Preston MP – Member for Hawkesbury is a fascinating record of the bridge’s construction.

A brief meditation on human nature

LordOfTheFliesBookCover.jpg

I know this might not be about local government, but indulge me a little. If Government is about ordering society, and societies are made of individuals, then their innate temperament, good or bad, are worth meditating on. Imagine electing people to high office who never think or write about that, or who couldn’t articulate an opinion either way. Yes, imagine that

Many moons ago, I read Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ and felt glum afterwards. People at heart are nasty, Golding said. Either as a society or as a species we’re only a few missed meals away from barbarism. Isolate people and just watch them forget education, rationality and courtesy, and descend into animals.At that time, this view was consonant with my religious faith. I recalled Jeremiah’s lament that all human hearts are ‘desperately wicked’, and I nodded, regretfully concluding the novel backed the Bible’s assessment of human nature.

Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and ...

The first blow to that view came when I read of a 4th century Church heresy called Pelagianism. Poor Pelagius, an ascetic monk, didn’t believe in original sin, and felt human beings aren’t all that bad after all. They might even have some virtue, if they were allowed to exercise free will. Jesus, Pelagius said, came to set a better example, rather than acting as a propitiatory blood sacrifice to an angry god. Might people, he wondered, instinctively behave decently towards one another without needing a goad (or a god)? His inclination to that view makes more sense when you remember that Pelagius was British.

In praise of Pelagius

Of course, Pelagius didn’t prevail, because Augustine insisted that people were drenched in Original Sin and were innately horrible, only to be one-upped a millennia later by Calvin who said we inherited a “hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature diffused into all parts of the soul… For our nature is not merely bereft of good, but is so productive of every kind of evil that it cannot be inactive.”

John Calvin quote: Original sin, therefore, appears to be a ...

But because, perhaps like you, I knew many kind people whose kindness did not spring from religious faith (and worse, know many whose cruelty springs exclusively from it), this dismal view of human nature never quite gelled with the evidence of my own eyes. So I always thought of myself as a tiny bit Pelagian — a little heresiarch, and that streak of defiance never left me.

And now I read a real-life tale, which I’m astonished I’ve never heard before, about a group of adolescents marooned on an island for over a year, Lord-of-the-flies style. Except that they looked out for one another, and got along, and all came home safe and well as a result.

So why am I going on about this now?

Because we’re living in a peculiar and disturbing time. We could all do with a little affirmation about our ability to be good ; to look after one another especially while we’re going through a trial like a pandemic. I see a lot of human nature in my role as a leader in my community.

So listen to me: People are, with small exceptions, decent, and want to help one another. Be encouraged.

This story renews some of my faith in humankind, which three millennia of dogma has tried to tread down. Look around you. Our community is making a valiant effort and enduring enormous sacrifices to protect vulnerable people. Because it’s the right thing to do. Jeremiah was wrong. Calvin was wrong.

And Mr Golding? Shame on you.

New land valuations give little relief for rates in most Hawkesbury suburbs

Residents around the Hawkesbury should be receiving their latest land valuation letters from the Valuer General. I got mine this week.

I’ll be making a more detailed analysis when some details crystallise, but since it’s already been mentioned on social media, let me get some data out to you.

Every few years, the VG revalues your land. It has nothing to do with the improved value of your property (that is, with your house and other structures), but is used by Council to calculate your rates. This Council voted to turn the knob up on the formula which magnifies swings in land value on your rates. I and my fellow Liberal Councillors opposed that as unfair and this remains our view. I’ve made several videos and posts about this in the past, if you want a reminder.

For example, speculation caused by development near the NW growth sector caused land values in Oakville and Vineyard to soar in 2017, and the Council rubbed salt in the wound by applying for a staged 31% rate-hike (the SRV) which is still flowing through to you.

Here are three tables from Council’s new 2020 analysis of the effect of the new valuation on rates, by suburb.

Hawkesbury Council’s preliminary analysis of the effect of the new valuation on 2020 rates.

It shows that land values in Oakville have relaxed -7.26%, the biggest suburb drop in this round. However, given land values spiked 130% in the 2016 Valuation (206% in Vineyard, 66% in Maraylya, and 44% in McGraths Hill), this is little relief.

A slide from a 2016 briefing on the effect of the previous land valuation round from 2014 to 2016.

If this were the only factor, the average Residential rates in Oakville would drop $710p.a in the 2020-2021FY.


BUT, since the latest stage of the SRV is also going to be applied to your next rates bill, most of the gains are eroded.

So, the average rates in Oakville in 2020-21 will be $3598pa, down from $3905 this year, a saving of only $307.

These figures need to be taken with these caveats:
Average figures are only that, and your own situation may differ.
• I’ve asked Council staff for more granular data including median rates, and I’m still waiting for them.
• These per-suburb figures are not final, as the VG has indicated some variations may occur in areas affected by the fires. This will affect the balance between suburbs and therefore the proportion each of us will pay.

Some people’s rates in Oakville and elsewhere doubled (or worse) in 2017, and this new land valuation will give you very little relief. You’re right to be angry. The current Council delivered a quadruple-whammy to you by abolishing the Rural-Residential category, increasing land value as an input to the rating formula, spiking everyone’s rates by 31%, all at a time of rampant land value property speculation, which appears to be continuing.

I will continue to advocate for a fairer system.