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:
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.
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.
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!
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 green areas above represent “Threatened ecological communities” and the hatched areas represent “Cumberland Plain Priority Conservation Lands”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today marks the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s landing at Botany Bay.
It was the crowning achievement of an astonishing feat of navigation, and the greatest historically consequential event in a voyage of scientific and geographical discovery. It was the prelude to the birth of our nation.
Today, I’m taking the time to reflect on this achievement. I think all Australians should be proud of what Cook did, and even given the astringent and surreal times we are presently living through, I am unhappy that the event is passing without the fanfare it deserves.
I was a schoolboy in 1988 and Australia marked the bicentenary of the landing of the First Fleet. It was a yearlong and open-hearted celebration of what Australia has become — a youthful, peaceful, democratic, pluralist, secular, lawful, compassionate, innovative and good-humoured country. These are things it is genuinely worth being proud of. I think that the quarter-millennial anniversary of Cook’s discovery is almost as important.
Celebrating Cook’s landing at Botany Bay does not imply that our nation is without faults. We recognise the deep and abiding connection of Australia’s first inhabitants to the land. But recognising significant anniversaries like this are about looking at how far we’ve come, and it’s worth remembering that one of the Australian virtues birthed with our nation is an aspiration to treat all people equally and with dignity. We shouldn’t wallow in recrimination, cast accusations, or judge our forebears by the different standards of today. This message, of tolerance and national pride, is one I have been sharing for many years.
June 8th update: The total value of the funds received from the Commonwealth and State Government in relation to bushfire assistance to date is now $1,737,477.
The breakdown of funds is as follows:
• $1.3 million from two Commonwealth Grants of $1 million and $300,000 • $437,477 from the NSW State Government via the following grants:
Bushfire Community Resilience and Economic Recovery Grant: $250,000 • Bilpin Orchards Clean-up Grant: $187,500.
The Funding was provided to Council to “lead the local recovery efforts as it sees fit…” Council has provided the Office of Local Government with a Program of Works detailing how the collective funding received will be utilised by Council. Further reports will be provided as required to the Office of Local Government and the Commonwealth.
• The $1.3 million from the Commonwealth Government is to be used for: a) Infrastructure: $85,000 (e.g. clearing dangerous trees, replacing signage, communications towers, water infrastructure etc) b) Waste, Environment and Planning: $420,000 (e.g. removal of fire damaged vegetation, trees on private property, illegally dumped rubbish and contaminated waste, expert planning advice etc.). c) Health and Wellbeing: $560,000 from the Commonwealth and $100,200 from other known sources (e.g. recovery projects in Colo, Bilpin and St Albans, psychological support & counselling, supplementing Step by Step funding, funding additional outreach worker and community development worker etc. ) d) Business, Tourism and Industry: $85,000 from the Commonwealth Government (e.g. utilising local businesses for goods and services, 1-1 support for tourism, promoting local businesses, business recovery coordination etc.) e) Disaster Recovery Officer: $150,000
• The $437,477 from the NSW State Government is to be used for: a) Infrastructure:$125,000, ((e.g. clearing dangerous trees, replacing signage, communications towers, water infrastructure etc.)
b) Waste, Environment and Planning:$187,477 ((e.g. removal of fire damaged vegetation, trees on private property, illegally dumped rubbish and contaminated waste, expert planning advice etc.) c) Health and Wellbeing: $50,000 (recovery projects in Colo, Bilpin and St Albans, psychological support & counselling, supplementing Step by Step funding, funding additional outreach worker and community development worker etc.) d) Business, Tourism and Industry: $200,000 (utilising local businesses for goods and services, 1-1 support for tourism, promoting local businesses, business recovery coordination etc.)
My original post continues:
Our Hawkesbury Shire was one of the more severely affected areas in the recent bushfires.
Over 160 days of continuous fire operations, at the peak of the campaign there were 2500 to 3000 personnel on the fireground daily, together with multiple air tankers, helicopters and other aircraft.
The Gospers Mtn fire now holds the record as the largest fire in the world from a single ignition point. Adding the fires that merged into it, it consumed over 1 million hectares — about 7% of the whole State. It had a perimeter 1380km long and was larger than 31 countries.
Statewide there were 2,400 houses lost (but, it bears remembering, over 15,000 houses valiantly saved).
Here in the Hawkesbury, 540 rural property holders were impacted, with 65 homes destroyed, 30 homes damaged, plus 55 outbuildings.
Little did we realise, as the smoke (literally) cleared, that within a month we would face a flood, and then a pandemic.
These events may have felt at times that they would overwhelm us. It is important for leaders to remind everyone that the victims of the fires have not been forgotten, and that a range of initiatives are underway to respond to their needs.
It praises the local knowledge of brigade personnel in the Hawkesbury RFS, the coordination of out of area resources including resources offered from other states, international help, and from the Australian Defence Force. It acknowledged the success of our Community Engagement Protocols; reinforcing State and Local level combat agency information over multiple communication channels.
On the “could improve” list was a focus on telecommunications. Black spots in signal coverage and the loss of landlines from fire and tree damage to overhead cabling affected our emergency response capacity and has been a longstanding issue. Work needs to be done to make cellular towers and exchange points more fire resilient.
Another significant lesson is the need to ensure that our fire defences are supported by the provision of modern and spacious headquarters to manage emergencies and provide logistical support. The need for a new, purpose built Hawkesbury Fire Control Centre is a fight I’ve written about before, and which I will continue to advocate for.
Applications remain open for the Federal-State government’s Small Business Bushfire Support Grant. The grant provides up to $10,000 for businesses that have been indirectly impacted by the fires and whose revenue has declined by 40% (relative to the previous financial year).
At a more local level, Council is continuing to assist with the cleanup effort, especially in Bilpin, at Colo and in the Macdonald Valley.
52 inspections have been undertaken with 31 properties deemed to be eligible for clean-up assistance, with 12 properties already completed. Inspections and removal of dangerous trees are ongoing.
Property owners seeking to rebuild are being provided with a concierge service, and Council is developing a ‘Rebuilding and Repairing Buildings Damaged by Bushfire’ factsheet, which will be available through Hawkesbury Council’s Bush Fire Recovery Page.
If you’ve been affected by fire or flood, it must feel like other more recent events have pushed you out of everyone’s minds entirely.
You haven’t been forgotten.
As (hopefully) the impact of COVID-19 subsides, we can return our focus to getting the Hawkesbury back on its feet after both the fire and the flood.