The North East Link Project (NELP) Panel hearing finished on the 16th of September 2019 after 8 weeks of submissions and discussion. Warringal Conservation Society (WCS) had at least one representative present nearly every day.
At the hearing, a five member Inquiry and Advisory Committee (IAC) panel appointed by the Minister for Planning considered the North East Link Environmental Effects Statement (EES) and collected information required to make a recommendation to the Minister. All the major players engaged legal representation and expert witnesses, with NELP having by far the largest legal team and the most expert witnesses. Banyule, Boroondara, Whitehorse and councils engaged their own legal team and experts. The EPA sent representatives to the hearing, but surprisingly The Department of Environment Land Water and Planning was not represented. Community groups and individuals without legal representation could submit questions for expert witnesses in advance, but were not directly involved in cross examination. This made it harder for groups like WCS to fully engage in the hearing process.
NELP spent most of the first three weeks arguing the case for the project, and explaining that impacts and risks were acceptable. Assessments were based on a reference design that is likely to be different to the design put forward by the builder who is awarded the contract. Many alternative designs were presented by both NELP during the process, resulting in a degree of uncertainty that sat uncomfortably with the councils and many interested parties, including WCS. Particularly concerning effects of the planned project include: loss of habitat at Simpson Barracks supporting approximately 5% of the total known existing population of the endangered Matted Flax-lily, destruction of most of the last viable stand of the endangered hybrid eucalypt the Studley Park Gum at Simpson Barracks, loss of forage trees for critically endangered Swift Parrot, and loss of hunting territory for the threatened Powerful Owl.
Expert witnesses engaged by the councils, the Yarra Riverkeeper, Friends of Banyule and affected private Schools provided critiques of some of the inadequacies of the EES and NELP expert witness evidence. Community groups and individuals got their opportunity to present in weeks seven and eight. WCS made a one hour presentation (delivered by Daphne Hards, Dianne Williamson and James Deane) that covered water, climate change, ecology and threatened species. Our presentation summarised the contents of a written sumbission to the panel that can be found at (https://warringal.org.au/component/phocadownload/category/5-advocacy?download=50). Several questions followed from the IAC panel. A number of WCS members also made shorter individual presentations. Community members spoke about their environmental concerns, potential health impacts, loss of amenity, loss of employment opportunities, and impacts on property prices. An overwhelming number of speakers expressed disappointment that the 500+ year old River Red Gum at the Caltex Service Station on Manningham Road would be lost.
The final days of the hearing involved summing up statements from the major parties, and discussion of Environmental Performance Requirements (EPRs) that define environmental targets that the project must achieve. Councils, the Yarra Riverkeeper, WCS and Friends of Banyule contended that a project of this size and complexity requires specific and detailed EPRs to ensure acceptable environmental outcomes. NELP played hardball throughout the process and refused to make any significant concessions, arguing for fewer and more general EPRs that leave much to discretion of the winning building contractor.
At the time of writing (29th Oct 2019) the IAC will be close to finalising their report to the Minister for Planning (Richard Wynne). This report is not a public document, but is normally released after the Minister has made a decision. We are mindful that the panel had been appointed by a Minister whose party is committed to delivering the North East Link. However the panel appeared to be taking their job very seriously and we can only hope that our input leads to concessions that result in better environmental outcomes.