Recent media reports point to a revival of plans to build a second Sydney Airport at Badgerys Creek, almost a decade since the proposal was (supposedly) killed off by both sides of politics.
The current state of play and how we got here are summarised well in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article by Jacob Saulwick and James Robertson (and a disclaimer – I was the CEO of WSROC, the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils, from 1996 to 2008 and was therefore involved in many of the debates about airport planning).
I won’t repeat all the convoluted twists and turns of these debates as outlined in the article, but I agree with its assessment that one of the key factors in the growth of opposition to the second airport was the debacle of the third runway at Sydney Airport which opened in 1994. It quickly became apparent that the projections of relatively low increases in aircraft noise outlined in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the new runway were wildly optimistic.
In response the No Aircraft Noise party was formed in 1995 and quickly gathered significant votes in inner city seats in subsequent elections. As the SMH article notes, the third runway noise issue also affected Western Sydney and started to undermine support for an airport there. More generally it had a major negative impact on public confidence in all future EIS projections about aircraft noise.
This was to become significant in the second major factor in Western Sydney’s growing opposition to the airport proposal, which is not discussed in the otherwise comprehensive SMH article. In 1995/96 the Keating Federal Government announced a new EIS to update the previous EIS for the proposed airport site at Badgerys Creek which by that stage was over ten years old. After winning the 1996 federal election, the new Howard Government widened the terms of reference of this EIS to include consideration of federally-owned land at Holsworthy, as this Federal Parliamentary Library Chronology of the Second Sydney Airport confirms.
Whether or not there were sound administrative or environmental reasons for this decision, the political outcome was disastrous, at least for the airport’s supporters. To compound the issue the EIS process developed and considered five different design options and runway alignments across the two proposed sites – three at Badgerys Creek and two at Holsworthy. The upshot was that virtually every council area and community in Greater Western Sydney had a proposed runway pointing at it.
I can well remember the impact of the EIS process. The effect on local government was electric – Western Sydney council support for the proposed airport evaporated virtually overnight. WSROC had been a keen supporter of the airport proposal since at least the late 1980s, primarily because of its potential contribution to the regional economy and employment levels, but in 1997 it reversed its position. Prior to 1997 only one WSROC member Council, Holroyd, had consistently opposed the airport; after WSROC changed its stance only one council, Liverpool, remained in favour.
The federal government announced in late 1997 that Holsworthy was off the table but by then the damage had been done. The Western Sydney Alliance was formed in the same year to oppose any airport in Western Sydney. Even though the Alliance was financed by WSROC and MACROC member councils it was established as a separate single issue body rather than through the ROCs, mainly to unite council and community group opposition across both regions. WSROC participated as an observer and cooperated with the Alliance in many campaigns, while also continuing to oppose the airport in its own right.
By the 2003 the anti-airport campaign had been successful in forcing both major political parties to renounce their support, effectively making the airport a non-issue in the 2007 and 2010 federal elections. Badgerys Creek looked dead and buried, though there have always been a few twitches directly or indirectly attributable to its corpse.
For example, the previous State Labor Government opposed the airport but kept its options open in planning the South West Growth Centre. Most of the employment land in the Centre is located to the north while the residential areas are further south; this places these employment zones close to the airport should it proceed, while using them as a convenient noise buffer between the airport site and residential precincts. The South West Rail Link which is under construction has also been planned in such a way that it could be easily extended to the airport site.
Now there are more signs that the airport proposal could be stirring into life, spurred by capacity problems at Sydney airport and the need to create jobs for Greater Western Sydney’s growing population. In part 2 I’ll look at some of these issues and the pros and cons of the airport proposal.