The second Sydney airport – dead, or just resting? (part 4: final)

With media reports that a Federal Government announcement about a second airport for Sydney at Badgerys Creek is eminent, this is an appropriate time for me to complete my series of posts about the proposal.

As with my previous posts on this issue, I begin with a disclaimer – I was the CEO of WSROC, the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils, from 1996 to 2008 and therefore was involved in many of the debates about the proposed second Sydney airport.

To recap on my earlier articles:

In Part 1 I outlined the history of the project and how the mishandling of the airport issue and airport politics in the 1990s had eroded community confidence in the environmental assessment process and consequently support for an airport in Western Sydney.

In Part 2 I summarised some of the arguments being advanced in favour of the proposed airport, both in terms of the demand for air travel and the potential for an airport to substantially boost job creation in Western Sydney, noting that it will only achieve this if it is integrated with the required transport infrastructure and major investment in other facilities.

I also pointed out that the factors that had led to the region’s previously strong opposition to the airport have not gone away – including legitimate concerns regarding noise pollution, impacts on air and water quality and traffic congestion. If any airport is to proceed, these will have to be managed effectively.

In Part 3 I considered two key questions. The first was whether we really need a second airport in Sydney. My response was yes, because the demand for medium and long-distance high-speed travel will continue to increase, despite any misgivings about our carbon footprint and use of scarce resources.

In addition any expansion of the current airport would have major and politically unpalatable impacts on one of the more densely populated parts of Sydney. I also concluded that high speed rail might have been a viable option if planning had commenced 20 years ago, but even if agreement could be reached on its construction right now (which is highly improbable) it is unlikely it would be finished in time to address current capacity issues (however this doesn’t rule out its future development).

If my logic about the need for a second airport is accepted, the second question therefore is about the best place to put it. Leaving aside the proposed expansion of the Richmond RAF base as at best a stop-gap measure, only two other sites are currently under serious consideration, Badgerys Creek and Wilton.

I considered both of these against two key criteria – their potential environmental impact, both on local ecological systems and the amenity of affected residents, and their potential to provide economic benefits, particularly for Western Sydney.

My conclusion based on a reading of the documentation was that while Badgerys Creek is likely to have a lower impact than an airport at Wilton on the natural environment, it will have a greater impact on the environmental amenity of local residents because it is closer to urban areas. However, this proximity would also give (in theory at least) the most affected residents the best accessibility to a new airport and therefore a locational advantage as potential users and in particular employees of any airport at Badgerys Creek.

So, the long-delayed “homework” I set myself in part 3 to be completed in the final post of this series is to answer the question: do the potential benefits for residents located within the footprint of any airport at Badgerys Creek, as well as the wider Western Sydney community, outweigh the environmental impacts both on the same group of residents and the wider community?

As I indicated in my last post, part of the delay is because I have found it very difficult to make up my mind about this issue. After looking at the evidence my conclusion, and it one that I am still frankly uncomfortable with, is that the answer is a very qualified “yes”, but only if the backers of an airport are prepared to pay the right “price” for an airport – and Western Sydney has every justification in demanding that this price be set very high.

Let me explain what I mean, and what I think should happen. First, if the Federal Government has decided to proceed with a second airport, it should also (and ideally with State Government cooperation) seek to engage with the community of Western Sydney to work out ways to identify and quantify the environmental impacts and the potential economic and other benefits, as well as strategies to manage and minimise the former while maximising the latter.

As a minimum requirement the Government’s proposal should include the following:

Environmental impacts: Plans for the airport itself, including design, construction and operational strategies that contain a core commitment to doing everything possible to limit environmental impacts on both the amenity of nearby residents and the natural environment.

These plans should include a detailed, rigorous and impartial analysis of these environmental impacts and a systematic evaluation of the options available to minimise them.

Compensation: As part of the environmental protection strategy, a commitment to fully compensate affected residents and businesses, especially those who made business and life decisions to stay or invest in the area based on the bipartisan “commitment” that an airport would never be built at Badgerys Creek. This commitment should contain initial (and generous) estimates of the costs involved.

Infrastructure: Plans for and a commitment to full funding of all the associated infrastructure, including all the road and rail links required to ensure the airport can maximise its potential without contributing to Western Sydney’s current transport problems.

However there are indications the Federal Government may approve only a $200 million for a roads package, without any mention of the extension of the South West Rail Link to the site. As the NSW Premier drily noted, the package seems to be “missing a zero”.This is an absolutely critical element; if the government refuses to fully commit to the associated infrastructure (including roads and the rail extension), the airport proposal should be rejected.

Employment creation and training: Plans and policies for detailed employment and training strategies that will leverage the airport to maximise employment opportunities for Western Sydney residents.

These will have to go way beyond the back-of-the-envelope calculations of the total number of jobs the airport can create; instead these plans will need to identify the specific policies, infrastructure and education investments along with the other actions required to create these jobs both at the airport and in related industries.

Development of these policies should also involve universities, councils, economic boards, community sector and other relevant organisations. The policies should also contain a commitment to work with secondary and tertiary education institutions across the region to ensure that when the airport opens Western Sydney residents will have both the opportunities and skills to take a majority of the positions created both on and off the airport – and not just low-paid and relatively unskilled jobs in the service sector.

The policies should also contain commitments to ensure that small and medium enterprises in Western Sydney get opportunities to tender for work during the airport’s construction and operation.

Consultation and engagement: Commitments to the regional engagement and consultation strategy I mentioned earlier. And while this process should include dialogue with key stakeholders and residents across the region, it should not be limited to the usual suspects. While I am not necessarily advocating a regional referendum on the issue, this is one option that should be considered.

Furthermore the community engagement strategy should not be a one-off process; even if the airport proposal gains broad support there should be high levels of transparency in its development and the establishment of an ongoing framework for consultation.

In summary, I have come to the conclusion very reluctantly that the benefits of an airport at Badgerys Creek may have the potential to outweigh its environmental and other impacts. However achieving this outcome and obtaining the best possible result for the region will require an enormous commitment.

Ultimately it is the Federal Government that must make a strong and comprehensive case for the proposal. There is no doubt that the minimum requirements I outline above would be very expensive to implement. However, if the government’s case is unconvincing and in particular if it attempts to cut corners by failing to address these requirements, the region has every right to reject the proposed airport.

Finally, it is important to remember that while a new airport could do much to boost the region’s employment, by itself it cannot meet all of the region’s job creation needs and is unlikely to stem the decline in the region’s employment containment. These issues will be covered in a future post.

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