WEPA, and its members no doubt, are probably thinking at this point in the year that the last 12 months have been a ‘perfect storm’ in relation to the ongoing battle to protect our environment here in Willoughby and further afield in NSW and nationally. The threat of a major tunnel infrastructure project laying waste to local bushland and Middle Harbour was joined in 2019 by ever-growing concerns and campaigns about climate change impacts, ferocious bushfires as we moved into 2020 and now a global pandemic apparently emanating from the ever-increasing push by populations across the planet into the last remaining wild areas.
WEPA & the wider environment movement
In response, WEPA has stepped up with the help of its members to address many of these issues. While we are only one local environment group we have worked hard to amplify our efforts through networking and collaboration. WEPA has continued to raise funds to allow regular support to be provided to our State network: the Nature Conservation Council (NCC) of NSW, and to the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Total Environment Centre and the NSW Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) (which has launched a national EDO).
Recently we have joined in a series of strategic Leaders’ meetings staged by the NCC. We have worked with the National Parks Association of NSW to hold meetings and work on native forest preservation campaigns and have provided an opportunity for campaign groups like the Give a Dam Alliance (April) and Extinction Rebellion Sydney (November) to outline their campaigns at our public meetings. We are members of the Better Planning Network and have in recent months extended our efforts to working more closely with Willoughby Councillors on environment issues in our area.
WEPA/Give a Dam Alliance meeting, April 2019, Chowne Hall, Willoughby
Those of you who attended the WEPA Annual General Meeting last March would have heard Professor Lesley Hughes speak with passion and commitment about the damaging impacts of climate change on our lives and environment. She also noted the difficulty of getting many people to engage with such dismal news. Following this talk, we decided to do what we could to raise this issue further with our local community and relevant politicians. In May we screened Murder on the Reef as an important reminder of the ongoing battle to save the Great Barrier Reef from a range of catastrophes, not least warming and more acidic waters.
In July we took advantage of the Federal elections to publicise the need for climate change action and new national laws for the environment. This was following by a showing of Accelerate which followed Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, as he toured Australia to accelerate action on climate change.
Those attending voted unanimously to convene a WEPA campaign committee (which met in August) to organise local action and education on the climate change crisis and to ask Willoughby City Council (WCC) to declare a climate emergency. WCC had formerly opposed this declaration but, following extensive collaboration and campaigning, a motion confirming the existence of a Climate Emergency was passed at the October WCC General Meeting. Many thanks are due to Councillor Lynne Saville who organised and introduced the motion to WCC and to Councillors Wendy Norton and Nick Wright and many others in WEPA and the wider community who spoke with conviction in its support. You can read my speech to Council here.
During this time, we also lent our support to the young people in our area, many of whom were involved with the school strike movement to bring attention to the climate change crisis. In June, at the invitation of several teachers, I gave a speech to the World Environment Day assembly at Willoughby Girls High School (WGHS). Later that month WEPA committee members Meredith Foley and John Moratelli joined around 100 WGHS Geography students on-site at Flat Rock Gully to outline WEPA’s concerns about the impacts on the gully of the proposed car tunnel dive site.
Willoughby Girls High School Geography students at Flat Rock Gully.
In September, WEPA members joined students in the Global Climate Strike march. We continue to liaise with teachers and the environment club at the school and plan to organise more interactions as the pandemic restrictions are lifted.
Fighting for Flat Rock Gully
Following the State election campaign in early 2019, WEPA and other local community groups regrouped with renewed vigour to save Flat Rock Gully and other local suburbs from the harmful impacts of the ill-conceived Western Harbour Tunnel and Beaches Link projects.
Since that time, a wide range of tactics and many volunteer hours have gone into the campaign to raise community concerns over the likely environmental impacts of the car tunnel project on air quality (particularly due to unfiltered stacks but also increased traffic in our neighbourhoods), the potential damage to our green open spaces, world-famous Middle Harbour waterways and the destruction of biodiverse-rich and much-treasured remnant bushland. WEPA continues to strongly object to these damaging car tunnels and to call on the Government to consider the alternative of improving public transport to the Northern Beaches.
WEPA lodged an application with the Roads and Maritime Services under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (GIPA) seeking information in relation to the business case for the Western Harbour Tunnel and Beaches Link projects which were refused despite an appeal to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT). We have also written to the Premier on this issue without success.
WEPA also assisted in the gathering of more than 10,000 signatures on a petition to NSW Parliament. Many thanks to all the members who gave up their time to join us on local stalls and to speak to the community. As our Premier was not willing to agree to table the petition, an alternative will be sought once the lockdown restrictions are lifted.
Early in 2020, WEPA assisted the Stop the Tunnels (STT) group and the Northern Residents Tunnel Action Group (NORTAG) to hold a series of well-attended community forums on the tunnel projects in preparation for the release of the tunnel Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). As it turned out, the Government decided to release two EIS documents – one dealing with the Western Harbour Tunnel and Warringah Freeway – you can read WEPA’s submission on this EIS (which closed in March) here.
Community leaders’ meeting on tunnel proposal, North Sydney, Jan. 2020
Work is underway to prepare for the Beaches Link EIS – this covers the dive site through Flat Rock Gully bushland and tunnelling under Northbridge and into Middle Harbour. It is also the next step towards the proposal to destroy 6 hectares of unique bushland in Flat Rock Gully, Northbridge. Work is underway to prepare for the second EIS expected in June 2020.
Belinda Rayment (EDO) and John Moratelli (WEPA) at community leaders’ meeting
on Beaches Link tunnel (Jan 2020)
WEPA has been pressing WCC to oppose the project on the grounds outlined above. Council eventually released an EIS in March which notes the community concerns but stopped short of opposing the project.
WEPA’s other main focus this year has been on environmentally sustainable urban planning and managing and extending our urban tree canopy. In May 2019 I attended the Rethinking the Urban Forest Conference (24 May 2019) with other WEPA members.
The Conference, which included planners, engineers, council staff and environmental groups from across Sydney, expressed concern over the failure of Governments at all levels to maintain and expand the urban tree canopy and also examined the threat to tree cover represented by various planning tools aimed at urban densification. The importance of tree cover in dealing with urban heat was also a pressing theme.
In August 2019 we replaced a regular committee meeting with a WEPA Environmental Planning Workshop, facilitated by member Isabelle Connolly, to come to terms with planning tools (LEPs; DCPs; Local Strategic Plans; SEPP 19; Native Vegetation reforms) impacting on our local environment and help us work up actions. The outcome of this work was a submission to WCC on their draft Local Strategic Planning Statement (October). Isabelle also represented WEPA at the meetings organised by WCC to develop a plan of management for the Haven Amphitheatre in Castlecrag.
In September, Associate Professor Peter Davies from Macquarie University addressed our public meeting on Urban Forests. This was followed by a practical lesson in greening through our native plant stall at the Castlecrag Fair. In December we sent a submission to WCC commenting on the WCC Draft Vegetation Management Strategy. We were particularly concerned at a recommendation to allow pruning of public trees on public lands for views and were keen to see the preference for indigenous trees and plants retained.
Our local concerns in this period extended to the impact of light pollution on bushland biodiversity. WEPA worked with the local community to oppose the placement of spotlights on O.H. Reid Reserve which borders natural bushland along the Lane Cove River. WEPA member, Diana Pryde, and WEPA Secretary Meredith Foley were members of a Citizens’ Panel to examine this issue and to guide the development of a Reserve masterplan. The majority of panellists opposed the introduction of spotlights for sports on this oval for a wide range of reasons including environmental impacts. The Master Plan will be exhibited on the WCC website. WEPA also made comment on the WCC draft Sports Facilities Plan of Management in relation to lighting on ovals near bushland.
Sports lights illuminating bushland at Chatswood High School.
WEPA wrote a response to the WCC Draft Code of Meeting Conduct (April) stressing in particular that Councillor briefing sessions should be public – in the interests of transparency and accountability – and that the reduction of council meetings to once rather than twice per month would not benefit the community. The saga over voluntary advisory committees continued. It would appear that the current committees will continue to the end of this Council term – however, while the pandemic has led to the postponement of the Council elections, it has also seen committee meetings halted.
After the next election, WCC plans to move to a system where, apart from a few groups of technical experts, community opinion will be sought only when council decides it is necessary. WEPA members have spoken at WCC meetings and in submissions against the loss of continuity, community knowledge and informed action which we fear will be the unfortunate impact of any move to ad hoc Reference groups and panels.
Finally, we have commented on a number of planning issues (including the proposed redevelopment of the Quadrangle site and the Council’s Local Centres Strategy) when we have detected issues which would impact on the scale, heritage, traffic and amenity of local streets.
Bushfires and new National Nature Laws
Like many others, WEPA has found the devastation wrought by the 2019/20 bush fires hard to absorb; with millions of hectares burnt the impact on families, communities and natural areas will be felt for decades to come. Our immediate reaction was to provide help based on our mission and in January 2020 we donated $1,000 to the NSW Wildlife Council which was providing emergency funds to those caring for wildlife impacted by the fires. We plan to donate a further amount later in the year to assist research on recovery and bushfire management. We had Gary Dunnett (Exec Officer for Policy, Campaign and Media for the National Parks Association of NSW) scheduled to speak to members at this AGM on new strategies to manage our bushland for fire. Unfortunately, this talk had to postponed due to the pandemic – hopefully, we can offer this talk in the not too distant future.
It is clear from this cataclysm and the pandemic which followed that we need to find new ways to manage our relationship with nature. For Australia, this means new Federal nature laws to replace those which are clearly dysfunctional. To this end, WEPA supports the Places You Love Alliance; 57 environment groups from across Australia pressing for a better framework and increased powers for environmental laws. You can read our submission (April 2020) to the Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act here.
I would like to thank all the members of the committee for their contribution to discussion and decision-making over the past year, and some of you over many years. In particular, I would like to thank Cotter Erickson as our technical whizz, Diana Jones our Treasurer, Christina Pender and Geoff Osborne for design and distribution of our poster and for attempting to get media coverage of our events, Meredith Foley for her superb, professional submissions and the preparation of the WEPA NEWS and Bulletin, with the production assistance of Katherine Foley, and also with John Moratelli for all the work they have put in on the campaign to save Flat Rock Gully.
It would appear at this stage that we are still some time away from having the restrictions lifted which will allow us once more to meet. We have been holding Executive meetings and discussion via Zoom and are considering providing some ‘tea and talk’ chats on the same platform in the near future. It is clear we are entering an important watershed moment as the world begins to recover from the pandemic. We hope you will join us as we work alongside those who are encouraging our Governments to take the same evidence-based/scientific approach to climate change and other biodiversity issues as they have taken with COVID-19.
Gay Spies OAM