‘It’s an ecological wasteland’: offsets for Sydney toll road were promised but never delivered
Western Sydney has seen some of the most intensive urban development in Australia in the past 20 years – and what’s known as “conservation offsets” have been used as a bargaining chip to make this rapid construction of new residential suburbs and infrastructure more palatable to the public.
But an investigation by Guardian Australia has found at least two instances where the offsets never eventuated, in one case 20 years after they were first proposed.
In theory, offsets allow developers to compensate for the environmental damage they cause in one area by undertaking work to deliver an equivalent environmental benefit in another.
But Guardian Australia can reveal the New South Wales government has failed to deliver conservation offsets required to make up for the loss of swathes of bushland cleared for housing and highway developments in western Sydney over two decades.
Fifteen years after the M7 opened to traffic, the state government has not yet established a public reserve that was proposed as the major environmental offset for the motorway’s construction.
A second reserve on the site of Airservices Australia’s former radio transmitting station at Shanes Park in the Blacktown City Council area is also undelivered more than 10 years after it was first identified as priority conservation land to compensate for the construction of 181,000 houses in new suburb developments.
Once rarely used in development approvals, offsets are now present as a condition in more than 70% of federal environmental approvals.
Both the auditor general and the review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, led by the former competition watchdog head Graeme Samuel, criticised Australia’s offsets regime as opaque, poorly designed and managed, and lacking in regulation.
Samuel went further, stating that offsets were leading to net losses for Australia’s environment.
An ecological wasteland
Steve Douglas is an ecologist who has consulted to all tiers of government. In 2017, he was contracted by what was then the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage to conduct threatened plant surveys at a site known as Colebee Reserve, near the western Sydney suburb of Marsden Park.
The bushland is the main offset for the M7, a major toll road that connects Sydney’s north and west, and the NSW Roads and Maritime Service (RMS) states on its website that the reserve is owned by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).
But while the RMS did acquire the land from private landowners, it has in fact never been transferred into national parks’ ownership or been established in law as a conservation reserve – a process known as “gazetting”.
Internal government emails, leaked to Guardian Australia, show that in 2016 officials at RMS complained that they had been trying to transfer a number of properties into NPWS ownership for several years.
The emails state the parks service had finally confirmed the RMS could progress with the transfers of all but one property: the land at Colebee.
In 2017, Douglas set out on his surveys and during his investigation noted several issues at the site, namely that it was overrun by multiple threats – weeds, feral foxes, deer, cats, rabbits and recreational vehicle misuse – due to lack of management by the NSW government.
“Basically it’s an ecological wasteland with some very significant plant species and communities still there but just holding on,” he told Guardian Australia.
“I was shocked to see that an area that was contractually required to become a NPWS reserve had long been neglected and abused, putting its conservation values at risk.”
Douglas also documented another problem. Aware that the site was supposed to have been gazetted as an offset, he observed that the quantities of critically endangered Cumberland Plain woodland in the area did not match what had been documented in the offset vegetation mapping at the time the M7 was proposed.
He estimated the quantities were about 50% less than claimed.
Douglas wrote up all of the issues in a report that he submitted to the state department.
“I expressed concerns about the many threats, lack of management and offsetting discrepancies,” he said.
“I did not receive a response from the department, and I fear that the … area has continued to degrade.”
After questions from Guardian Australia, the NSW government confirmed Douglas’ account and said it was investigating the information he had supplied regarding the quantity of Cumberland Plain woodland at the site.
Douglas said no level of government appears to have followed up on whether an offset proposed 20 years ago had actually been delivered.
The original federal environmental approval, and any conditions attached to it, is not publicly available.
The M7 was assessed under the old national environmental laws that preceded the introduction of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and approved by the federal transport minister.
Guardian Australia made multiple requests for the documentation from the federal environment department last year.
Officials said providing the documentation would require searching of archives for a paper file. The documentation was never supplied.
The Colebee bushland is surrounded on two sides by development that leads into vast estates where streets have been given names like “Grey Gum Terrace” and “Floribunda Parade” after the wildlife that had to make way for them.
According to Douglas, there is a case to be made that sites like Colebee should never be proposed as reserves or offsets as their proximity to urban development perpetually puts them at risk of being compromised by human activity.
A spokesperson for the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) said the reason the offset had still not been delivered after two decades was because Colebee reserve is the site of a former tip. Transport for NSW had to remediate the site and install boundary fencing and access gates, they said.
“The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service has always been supportive of transferring Colebee Reserve for inclusion into the reserve system,” the spokesperson said.
“The remediation works are expected to be completed in 2022 at which time Colebee reserve will be transferred to the NPWS.”
Bitumen and brick
The construction of new residential suburbs and infrastructure to support some of the 2 million extra people expected in Sydney by 2036 has come at significant cost to the environment and, in particular, the critically endangered Cumberland plain woodland.
Once extensive across western Sydney, the woodland dominated by grey box, forest red gums and a grassy understorey has been reduced to about 6% of its former coverage.
Wayne Olling became involved in environmental conservation for the western Sydney region in the 1990s. He is the flora and fauna manager for the Blacktown and district environment group and was one of the members of a biodiversity panel of experts the federal government convened to provide advice on the offsets plan for the new western Sydney airport.
Olling was born in Seven Hills, next to Blacktown, and lived there for more than 60 years. He said successive state and federal governments had delivered “very little” in the way of environmental conservation for the region.
“As boys, my brother and I and our friends would play in the bush. We enjoyed the bush, it’s unique,” he told Guardian Australia.
“There are vegetation and species that are native to western Sydney that are found nowhere else in the world. It’s saddening to see it be turned into concrete and bitumen and brick.”
Olling said the bushland of western Sydney was particularly important to the quality of life of people who lived in the region.
“We don’t have the beaches, we don’t have the mountains. We have the Cumberland Plain and its fauna,” he said.
“That is our retreat and it’s been decimated and turned into isolated patches with no connectivity.”
One of the sites Olling and the community have fought to protect is bushland on the site of the former Airservices Australia radio transmitting station at Shanes Park.
The 558ha block is one of the largest remnants of vegetation that used to cover western Sydney and contains soils, flora and fauna important to the region. The site has been identified by governments as a conservation priority for decades.
In 2006, then-NSW minister for planning, Frank Sartor, said the site would be the key offset for the development of tens of thousands of homes in new suburb developments in areas including Shanes Park, Riverstone and Schofields.
The state and federal governments formalised this arrangement in 2011 under what is known as the strategic assessment for the Sydney growth centres.
It was proposed that ownership of Shanes Park would be transferred from the federal-government owned Airservices Australia to the NSW government.
But Shanes Park today has still not been formally established as a reserve. It also, until very recently, remained in Commonwealth ownership due to a dispute between the federal and state governments about a road NSW was proposing to build through the southern end of the site to connect new suburbs to the M7.
Under conditions imposed by the former Rudd/Gillard Labor government in 2011, Shanes Park could not be transferred to the NSW government unless the site was conserved in its entirety as promised under the offsets plan.
But a NSW government presentation provided at a community consultation meeting, and supplied to Guardian Australia, shows negotiations for the transfer stalled because the state government could not meet this condition.
The presentation, and other correspondence seen by Guardian Australia, states a new referral to the federal government would be required that proposed reserving 96.7% of Shanes Park under the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act and the remaining 3.3% as a road corridor.
A new referral was submitted and, in December last year, the federal government quietly transferred ownership of the land to NSW, this time without the requirement that the entire site be committed for conservation.
If the road is built, the NSW government will have to apply for an environmental approval under national laws and will be required to offset the damage to their own offset.
‘Cloaked in secrecy’
Olling, while pleased the site has at last been transferred, said its future as a road corridor was uncertain.
“It’s pretty much cloaked in secrecy what’s going on, I must tell you, because they’re not forthcoming with the community who have been concerned about the future of the site,” he said.
“There are things going on in the background and we’re not hearing about them.”
He said neither the federal nor state governments were following their own offset guidelines, with areas identified as compensatory habitat for past developments able to be whittled away by new development.
“All I’ve seen is things going backward,” he said.
A spokesperson for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service said Shanes Park had been identified as the site of the potential road corridor for decades.
“As it may be many years, or even decades, before this road is built, it was determined that the 560-hectare parcel of land, inclusive of the proposed corridor, should be transferred in its entirety, without caveats, for management under the National Parks and Wildlife Act.”
The NSW government has been managing the entire site for conservation since taking over the land in December and will continue to do so “until such a time as the land is required for a road”, they said.
The government intends to formally gazette the portion of the land not destined for a road corridor soon.
Deep flaws in the system
Roger Lembit is an ecologist who has done vegetation surveys of western Sydney for governments dating back to the 1980s.
He said Australia’s environmental offset system had “deep flaws which mean the conservation outcomes that are supposed to be put in place aren’t working”.
“The proposal to carve a freeway through the southern flank of Shanes Park is entirely inappropriate if we’re talking about proper conservation and a correctly placed offset against other forms of development,” he said.
Lembit said offsets were seen as a mechanism to trade off loss of bushland in one area for more secure management of bushland in another. He said there were some good parcels of bushland in the NSW Hunter Valley and on the NSW north coast that had been protected as a result of offsets.
“But the problem is that no two areas of bushland are identical,” he said. “So you’re losing. Regardless of whether you’re improving management of one area, you’re losing bush land and habitat in the areas you are affecting.”
And recent cases highlighted another flaw in the offset system, Lembit said: that sites are not being reserved for conservation at the beginning of development.
“That sort of thing needs to happen with these large-scale developments… that until the offset’s actually in place and legally binding, they shouldn’t be allowed to proceed with the development.”