An explanation of the NEL for those who can’t see the wood for the impending tree stumps

“Formulating policy means making choices. Once you do that you please the people that you favour, but infuriate everybody else. One vote gained, ten lost. If you give the job to the road services, the rail board and unions will scream. Give it to the railways, the road lobby will massacre you.”
Sir Humphrey Appleby spelling out the fractious world of transport policy, Episode 5, Series 3, Yes Minister, “The Bed of Nails”, 1982.

The release of a little light reading in the form of a voluminous, Environmental Effects Statement by the North East Link Authority last month has been received with interested concern by some, derided by others, while yet proving the truth of that old adage, “When you try to please everybody, you end up pleasing no one.”

The $16 billion Link, which in effect will extirpate the western end of the Yallambie estate with a sunken surface road parallel to the Greensborough Hwy, is due to open in 2027 and is projected to funnel an extra 100,000 cars a day onto an expanded Eastern Freeway by 2036, up to a total of 135,000 with traffic experts rightly summing it up as:

“…a short-sighted solution to population growth and would only increase the city’s dependence on cars.” (Clay Lucas, The Age, April 25, 2019).

Looking south along Greensborough Rd towards Blamey Rd from a point near to the Yallambie Rd intersection. The current view presented alongside a NELA artist’s impression of the proposed changes. The EES gives this change of view a low to medium rating “due to the low sensitivity of road users”. In other words, the view is already plug ugly. (Source: NELA, EES)

While reaching any agreement on Melbourne roads is about as easy it seems as reaching nuclear agreement on the Korean Peninsula, there seems to be a consensus in some quarters that the north east of Melbourne is already an unsustainably car dependent side of town and a suspicion that the creation of a Link will simply encourage thousands more commuters to leave the existing train networks in favour of roads.

Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge outside Yallambie Homestead, c1910, Thomas was one of the first owners of a motor car in the Heidelberg district. (Source: Bill Bush Collection).

Short sections of the Eastern Freeway are expected to expand to up to 20 lanes to accommodate the project but as has been proved time again all around the world, as a general rule of thumb the building of major road projects increases traffic volumes without a commensurate decrease in congestion. After those 20 lanes narrow back to six or eight further along the way, what will happen to the extra traffic? Jago Dodson, a professor of urban policy at RMIT University, summed this up by saying that when it comes to NEL, Melbourne is fast heading “towards the failed situation of Sydney where they try to reconcile the incoherence of planning by building large mega projects.” With Melbourne already predicted to outstrip Sydney in size by 2026, it’s not rocket science.

Detail of a display board at NELA Community Hub information office.

As an environmental report, the North East Link Authority’s 10,000 page Environmental Effects Statement I must say is a daunting prospect. I don’t suppose there are many who will manage to read it in its entirety. I certainly haven’t done so, but then maybe that’s just the point. As Sir Humphrey would tell you, if you want to make sure some awkward truths stay ignored, try hiding them away in plain sight inside the detail.

NELA Community Hub office in Watsonia Rd, Watsonia.

You can look at the report locally at an information office that the NELA has opened at 17 Watsonia Rd, Watsonia but for what it’s worth, here is the hard reality of just a little bit of that detail, spelled out here before the first bulldozer rolls past your door next year.

It will be no use saying afterwards we weren’t warned.

The North East Link project will require the permanent acquisition of a combined total of 182,300 square metres of open territory and recreational areas. This is the equivalent of nine MCGs spread across the municipalities of Whitehorse, Yarra, Boroondara, Manningham and Banyule. Dual 3 lane road tunnels will be built under Heidelberg and Bulleen with 12-storey ventilation stacks being needed at either end, including one inside the Simpson Barracks at Yallambie south of  Blamey Rd. Three temporary construction compounds will be developed at the Barracks, one at the north west corner of Yallambie and Greensborough roads, a second on the south side of Blamey Road extending south and a third extending further south along the western flank of Greensborough Rd.

The Banyule creek at Borlase Reserve, May, 2019.

About three kilometres of water flowing through two separate creeks will need to be diverted and turned into drains, including the Banyule Creek which has its source within the south western boundary of Yallambie and which in turn feeds the magnificent wetlands environment of the Banyule Flats Reserve over in Viewbank.

Up to 26,000 trees will be removed by the project with open space at Koonung Reserve, Koonung Creek Reserve, Watsonia Station Carpark Reserve and Watsonia Rd Reserve all being lost.

Borlase Reserve woodland, May, 2019.
The northern end of the Borlase Reserve, May, 2019. Already heavily scarred from its use as a construction zone during the recent redevelopment of Rosanna Station, it is the only part of the Reserve that will be returned to the community after NEL opens.

Borlase Reserve in the south western corner of Yallambie near the Lower Plenty and Greensborough Rd intersection will be particularly hard hit. Borlase Reserve will be entirely consumed by a construction compound during the build with less than half of it expected to be returned to the Yallambie community after construction of the Lower Plenty Rd interchange, potentially making the area no longer viable as an area of passive open space. A four metre high noise wall will be a visually dominant feature around the Lower Plenty Rd interchange which will result in a significant and permanent change to the landscape in the nearby surrounding residential streets.

Willow trees and the source of the Banyule Creek at Borlase Reserve, Yallambie, May, 2019.

The above-ground sections of the road link are expected to have the biggest and most obvious environmental impact with eight hectares of woodland in Yallambie’s Simpson Barracks alone expected to be destroyed, impacting kangaroos and other wild life along the way by removing their habitat. Hundreds of large, mature trees will either be cleared away during this process or lose water supply to their roots and die, but a trade-off promise to replace lost trees with 30,000 new plantings will take decades to have any significant effect. Of special mention is a 300 year old River Red Gum near a service station in Bulleen which is on the National Trust Significant Tree Register. A local landmark, it is just one of those ear marked for the big chop while another 150 other patches of native vegetation spread over 52 hectares will be removed, including 22 hectares where native and threatened wildlife are found.

Giant mouse soon to be made homeless at Borlase Reserve, Yallambie, May, 2019.

So that in a nut shell is what the North East Link Authority is all about. I find it a source of wonder that there hasn’t been more objection heard about this project up to date with the plan still wading around in its early stages. The failed East West Link project copped far more flak, and that misguided idea never moved further than a few lines pushed around a map with some properties peremptorily and unnecessarily acquired before an election. Part of the reason for this apparent lack of interest could be that all those car users living in Melbourne’s heavily car dependent north east may actually be in favour of the road when push comes to shove. It’s an attitude that might hold water with those people who drive on Rosanna Rd regularly, comfortable in the belief that the new road won’t necessarily roll out anywhere near their own back yard, but there is also the Government’s successful policy of divide and conquer to take into consideration, a policy which was implemented to such good effect in the second half of 2017. That battle became a bit of a running theme in this blog for a while, but by suggesting four potential routes for NEL right from the start, Corridors A, B, C and D, the net effect has been largely to dilute the argument right across the board.

Last week Banyule Council, while acknowledging the Government’s mandate to complete the road, released their own, well-considered proposal to modify the existing plan of Corridor A. The Council’s alternative involves a road tunnel that would be 2 kilometres longer than the current 6 km design, increasing the cost by an estimated $350 million and take an extra 1 ½ years longer to complete. It’s a design however the Council says would spare us many of the negative social and environmental consequences of the project. Critics have quickly lined up to dismiss the changes and list what they see as a range of possible negative effects, including a temporary occupation as a work site of a part of Watsonia Primary School and the AK Lines Reserve, and a longer than anticipated shut down of the Hurstbridge rail line around Watsonia Station, but Banyule Council’s Cr Tom Melican speaking in support of the Council proposal said:

“We’re spending an enormous amount of money, dividing the community and wrecking parkland; we’d better make sure we get it right.”

With the environmental impact still a matter of debate, there seems to me to be plenty of opportunity here to get it wrong.

Misty morning at Yallambie with Hoop Pine, photographed in August, 2014.

The writings of the early settlers in this country are filled with observations of the harsh climate they encountered and the difficulties they had reconciling local conditions with what they left behind in Europe. It is known that cool and moist air inside a forest can contribute to rainfall in a process called stomata, but the lesson those settlers eventually learned is, you cut down trees at the peril of the environment in this dry country. After more than 180 years of settlement, Victoria is now reportedly the most deforested state in Australia and more than 60 per cent of the forest that existed at the time of John Batman’s arrival is now gone.

Yallambie Park oak avenue photographed in 1995.

Scientists have gathered much evidence to support a claim that trees and the natural environment can improve our mood and general state of health, although in practice the jury is out as to exactly how or why this occurs. One theory is that beneficial bacteria, plant derived essential oils and negatively charged ions all combine to increase our well being. Another way of looking at this would be to simply say that being connected to nature provides us with relief from the stress and anxieties of modern living. A North East Link road might solve a transport problem in an ever expanding capital city, but how much is the solution also contributing to some of those stresses? Does the end justify the means?

The planned walking trail would pass through forest on the Errinundra Plateau. (Source: The Age, Goongerah Environment Centre)

Before the last State election, the Government announced a plan to build a 120km hiking trail that would extend from the Cape Conran Coastal Park to the summit of Mt Ellery and the alpine forests of the Errinundra Plateau. It was a pitch to the conservation vote during an election campaign which aimed to create a “Sea-to-Summit” walking track through some of the State’s last remaining areas of unspoiled wilderness. It sounded like a good idea at the time but after the Government was re-elected it transpired that the chosen route passed through many areas already ear marked by VicForests for logging and some clear felling had already begun.

Challenged by the media exposure of this story, Alex Messina, VicForests’ General Manager of Corporate Affairs dismissed the walking trail idea saying that part of the proposed track fell along an access route created for logging trucks.

“The route in remotest east Victoria utilises roads designed for timber haulage, not to optimise scenic tourism experience.”
(Alex Messina, quoted in The Age, February 13, 2019)

Birthing tree of the Djab Wurrung people. (Source: The Age, Gillian Trebilcock)

The cultural value of our trees is a sometimes under appreciated resource. Out in western Victoria, VicRoads is currently planning to duplicate a 12 ½ kilolmetre section of the Western Hwy from Buangor to Ararat to reduce travel time on the route by an estimated two minutes. The VicRoads plan will require the destruction of over 260 trees sacred to the Djap Wurrung peoples, including an Aboriginal birthing tree, with one elder, Sandra Onus,  quoted in The Age saying, “We’re just trying to keep as much of our cultural heritage intact as we can. They won’t listen to us blackfellas.”

Banyule’s Yallambie Bakewell ward councillor, Cr Mark Di Pasquale in email correspondence to us relating to North East Link, voiced a similar concern:

“It needs to be an honest discussion and the community need to voice their wants. Up until now the NE Link Authority has been ‘steamrolling’ through with their work… We are looking to the Army, the traders the residents and finally the State Members to push this barrow.”
Droving in the Light, Hans Heysen, 1914-21. (Source: Wikipedia, the Art Gallery of South Australia)
Tree felling of ancient river red gum at Seymour Rd, Lower Plenty in the early 1920s. The property on the opposite ridge is Bryn Teg, later the Heidelberg Golf Club.

The idea that trees might have an aesthetic value beyond their monetary or utilitarian worth might strike some as a surprise, although it is by no means a new concept. Artwork by that famed painter of Australian landscapes, Hans Heysen, is currently on display alongside work by his daughter Nora at a special exhibition at the NGV in Federation Square. Hans, who turned the ubiquitous Aussie gum tree into a work of art in the early years of the 20th century, was famous in his own life time but is sometimes also remembered for his attitude towards conservation in an era when most people never gave it a thought. The story goes that when Hans heard that a road side stand of gum trees he loved was to be removed by his local Council, he approached the authorities and offered to give them the money the Council would otherwise have received for selling the trees as fire wood. It is unrecorded whether those early Council authorities laughed in his face at the suggestion or instead laughed all the way to the bank.

It seems then that the North East Link might not be the only road likely to trample over the environment and the enjoyment of peoples’ lives. It’s just the latest and the largest and by far and away the most expensive.

In Yes Minister, in an episode about the conservation of a wildlife habitat, Sir Humphrey Appleby assured the minister that there are some things that are just best kept out of the public debate. In that episode, “The Right to Know” he burdens the minister’s correspondence with useless detail in an attempt to keep his political master in the dark while explaining to him a fine line of distinction between classing something as a “loss” or “not a significant loss” to the environment.

“Almost anything can be attacked as a “loss of amenity”, and be defended as “not a significant loss of amenity”.
Sir Humphrey Appleby, Episode 6, Series 1, Yes Minister, “The Right to Know”, 1980.

The NEL will obviously cause a huge loss of amenity in the north eastern suburbs of Melbourne and in particular, within the City of Banyule. Taking a page out of Sir Humphrey’s book, the North East Link Authority have cleverly passed this off as not a significant loss of amenity by releasing so much detail about their plans that it seems most people have given up listening.

Once the traffic starts rolling on the new Freeway in a few years’ time, do you think this will make any difference?

By then, will we still be able to see the wood for the tree stumps?

Woodland sign posting north of Borlase Reserve, Yallambie, May, 2019.
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3 thoughts on “An explanation of the NEL for those who can’t see the wood for the impending tree stumps”

  1. Well put! Thank you for speaking out on these issues.
    I was deeply saddened to see there are plans to demolish that beautiful piece of remnant bushland along Greensborough Rd. When I was down there in January I cycled from St Kilda to Watsonia. Going the other way you can get to the Main Yarra Trail via River Gum Walk at the corner of Greensborough and Lower Plenty Roads and need not cross a single road for miles.
    You have highlighted many of the arguments I would like to make in relation to sensible transport options, the value of trees and open spaces and various other things. I’ll check out the plans when I’m next down there but fear the minister’s advisors will have mitigated the effect of any dissenting voices.

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    1. Hi Dave, the NELA boasts that their plan will deliver about 25km of new and upgraded cycling and walking tracks, but how this is supposed to sit with a strategy of keeping people in their cars, I don’t know. An ESS review committee is accepting submissions until 9th June at engage.vic.gov.au/north-east-link-project and you should write to them with your thoughts. I’ll be making a submission, Ian

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