Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Climate discretionary at bushfires royal commission?

The bushfire royal commission can deal with climate if the royal commissioner, Mr Bernard Teague, feels it is important. This was the response of Mr Kevin Love, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Sustainability and Environment, speaking at an Environment Week event held last night at the University of Melbourne to discuss the Victorian 2008 State of the Environment Report produced by the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, Dr Ian McPhail.

Mr Love was responding to a question from the audience following the presentations about the omission of climate change and climate policy as areas for specific inquiry in the royal commission terms of reference. Other areas - such as fire warnings and emergency responses - are specifically identified.

Prefacing his remarks with concern that he avoid contempt of the royal commission, Mr Love invoked a catch-all in the terms, allowing the commissioners to investigate 'Any other matters that you deem appropriate in relation to the 2009 Bushfires'.

Yet the omission of climate change and climate policy follows 2007 research by the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre commissioned by the Climate Institute linking climate change to a marked increase in bushfire risk, with recent trends matching or exceeding previously projected risk under global warming scenarios.

'The terms of reference are important given they determine what the commission is specifically directed to investigate, and the areas in which it is empowered to make recommendations. The potential contribution of more effective climate policy to international leadership, a stronger global agreement, and therefore long-term bushfire prevention should be rigorously examined in this inquiry,' Darren Lewin-Hill said today. His comments follow his 18 March opinion piece published on ABC Unleashed, making the case for the inquiry to address climate policy.

The wording of the bushfires royal commission website itself underlines why the terms are important, with the following requirement for leave to appear before the commission:

'The notice [to appear] should comprise a brief outline of no more than three pages identifying the term or terms of reference [my emphasis] in which the person or organisation claims an interest, explaining the nature of that interest and giving reasons why they should be given leave to appear before the Royal Commission'.

With no specific terms of reference applicable to climate change and climate policy, their inclusion in the inquiry, and emphasis in the findings, are at the discretion of the commission. Yet the science suggests that the influence of climate change was far from incidental in the Black Saturday fires.

With its preliminary report due in mid-August this year, the royal commission can, if it chooses, acknowledge the scientific evidence and recommend that the influence of climate in the Black Saturday fires be taken into account in framing the position that Australia takes to international climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December.

'While the royal commission is not precluded from considering climate under these terms, it is not directed to do so, and climate scientists and advocates must be clear in their calls to ensure that climate change gets the air-time it deserves. As Quentin Dempster, writing on the fires for the ABC, noted, to openly acknowledge the role of climate change in the fires "would require a coordinated national, state and territory policy response". In essence that means a moral imperative to act,' Mr Lewin-Hill said.

In discussing climate change in the presentation about his 2008 State of the Environment Report, Dr McPhail told the audience that you don't believe in climate change as you do in a religion; you are either persuaded by the scientific evidence or you are not. He declared himself persuaded, and called on targets adopted by the Emissions Trading Scheme to be based on that evidence. He said the targets were currently being seen 'in terms of the politically possible'.

Dr McPhail had earlier noted that the climate responds to absolute reductions in emissions, not gains in efficiency. Victoria had 'translated' such gains into increased production, he said.

Apart from Dr McPhail and Mr Love, presenters at the event included Dr Peter Christoff, Vice President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and Ms Kelly O'Shanassy, Chief Executive Officer of Environment Victoria. The event was chaired by Mr Rob Gell. The event was organised by the Office for Environmental Programs at the University of Melbourne, with which the author is not associated.

See further coverage of the 2009 Victorian bushfires.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Video from Earth Hour at Darebin Parklands

Here's the promised video for last night's Darebin Parklands Earth Hour event, organised by Darebin Climate Action Now (DarebinCAN). Understandably, with all the climate-friendly darkness, it was tough to film, so these are just some of the highlights. Please note that what light there was came from renewable sources (supported by The Environment Shop), and that my video camera was recharged with 100% green power.

As mentioned in the video, DarebinCAN met this morning with Martin Ferguson, whose office was the scene of a DarebinCAN community demonstration last Friday. I wonder if Martin switched off for last night's event?

Finally, last night also featured an excellent short animation on climate tipping points called 'Wake Up, Freak Out - Then Get a Grip' by Leo Murray. Certainly worth a look!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Earth Hour sends a community message

Tonight's popular Earth Hour event at Darebin Parklands (Victoria, Australia) sent a grass-roots message to the nation's politicians - especially Prime Minister Rudd and Federal MP for Batman (and energy and resources minister), Martin Ferguson - that Australia needs to take stronger action on climate as we head towards post-Kyoto negotiations for an international climate agreement in Copenhagen this December.

The Alphington Community Centre event was organised by Darebin Climate Action Now (DarebinCAN). It followed the Friday 27 March protest at Martin Ferguson's office, and preceded a meeting between the fossil fuel industry's favourite MP and DarebinCAN scheduled for tomorrow.

Video from the event, which included music, presentations and an animated short film on climate change, will be posted here shortly. A highlight was the presentation from a Year 11 student at the local Santa Maria College - a hopeful sign that young people will lead change on this critical issue for the planet's future.

Switch off tonight for Earth Hour

As part of an annual global event to raise awareness about global warming and climate change, Earth Hour will take place at 8.30pm tonight local time around Australia.

If you live in the City of Darebin, Victoria, switch off at home, or join your community at Darebin Parklands from 7.00pm, where Darebin Climate Action Now is running an Earth Hour Event for Alphington Community Centre.

Live local music will be followed by a short animated film about climate change powered by renewable energy from 8.30pm.

The Earth Hour Australia website tells how you can use the web to share your Earth Hour experience and Vote Earth.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Earth Hour sequel at Westgarth issues meeting?

Laudable as this weekend's Earth Hour climate event may be, we don't want to be kept in the dark again at the Route 86 Westgarth meeting next Tuesday 31 March, when Darebin Council expects to resolve complex service road and parking issues in the space of a single hour.

One of four so-called roundtable discussions - and the only one devoted to Westgarth issues - Tuesday's meeting looks set to repeat the pattern of last week's public meeting - a lengthy preamble by officers about the overall context for the project, complex information made available for the first time on which the audience is asked to comment on the spot, and major issues that deserve in-depth treatment compressed into the short time left over for actual public discussion.

The meeting will take place nearly two weeks after the 18 March public meeting at Northcote Town Hall, and two weeks before the 14 April deadline for submissions on the Route 86 proposal.

Given that the key issues are already clear - the High Street service road treatment, the parking implications for businesses and residents, and cycling - there is little reason why Council should not publish on the web any further work done on the options well in advance of the roundtable discussion. This has been communicated to Council at Officer and Councillor level, as well as to the company engaged by Council to facilitate the consultation.

In the lead-up to the meeting, a group of Westgarth business owners yesterday met with Rucker Ward Councillor, Trent McCarthy. While the meeting was described as 'constructive', the acid test will not be media photo-opportunities, but the public stance taken by Councillor McCarthy on issues such as the service road, parking, and the consultation process. The same goes for Mayor Diana Asmar and Councillor Steven Tsitas, Rucker's two other Council representatives. Individual assurances given in small meetings must be reflected in a broader public position that is advocated to Council to improve the community outcome.

As the deadline for submissions approaches, Westgarth businesses have given strong support to a petition stating that the loss of parking, particularly from Ruckers Hill, will have a deleterious effect on businesses in the strip. More than 78 parking spaces will be lost in all the current options, with no specific research gaving been undertaken by Council to show how Westgarth customers arrive in the strip. While business owners further north are worried by their own loss of parking, the situation in Westgarth is exacerbated by the lack of dedicated parking areas behind shops. Sounds like more than hour's worth, doesn't it?

See all posts on the Tram Stop Route 86 Corridor Project.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Submission to Australian Senate ETS Inquiry

The Greens MPs site has a handy form for making online submissions to the current Senate inquiry on the environmental adequacy of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). They have suggested text, but I agree with them that it's better if you pen your own. Here's mine:

To Senators on the Senate Select Committee on Climate Policy,

Your task in this inquiry is to examine the environmental adequacy of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) as part of the Federal Government's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).

Acknowledging that there is an economic cost of effective climate action - though a far greater one for inaction - the reference for your deliberations must be the established science of climate change, and your findings must consider how, given that science, the ETS and CPRS help us to avoid irreversible climate tipping points, or, as I strongly argue, push us closer towards them.

I ask you to remember that, while economic cycles come and go, in human terms the effect of crossing tipping points lasts forever.

The current proposal of a 5% reduction on 2000 emission levels by 2020 falls drastically short of the now conservative scientific position that a cut in the order of 25-40% on 1990 levels is required by the same year. Earlier this month, an emergency climate summit hosted by the University of Copenhagen found that the more severe projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were being achieved far earlier than anticipated. That is to say, we are accelerating towards irreversible climate tipping points even more quickly than scientists had expected.

Along with the rapid increase of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we are seeing in Australia direct evidence of the expected severe climate impacts - including floods in Queensland and the devastating Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria.

It is a telling reflection of government inaction at state and federal level that the terms of reference for the bushfires royal commission fail to direct the commissioners to consider climate policy or make recommendations on potential policy contributions to decreasing bushfire risk over time (see 'Royal commission must face climate change', ABC Unleashed, 18 March 2009).

This vital issue should not be left to the discretion of commissioners to include, and it falls within your brief in considering the environmental adequacy of the ETS. The lag between climate inaction and its tragic consequences is being drastically reduced.

These considerations give the lie to attempts by this government to sell its climate policy as a balance between competing interests. Senator Wong and Prime Minister Rudd have both put forward the line that the government will be attacked from the Left for doing too little and from the Right for doing too much, when the only true yardstick is the climate and the impacts stemming from the crossing of tipping points.

Unfortunately, it is not only the unambitious proposed reduction targets that flaw this ETS. Big polluters - those whose curtailed contributions might punch a formidable hole in our emissions - are inappropriately compensated in the scheme. They have long known the risks of climate change and their complicity in them. We now have them lobbying - in many cases secretly and unaccountably - to protect their 'quarry vision' (as Guy Pearse terms it), partly by appeal to job losses that would follow the demise of their industries.

Yet the CSIRO and others have shown that there are new jobs in a more sustainable, greener Australia, and it is to these we must turn as the economic crisis offers the opportunity to reshape our nation. If there are to be job losses in the transition away from emissions intensive industries, let the compensation be directed to supporting and retraining workers, not to the coffers of corporations who maximise their own profits as they socialise the environmental impacts they create.

Finally, I ask you to consider the contrast between the prime minister's stance on international leadership regarding the global economy, and his climate defeatism as we head into post-Kyoto international negotiations in Copenhagen this December. If the prime minister can urge the G20 to concerted international action on so-called 'toxic assets' that undermine the international flow of credit, why can he not act with leadership on the vital shared issue of climate - the impacts of which will be disproportionately felt by the world's poorest people?

As you progress with your deliberations on the environmental adequacy of the ETS, I ask you to consider the matters raised here, and the possibility of your individual contributions to a better climate outcome for Australia and the world.

Sincerely etc.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Council must consider Westgarth alternatives

With Council yet to put forward any Route 86 options that do not use the High Street service road as a sliplane for traffic turning left into Westgarth Street, residents themselves are coming up with options that might well solve the problem.

The option above, produced by a local resident, shows how three lanes can be accommodated south of Westgarth Street on the northbound western side of High Street. This would allow left-turning, northbound and right-turning lanes without using the service road as a sliplane.

The first slide uses the Nicholson Street-Alexandra Parade intersection as an example. The following two slides show the changes necessary in Westgarth - including early signage down the hill, the distance needed for the approach, and the slight re-alignment of tram tracks that could be accommodated by making High Street one lane in the city-bound section south of Westgarth Street. As locals will know, the two lanes there as you cross the intersection rapidly converge to a single lane anyway.

I understand that this option would retain the central tram stop of Council's preferred Option 2.

Council should seriously consider this and other ideas that may emerge to meet what are clear resident concerns about this proposal. Their consideration of such community input - including technical advice - must also be completely transparent. What we need at next week's Westgarth roundtable discussion aren't further options thrown up on a screen for the first time, but further discussions on refined options that go up on Council's website this week in advance of the roundtable.

If this happens and the options show clear signs of meeting resident concerns about the sliplane, parking and cycling, then we might well see some positive movement in advance of Council's next meeting on 6 April.

A larger version of the presentation can be viewed using the control next to the slide number, or on Google Docs.

See all posts on the Tram Stop Route 86 Corridor Project.

Details of next week's roundtable discussions, and how to make a submission by the 14 April deadline are now available at the Route 86 project page.

Update: See Council's Westgarth residential access page for the options presented at last Wednesday's public meeting, together with some additional information.

One thing that should be noted is that it's confusing to have the tram stop options listed as options 1 and 2 on the main route 86 page, and then use the same terminology for the options regarding residential access on this new page.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Route 86 consultation wastes deadline extension

Following last Wednesday's public meeting on the Route 86 project at Northcote Town Hall, the City of Darebin has done little to progress its promised roundtable discussions, and has failed to publish on the web the details of the further consultation, or the additional options it presented at the meeting. So much for transparency, and so much for the fast-approaching extended deadline on 14 April.

Of the many people I have spoken to about this issue, no-one who has put themselves forward to take part has yet received a response about attending the discussions, and there is little evidence that Council has promoted the opportunity to do so among residents or businesses who may not have attended the public meeting.

This has been despite the election of a more progressive Council last November, a positive Council meeting last Monday to secure the deadline extension, and the attendance of Mayor Diana Asmar and Councillor Trent McCarthy at the public meeting to hear residents' concerns.

A notable absence at that meeting was Councillor Steven Tsitas, one of four Councillors - including Mayor Asmar - who declared a conflict and could not take part in last Monday's vote on the motion to extend the consultation deadline. With Councillor Gaetano Greco on leave of absence, the motion was ultimately not put to a Council vote due to the lack of the required quorum, but authorised instead by Darebin CEO, Michael Ulbrick, on the spot.

The first point to note is that a possible conflict presumably does not preclude representation of your constituency, as Mayor Asmar has shown. A Councillor can listen to constituents, attend public meetings, and advocate on behalf of residents and businesses to Council officers without landing in hot water over any potential conflict of interest.

The second point is that, with four Councillors having declared a conflict at the Council meeting, they will presumably be unable to vote when Council officers finally report on this proposal and make their recommendations.

Depending on the return of Councillor Greco, this may leave less than a majority of Councillors to vote on the issue, and therefore once again without the necessary quorum for a vote to occur. I understand Darebin Council is seeking legal advice on this issue, which needs to be quickly resolved if there is to be any sort of vote at all on this proposal.

In the meantime, the consultation is showing all the signs that led the City of Darebin to score so poorly on its own 2008 report card in the area of community engagement. With a clearly more progressive Council in place, it can surely do a lot better than this. Get on to your Councillors to demand progress on the consultation, and register your interest in joining the roundtable discussions on the issues of concern that have been identified so far.

It is my hope that the separate discussions will be appropriately linked (for example, a couple of business owners in the service road discussion among a majority of residents, and vice versa in the parking discussion for businesses). As I said at the public meeting, the proceedings of these discussions must be transparent as they progress, so that there is every chance of a solution that optimally meets everyone's needs.

Update: See the Route 86 project page at the Darebin website for a series of meetings on the evenings of Tuesday 31 March and Wednesday 1 April. Of four sessions, one hour on the Tuesday is devoted to 'Westgarth issues', with one hour the following night on cycling issues - presumably for the whle project. I had expected there would be themed meetings on issues such as the service lane, loss of parking and cycling, but at least the first two have been compressed. It is also disappointing to note that the meetings begin almost two weeks after the public meeting, and that the additional options then presented are not on the website. I got my email about the sessions after 5.00pm today. If you haven't received yours, email route86@darebin.vic.gov.au to take part.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Strong concerns emerge at Route 86 meeting

A public meeting held at Northcote Town Hall last night saw big concerns emerge about the City of Darebin's Tram Route 86 Corridor Project as it applies to Westgarth. There was a strong message that options for the project must get a whole lot clearer much more quickly if there is to be any sort of result for the community from consultations that are set to end on 14 April.

Among a large audience, overwhelmingly of residents living south of Westgarth Street, it was also clear there is staunch opposition to the current treatment of traffic and use of the High Street service road as a left-turning sliplane under the proposals.

Specifically, the meeting extended the two options available until now on the project website, inviting on-the-spot feedback to quite complex diagrams that were not at all clear when projected on screen. They all, however, feature the use of the High Street service road as a sliplane diverting traffic - estimated at 200-300 vehicles in peak hour - past the doors of some eight houses, then west along Westgarth Street/Merri Parade to St Georges Road.

Other issues to emerge included the vagueness of the design of the High Street lanes at the intersection (one north-bound lane and a dedicated right-turning lane); the incompleteness of traffic modelling for the broader area; the potential restriction of emergency access to the service road; the consequences of a mechanical breakdown there for banking traffic; and the impact of additional traffic on Westgarth Street/Merri Parade - including for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists crossing further to the west at McLachlan Street.

Following a previous meeting at the Jika Jika Community Centre, concern was again expressed about the danger of cyclists having to ride over raised tram stops in High Street, where pedestrians, including the elderly and people living with a disability, would be waiting to catch trams. It emerged that, while there have been discussions with Bicycle Victoria (claimed to be 'generally supportive') and Darebin Bicycle Users' Group, no formal written advice has yet been received by Council.

The loss of parking received limited air-time at the meeting, and there was poor representation from local businesses. One business owner I spoke to on my way to the meeting didn't know it was on, and the facilitator referred to the previous meeting for businesses at Jika Jika Community Centre, despite Council's website inviting 'Westgarth residents and businesses' to last night's consultation.

The loss of parking - up to 78 spaces from Ruckers Hill, and up to nine within the strip, is a major concern for traders - especialy in the absence of specific research showing how customers make their way to the Westgarth shops. There is an additional concern that the parking shortfall could also be distributed across local streets, resulting in further parking pressure for residents.

A key point was also made that Council's parking survey appears to indicate that spaces up to 700 metres distant are considered by Council as conveniently available to the strip. Not only does this paint a false impression of parking capacity in the (not-so) immediate area, it seems to assume Council is comfortable with the idea of women (or those with mobility challenges) walking 700 metres at night to reach the shops, cinema and restaurants.

While it was good to see Mayor Diana Asmar and Councillor Trent McCarthy there to hear from their Rucker Ward constituency, there could have been more from them on the specific substance of the proposals. They did, however, map out in general terms the shape of consultation from here until the close of submissions, and the success of these measures will determine the value of these councillors' contributions.

Between now and 14 April, a series of themed roundtable discussions with Council officers will seek to concentrate on the particular concerns that have emerged - for example, the sliplane, traffic management, parking and cycling. These will have unlimited and open memberships (at the useful suggestion of Mayor Asmar), and community members and other stakeholders can nominate now to take part.

There was strong sentiment among the audience that these groups must be representative, and their work completely transparent to the broader community as it proceeds. If that is achieved, the discussions will not only inform the proposal being developed by Council, but will help the broader comunity shape their individual submissions to the process.

At the meeting, I called for the process to be clearly detailed as a priority on the Council's website for the project, including Mayor Asmar's suggestion that an extension to consultation could be requested if the groups felt there was not enough time to fully resolve the issues. Council had some difficulty with publicly advising the membership of the roundtable groups, but this would add to the transparency of the process.

In addition to detailing this process on the web, Council gave an undertaking to publish online all possible information on which the proposal is based - traffic data, as well as details of feedback from stakeholders such as Bicycle Victoria. Council should also expedite online publication of the new options, including the slideshow presented last night - if the community can do it, Council should certainly be able to.

The community will also be keen to see Council live up to last night's promise to carry out comprehensive letter-boxing in the area regarding the consultation. It is putting very substantial resources into what will potentially be be a multi-million dollar infrastructure investment, so a few thousand leaflets shouldn't be too much trouble to keep everyone informed.

Finally, it is important to reiterate that the roundtable discussions are only part of the input the comunity can have on this proposal. You can respond to a survey, or email your own submission by 14 April. Let's see how Council can now expedite a much clearer process, and what they do with your views. Stay tuned for more updates, and please leave your comments on how you felt about last night's meeting.

See all posts on the Tram Route 86 Corridor Project

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bushfires royal commission on ABC Unleashed

The ABC's Unleashed opinion site has just published my article on the need to examine climate policy as part of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.

General submissions to the inquiry are open until 4.00pm on Monday 18 May 2009.

What do you want from tonight's meeting?

With the extension of the deadline for submissions, tonight's public meeting on Darebin's Tram Route 86 Corridor project stands some chance of getting the consultation back on track. So, what do you want to see come out of the meeting? Feel free to leave a comment, but here are a few thoughts to get things started.

While most people would agree that faster, more efficient and accessible public transport is an urgent priority given climate change, a good idea badly executed helps no-one.

I'm hoping tonight's meeting will especially address the impact on those affected by the closure of the splitter island (see also Nick Hurle's map) near the intersection of High and Westgarth Streets, the implications of the likely loss of parking for local businesses, and the integration of cycling paths in the proposals. There is also the effect on existing transport, with the service lane bus stop set to disappear under both the current options.

In particular, as they will ultimately vote on the proposal, I would like to see each of our Rucker Ward Councillors - Trent McCarthy, Diana Asmar, and Steven Tsitas - briefly share with us their views on each of these issues. It isn't too much to ask where they stand individually, and how they think they can contribute to a resolution. Trent McCarthy moved the motion to have the submissions deadline extended, and that is a welcome start to a better outcome, but let's get into the details.

In line with Councillor McCarthy's motion, I'd also like to hear at the meeting just what further 'roundtable discussions' will take place with community members and other stakeholders to work through these issues. The discussions must include the people most affected by the proposals - service lane residents, business owners, public transport users who are elderly or living with a disability, and residents who can contribute in other ways - for example, by offering specialist knowledge on transport, traffic management and the environment.

Referring back to a point raised at the Thursday 12 March meeting at the Jika Jika Community Centre, Council should also offer its view on doing specific research on the Westgarth strip to identify just how customers arrive to do their shopping. If that research showed, like the Northcote study, that far more people arrived by alternatives to car travel than the business owners had believed, it might go some way to reassuring businesses about the loss of car-parking spaces. If the results showed a heavier reliance on cars than Council claims, it would surely strengthen the case to explore options to preserve parking.

Either way, the parking solution will be a mix of approaches - research, looking for alternative parking provision, minimising the loss of spaces, and offering incentives to change the transport mix to encourage people to get here by foot, bike, tram, bus or train. While Council is far better resourced to call on expertise, it also needs to encourage and listen to community ideas that might help.

One idea might be for shops to be allowed to sell individual tickets at the bulk discount rate with each purchase. Could incentives be offered for patrons in the strip who arrive by sustainable transport, or in full cars, instead of each person arriving individually and taking up a separate parking space? Do the tram stops have to be 33 metres long? Is there any prospect of shorter but more frequent trams that need shorter stops and take away fewer parking spaces?

Finally, it is interesting to note that by far the greatest impact on parking in Westgarth will be the loss of spaces on Ruckers Hill. This is claimed as necessary to preserve a lane of traffic on each side of the dedicated north- and south-bound tram tracks. If we stopped seeing High Street as both a (clogged) car artery and a major public transport route, it might be possible to retain some parking on Ruckers Hill - local traffic and parking should pose a much smaller impediment to trams even if they share the tracks.

It is, of course, a reality that existing traffic has to go somewhere, and not simply be unfairly diverted onto other roads where other residents will have to deal with the associated problems. This only goes to emphasise the need for a systemic focus on public transport that meets the needs of commuters who, for lack of a good public transport system, drive their cars along our roads.

What do you think?

See all posts on the Tram Route 86 Corridor Project

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Come to the Route 86 meeting Wednesday night

The City of Darebin is holding a public meeting for Westgarth businesses and residents tomorrow night, Wednesday 18 March, at 6.30pm to discuss the Tram Route 86 Corridor Project, and in particular the potential impacts on the local businesses and the community from options presented so far. Unfortunately, no agenda seems to be available. Go to the Northcote Town Hall, Room 2B (Level 1) and have your say.

Those visiting the Route 86 project page at the Darebin website should note that, despite the tardy updating by Council, the deadline for submissions on the project has been extended to 14 April (the Tuesday after the Easter break), and that further 'roundtable discussions' have been promised between Council officers, stakeholders and community members.

See all posts on the Tram Route 86 Corridor Project

Northcote Bowl public meeting this Thursday

Back on 18 February I posted about the State Government's controversial decision to call in developments to expedite them in cases where there is a deemed 'net comunity benefit'.

One such development is the proposed 96-unit proposal for the Northcote Bowl site. The City of Darebin opposes the call-in, and is holding a public meeting at 7.30pm this Thursday 19 March at the Clyde Street Community Centre, 64 Clyde Street Thornbury. Further details at the City of Darebin website.

While the City of Darebin's consultation and planning proposals could themselves be significantly improved and this large-scale development has given rise to widespread and understandable community concerns, I support Council's opposition to the call-in and this opportunity for further community input. Let's see what comes out of it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Route 86 Westgarth consultation extended

The deadline for submissions on the City of Darebin's Route 86 project taking in the High Street segment of Westgarth will be extended from 27 March to 14 April following a motion by Rucker Ward Councillor Trent McCarthy at tonight's Darebin Council meeting.

In response to resident concerns over the short timeframe of the consultation, Councillor McCarthy moved that the consultation be extended to the April date, and that further roundtable discussions take place between Council officers, stakeholders and community members regarding issues arising from the proposals.

Farce threatened the motion as councillor after councillor declared their inability to vote due to a conflict of interest for reasons of 'indirect interest by close association', reducing the councillors available for the vote to numbers insufficient for a quorum.

The conflicted councillors included Steven Tsitas and Diana Asmar, who represent Rucker Ward together with Trent McCarthy and had earlier in the meeting included in their activity reports having dealt with constituents on Route 86 issues. Had the motion been postponed to a subsequent Council meeting, this would have carried deliberations about a possible extension beyond the current submissions deadline of Friday 27 March.

Fortunately, Darebin CEO Michael Ulbrick stepped in to advise that an extension would be granted by officers in the interests of better consultation informing the ultimate Council vote. This was a most welcome development, but the test now will be whether this assurance lives up to the substance of Councillor McCarthy's motion.

Roundtable discussions must particularly include those affected by the proposed closure of the splitter island at the south-west corner of the intersection of Westgarth and High streets, Westgarth businesses and residents affected by proposed reductions in parking, and cyclists.

While more time doesn't necessarily guarantee that the issues will be addressed, it increases the odds of that happening. The challenge now is for the community to mobilise to ensure their concerns are very clearly articulated and fed into the process. On Council's part, they'll need to do some genuine thinking about the options presented to ensure issues raised here are adequately addressed.

See all posts on the Tram Route 86 Corridor Project

Slides show Route 86 impacts on Westgarth

In his comment to the previous post, local resident, Nick Hurle, offered links to his slide presentation of the impacts that will flow from current options for Darebin's Route 86 project. With permission, I've embedded the presentation here for those who may not have the necessary software to open the files. You can use the zoom function (View/Zoom), or the fullscreen control in the slide show menu (next to the slide number) to enlarge the presentation.

Feel free to comment here, or email Nick.

See all posts on the Tram Route 86 Corridor Project

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Route 86 consultation on the fast track

The impact on houses exposed to increased traffic, the business downside of decreased parking, and the seeming failure to accommodate cyclists in plans for upgraded tram stops are looming as key issues in the Westgarth segment of Darebin's Route 86 project.

The issues emerged at a Darebin consultation meeting held at the Jika Jika Community Centre last Thursday and attended by representatives of local Westgarth businesses and some residents.

Presenting plans for two options, Darebin's Transport Strategy Coordinator, Kate Myers, explained that new stops planned for Route 86 would be 'DDA compliant' - that is, they would be built to meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act coinciding with plans to upgrade tram tracks on the route.

A sticking point for both options was the redirection of traffic along the service road on the western side of High Street south of Westgarth Street. Currently traffic turns left at a 'splitter island' close to the intersection, but redirection further south into the service road at Cunningham Street will allow traffic to continue flowing west along Westgarth Street even if cars are banked up waiting to head straight along High Street up Ruckers Hill.

Unfortunately, this means some eight houses will experience far greater exposure to traffic on what has long been a service road providing a protective barrier between them and the main flow of traffic.

There was a strongly held view at the meeting that this was an inadequate and unfair solution that took the least expensive route in solving design issues for traffic flow at the expense of local residents. A number of alternatives were discussed among the audience, including the use of the strip currently planted with trees, with the possibility of mature trees being transplanted from a realignment of the entrance to the splitter island. The existing plans already appear to impinge on two mature trees south of Cunningham Street, so the potential of a redesign to minimise impact on the service road houses should not be overlooked by Council.

Of the two options, the second (Council preferred) option had a lower impact on car-parking within the strip (approx. 3 versus approx. 9) than the first, but both entailed the loss of 78 car-parking spaces on Ruckers Hill north of Union Street. Kate Myers explained that this was necessary if the tram was to have dedicated lanes north and south in this section, as only one lane would be left either side for traffic, with no room for kerbside parking. Should this aspect of the plans proceed, it will likely have a dual impact on the Westgarth community.

The first is on the sustainability of local businesses. Kate Myers admitted that there had been no specific research to gauge how Westgarth customers travelled to the shops, but said research further north on High Street indicated that far fewer customers arrived by car than business owners thought - 33 per cent compared with 55 per cent. However, the applicability of the Northcote research to the Westgarth strip was questioned, and specific research suggested before any decision was made on removal of parking.

The second impact may well be felt by local residents, with pressure from the lost parking spaces distributed across local streets not equipped to absorb the extra burden. Kate Myers indicated that survey work had shown capacity to absorb extra parking demand at specified times, but the audience felt this was selective and that the parking situation was already generally pressured.

While Council is playing up the project's emphasis on public transport, even the Northcote research showed that more than twice as many people arrived at local businesses by car than by public transport, and this should not be ignored to the detriment of local businesses and residents.

The implications are that options must be developed to expedite trams without prejudice to parking. As Westgarth lacks the dedicated rear car-parks that characterise High Street to the north, consideration must be given to acquiring sites that become available for such parking in the strip - for example, the Ultratune or Armstrong's furniture sites.

Finally, the options presented were felt to favour public transport over a much less emissions-intensive form of travel - bicycles. Despite the claim by Kate Myers that Bicycle Victoria was 'generally supportive' of the plans, there appears to have been little effort to integrate bicycle lanes in either option of the proposal, with cyclists instead directed to Victoria Street or St Georges Road.

Under both options, cyclists will be required to ride up and over the proposed Westgarth tram stops (which will be admittedly lower to assist wheelchair access). As was pointed out at the meeting, however, this at the very least poses a risk from the interaction of bikes and passengers waiting at the stops.

With these and other issues very much unresolved, the timing of the consultation apears somewhat rushed. Submissions (which can be emailed) are due by 27 March, and another public meeting of residents affected by the proposed closure of the splitter island will not be held until this Wednesday at Northcote Town Hall.

Council claimed that the meeting came at the midway mark of the consultation, but it felt to many very much like the beginning. The claims of Council to broad consultation were undermined, in fact, by the use of such a small room to hold the meeting. It appears that the consultation is intended to compartmentalise different stakeholder groups in targeted meetings that fragment the community response and cut across its interests.

Also of note was the absence of the three Rucker Ward Councillors from the meeting, though Councillor Trent McCarthy indicated a prior conflicting engagement booked some weeks in advance. He also indicated a willingness to hear community concerns.

With submissions closing on 27 March and Council to vote on a final report in April, it is vital that community concern is widely mobilised to inform the ultimate outcome. This should certainly take the form of written submissions to Council, but a community public meeting might also be useful.

Your comments and suggestions for further action are welcome.

See all posts on the Tram Route 86 Corridor Project

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bushfires demand answers to tough questions

The 2009 Victorian bushfires have been a horrendous tragedy, taking at least 210 lives, injuring many other people, and destroying property, wildlife and vast areas of our beautiful bushland. Yet there is a further danger in the aftermath of the fires that an unflinching look at their causes and the government's response will be hampered by false charges of political opportunism. It is easy to make such charges as an emotive tactic to evade the hard questions, at the potential cost of future bushfire prevention.

Yesterday, The Age ran an online story by David Rood and Paul Austin in which the Victorian Emergency Services Minister, Bob Cameron, criticised the Opposition regarding its allegation that the government failed to do enough with the early warnings it received about extreme fire conditions.

In advance of any public hearings of the royal commission, the same report included a seemingly supportive comment by the chair of the bushfires inquiry, Bernard Teague, about the government's warnings. My letter in response to the article is published in today's print and online editions (see 'Tough questions on a horrific day'):
It seems a bit rich for Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron to tell the Opposition to 'get out of the way of the royal commission' regarding its public comments on bushfire warnings when we have the head of the commission, Bernard Teague, seemingly cheerleading those warnings in advance of any public hearings.

In what context did Mr Teague describe the warnings as 'impressive'? Surely it would be more appropriate to await all the evidence before issuing such pronouncements?

No fan of the Victorian Opposition, I nevertheless defend its right to test the Government's actions before and during the fires. Let the Government answer tough questions about whether it did enough with the early warnings it clearly received.

That the media is reporting that government departments will have joint legal representation during the commission is also a worrying sign that the Government is trying to stage-manage the findings at the possible expense of future fire prevention.

Did the Victorian Government do enough? Let the royal commission decide, but let it do so upon a searching examination of the facts and the free testimony of all witnesses, including those from the various government departments involved.

One thing seems clear, comments by the Premier of an expected 'ugly day' are quite possibly even less effective than the vague text messages sent out indiscriminately to Victorians when the worst of the fires had passed.

If you'd like to ask the chair of the royal commission about his comment regarding the warnings, you can send the commission an email. In accordance with the comments policy of this blog, Commissioner Teague is also most welcome to respond directly here.

More coverage of the 2009 Victorian bushfires.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Bushfire text alerts off the mark

Sitting at home in inner-suburban Northcote last night, well clear of any bushfire danger, I received a text message from Victoria Police. The message read as follows:
Extreme weather in Vic expected Monday night & Tues. High wind & fire risk. Listen to ABC Local Radio for emergency updates. Do not reply to this msg.
There was no specific area warning because the messages were apparently not targeted to areas experiencing heightened risk of bushfire. In some cases, this caused alarm unnecessarily; in others, the vagueness of the message might have underplayed the risk in particular local areas where fire was a more immediate danger.

More than three weeks after Black Saturday, and with a targeted national fire warning system apparently stalled by bureaucratic red-tape, the communication of fire danger is still inadequate.

My immediate thought on receiving the text last night was why authorities couldn't use proximity to phone towers in areas of risk as a way of targeting the messages. This indeed is a proposed feature of the national alert system, together with targeting by address through the Telstra-managed national telephone database.

It is also worth asking if there were any warning calls to landlines last night. If not, that signifies a big gap in the coverage. With the message vague and indiscriminately sent, warning the safe and potentially missing those at risk, we need to do better. The fire season is still with us - improvement cannot wait for the long-winded process of a Royal Commission.

More coverage of the 2009 Victorian bushfires