Documentary Saving Wolli Creek shows there was trickery and fraudulent alteration of environmental impact statements involved in one of Australia’s longest-running anti-freeway battles. After Melbourne’s battle to stop the East West Link and Sydney’s current fight to stop the WestConnex, historic lessons are being revisited by a new crop of activists.

Sydney-based transport action group EcoTransit has just completed its hugely important documentary Saving Wolli Creek.

Produced and presented by Gavin Gatenby, it tells the story of Sydney’s longest anti-motorway struggle, a fight still raging today against the 33-kilometre WestConnex, likely the longest underground motorway system in the world. Using a mixture of archival and contemporary footage, diagrams, documents and re-enactments, it is a people’s history of how the determined intervention of an activist community group can change the course of a city’s development for the better.

Creatively, Saving Wolli Creek is an important addition to the canon of Sydney urban development films. This lineage includes Pat Fiske’s Woolloomooloo and Rocking the Foundations, and Tom Zubrycki’s WaterlooIn his authored documentary style, Gatenby pitches somewhere between an engaging David Attenborough-style enthusiast, and people’s historian Howard Zinn.

The specific details of the Wolli struggle are deftly woven with the broader international story of motorway-based planning in Europe and the US. This story could be left alone as an important historical document, however these currents are brought into the present with the ongoing battle against WestConnex. The beating heart and urgency of this current campaign is what gives Saving Wolli Creek its importance and strength.

Part 1: From Mussolini to the County of Cumberland Plan

In this episode the viewer is taken back to the roots of motorways to understand the historical and industrial forces that have led to the present situation.

The first motorway was the autostrada built in 1926 by Mussolini and flanked by Fiat advertisements. It was only two lanes, which wasn’t a problem as there were very few cars. This was quickly solved by Ford and the mass-produced Model T.

The autostrada was built between cities but it took Le Corbusier to find a place for motorways within cities themselves. His Radiant City proposal for Paris would have razed much of the city and replaced it with 60 storey apartment buildings – an idea strikingly similar to UrbanGrowth’s current plans for Sydney.

Mussolini’s admirer Hitler soon copied the autostrada and doubled the number of lanes – just the ticket for invading Poland. His plans hit a snag however attacking Russia, partly to slake the consequent thirst for oil.

Post war, the motorway push proceeded apace in the US, with GM conspiring to buy up and dismantle the efficient tram systems in many cities. This story formed the backdrop to the popular 1988 Robert Zemeckis film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Regrettably, Australia followed suit. The 1948 County of Cumberland Plan was supposed to preserve open space in Sydney but was soon eroded by pressure from property developers and the roads lobby. Against popular opinion Sydney’s extensive and high-capacity tram system was completely dismantled by 1961 with the support of the NRMA and the private bus industry.

Ironically, the Wolli Creek, marked as a freeway reservation, survived undisturbed.

Part 2: From the Fig Street confrontation to the Kirby Inquiry

In 1974 the Department of Main Roads was intent on extending the Western Distributor straight through the heart of Glebe and Annandale. House demolitions were focused on Fig St, Ultimo, where locals rose up with union backing from the Builders Labourers Federation.

In solidarity they defied the bulldozers and police brutality. In opposition Neville Wran spoke at the site of the need for a “public transport system that will eliminate the need to gouge the face of miles and miles of the city of Sydney”. This section features rare original footage from filmmaker Tom Zubrycki.

In 1976 Wran became Premier, the plans were halted and Ultimo, Glebe, Chippendale, Darlington and Alexandria were saved for the time being.

The road engineers needed a new strategy. They decided to start at the low density periphery and work inward, generating traffic and using the resulting crisis to justify building the “missing links”. It’s a strategy still being used today with WestConnex.

Again there was a community outcry and in 1978 Wran asked young barrister David Kirby (brother of high court judge Michael Kirby) to conduct an inquiry that became known as the Kyeemagh-Chullora Road Enquiry.

Kirby used the expertise of UNSW Professor Ross Blunden and US evidence that urban freeways were counter-productive, inducing traffic and urban sprawl. Even the DMR’s Ken Dobinson admitted these concerns referring to Miami’s 30-year freeway vision that changed the pattern of lifestyles and made congestion worse.

The report was published in 1981 and was damning. It demolished the DMR’s plans in cost-benefit terms, concluding that a high proportion of container traffic should travel by rail, not road. It recommended that the South Western freeway reservation be removed and the Wolli Creek valley returned to the public as open space.

Under pressure from the road builders, state government failed to remove the reservation, but nevertheless for many years the inquiry had the effect of protecting the valley.

More about the anti-expressway campaigns of the 1970s can be found in this interview with Albert Mispel.

Part 3: The Greiner Government’s cruel and cynical hoax

This episode rewinds a little to 1967 and the battle for Nanny Goat hill in Wolli Creek. Residents successfully fought against a proposal to level the hill to provide fill for a new airport runway.

Later, in 1983 the Wolli Creek and Bardwell Valley Preservation Society was formed to oppose the construction of the F5/M5. In trying to open up the society to greater community involvement and connect with the wider conservation movement, a nasty split emerged with the drafting of an info pamphlet. Some members left to form a short-lived rival group but the original society went on to hold walks, fundraising dinners and educational programs for local schools.

In 1988 Premier Unsworth returned Labor to a full commitment to the F5/M5 while Greiner promised to lift the freeway reservation. In coming to power, Greiner’s ministers Bruce Baird (Mike Baird’s father) and Tim Moore cynically announced that the valley had been “saved”. Within months absurd alternative “dummy options” were put forward involving the demolition of hundreds of homes, hoping to foster hysteria and a return to the route through the valley.

Through some trickery, the government selected the valley route and produced an Environmental Impact Statement. The Wolli Creek Preservation Society managed to obtain all the sub-consultant’s reports and realised that the EIS editors had fraudulently altered many of the expert findings. In their submission, the Society recommended legal action, and the government delayed.

Community group pressure grew and with the negative recommendation of the F2/M2 Woodward inquiry, a Royal Commission was called for into the RTA’s operations. The government was under pressure and so agreed to a supplementary EIS, but nevertheless got their own pro-roads people to write it.

Saving Wolli Creek – Part 4: A tale of two tunnels

This episode continues with the events leading to the construction of the Airport line and the M5 East.

In 1988 Premier Greiner promised to save the Wolli valley but it was a cynical hoax, as they released an Environmental Impact Statement that falsified the sub-consultants’ reports.

The crisis deepened as Roads Minister Wal Murray misled parliament over the existence of a secret review of the Kirby Inquiry. The review vindicated the Kirby roads critique and supported the statements of senior DMR officers like Ken Dobinson, who admitted the counter-productive nature of radial urban freeways.

In 1991 the government was producing the Botany West Transport Study and it was crucial that public transport alternatives got a look in. Railcorp executives were pushing the Airport line idea but Cabinet wasn’t listening. They surreptitiously gave an outline of the idea to the Wolli Creek Preservation Society who pushed it via the “Railways not Freeways” campaign launched by Professor Peter Newman.

The concept made it into the BWTS but in putting the competing rail versus public transport options to the people, the RTA conducted a poll liable to manipulation.

Despite a heavy campaign by the roads lobby, the public transport option had 62 per cent support of the public. Greiner was in trouble at ICAC over the Terry Metherill affair and resigned. John Fahey took over as Premier and Transport Minister Bruce Baird gave the Airport line the tick of approval.

Fahey lost the election to Bob Carr and the Airport line was finished in time for the 2000 Olympics. The M5 East was finally approved under Carr but it tunnelled under the valley and was limited to four lanes.

Saving Wolli Creek – Part 5: Looking back, looking forward

In this final instalment, Gatenby reflects on the 20-year struggle to save the Wolli valley. It was a struggle that delayed and disrupted the “Los Angelisation” of Sydney, drove the M5 underground and had a railway alternative built. It was an important victory, but part of a longer war that is still raging today with even more at stake. There’s a more personal and emotional approach here. The grand fantasies pushed by the car lobby end up leading only to horrible dystopias due to hubris and lack of consideration for real human needs.

Norman Bel Geddes was a one-time stage designer turned futurist who took the scientific impossibilities of Amazing Stories pulp magazines and made them into architectural models. He was put into service by General Motors to create the Futurama theme-ride for the 1939 New York World’s fair. He also penned the highly influential book “Magic Motorways”.

These models were wildly impractical, impossibly expensive and could only be built from an entirely blank slate. Today we would also add “carbon intensive”. What was imagined as gleaming frictionless perfection, when implemented in practice turned out to be ugly, noisy, polluting, alienating and dysfunctional. Instead people tended to prefer modest scale, green, quiet, intimate areas with small retail strips typified in Sydney by the inner suburbs.

Despite these now century-old ideas being completely outdated, political forces continue to push them. In the 1980s, Premier Nick Greiner did the bidding of the private tollway operators before being kicked out of office, soon to end up as director at Transurban.

The blurring of the line between private and public good extended from motorways to the entirety of planning and infrastructure. Secrecy, backroom deals and pop-up government micro-agencies where industry lobby groups hold sway are the order of the day now. These groups have no concern for homes, heritage, parks, schools, childcare, climate change or sustainability.

In this context, WestConnex is seen as a last-gasp desperate overreach of the failed motorway vision. But the Wolli struggle has showed that the conscienceless coalition of tollway interests, development companies and banks are far from all-powerful.

Where state government has neglected the urban natural environment, communities have volunteered countless hours not just fighting the motorways but actively rehabilitating bushland. After the Wolli Creek was saved a flying fox colony moved in and every year locals enjoy the “Batwatch” picnic in the evening twilight, educating the next generation and finding connection in nature.

Andrew Chuter is co-convenor of No WestConnex and vice-president of Friends of Erskineville.

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  1. Required viewing for anyone who is concerned about WestConnex & wonders whether an individual actually CAN make a difference. Way to go Gavin! You’ve already inspired a number of Rozelle residents who are now gearing up to wage WAR on WestConnex.

  2. Excellent and comprehensive review Andrew. Gavin will be delighted to be compared to Sir David!