Harbour Helipad Decision is a Disgrace

December 19, 2012

The decision by the State Government to allow Newcastle Helicopters to operate a helicopter service from a floating helipad moored in the middle of Sydney Harbour is a disgrace – reckless and undemocratic.

However, I have been very careful not to accuse Barry O’Farrell himself of being reckless or undemocratic as I have been advised that he was not privy to the decision which was taken administratively by the Roads and Maritime Services department without any consultation with him or with the Cabinet. So the Sydney Morning Herald article this morning, while otherwise a fair account of the issue, goes a bit too far in that respect. But nuance is very often an early casualty of political debate.

The decision itself, however, is thoroughly reckless and undemocratic as I have stated. It is surely incredible that a group of bureaucrats would take it on themselves to grant helicopter landing rights, in the middle of Sydney Harbour, without any consultation with the general public. It treats the local councils with contempt. It disregards Mr O’Farrell’s own parliamentary colleagues with harbourside electorates Jillian Skinner and Gabrielle Upton – they were not consulted either.

The proposal should have been advertised so that all members of the public could express an opinion. Already sailing clubs are becoming alarmed as they recognise that the combination of summer afternoons, hundreds of sailing boats most of them filled with kids, a strong nor-easter and a helicopter taking off and landing on a floating platform in the middle of all that is potentially a recipe for serious trouble, if not tragedy. Or what about one of those afternoons when the southerly hits and simultaneously hundreds of skiffs are tipped over, club rescue boats are rushing around to tow kids back to shore – do we really think adding a joy ride helicopter service to all that is responsible?

We read today in the SMH that the owner of Newcastle Helicopters is getting some more noise studies done – surely that should have been part of his public proposal so that they could be taken into account by the community as they considered it, rather than something cobbled together after the event.

Sydney Harbour belongs to the whole community and new uses of the harbour should be carefully scrutinised to ensure they do not adversely impact on existing uses and activities. And that is why proper community consultation should have been undertaken.

After all if you want to put an extension onto the deck at the back of your house you need to go through an approval process which involves advertising your application so that neighbours can comment.

As one correspondent to the Sydney Morning Herald said this morning:

“It takes six months to get approval for a new swing in the playground, and two months to tick off a helicopter landing pontoon in the middle of Sydney Harbour with eight helicopter movements each hour?”

Did the bureaucrats who made this decision really think they were so wise, so smart that they did not need to consider the views of the public? Wasn’t that the arrogant “government knows best” attitude that earned the previous Labor Government in NSW so much deserved condemnation? Subverting normal democratic planning processes was a major failing of the previous Labor State Government. The Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard, has undertaken a major review of the planning system in NSW with the objective of greatly improving public engagement and consultation in planning processes. So all of that good work, all of those good intentions, may be discredited by this reckless administrative decision to licence a heliport.

And in a great example of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, the Roads and Maritime Services has said:

“‘Roads and Maritime Services is carrying out a review of the aquatic licence approvals process to ensure similar operations include thorough community consultation.”

The owners of Newcastle Helicopters have contended that their service “will offer swift transfers from Mascot airport ideal for the time poor businessperson and centrally located Sydney residents, and scenic flights over Sydney Harbour convenient to tourists staying close to the CBD, and those visiting with limited schedules on cruise ships,”

This should have set alarm bells ringing. The one thing that the floating helipad service will not do is offer “swift transfers” from Sydney airport to the city. A taxi will get you from Mascot to the city in fifteen to twenty minutes. So will visitors arriving at Mascot seriously pick up their bags, get transferred from their arrival terminal to the helicopter base, fly onto a barge in Sydney harbour, transfer onto a water taxi and then be taken into a wharf where they would be picked up, presumably, by another taxi to go to their destination. Please – it is an insult to our intelligence. A “swift transfer” it is not.

The floating helipad will be used for joy rides up and down and around Sydney Harbour, that much is obvious, The pilots will be encouraged to fly lower and closer to the shoreline and boats than they should and the amenity of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Sydney Harbour users – including swimmers, sailers, strollers, walkers, kayakers and residents – will be disturbed.

This decision is quite uncharacteristic for Mr O’Farrell’s government which was elected on a platform of returning decision making over planning to local communities. The careful public consultation over the light rail was a good example of responsible and diligent community engagement. The floating helipad decision should be rescinded and a proper public consultation conducted.

That public consultation could consider what would be an appropriate site for an inner city helipad – one which balances proximity and convenience for travellers, safety considerations and the amenity of those living or working near the helipad.

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