Opinion and Analysis
By Simon Sharwood
Debate over whether Sydney needs a new airport has run for thirty years and will probably run for another thirty. Along the way it has become a symbol for policy cowardice, the power of NIMBYism and Australia's sclerotic decision-making process.
It's therefore time for a combination of callousness, vision and lateral thinking to break the deadlock.
I think it can be done for the tiny price tag of about $1.5 billion, for which Sydney gets a 24×7 airport, $250 million worth of brand new, healthy, green, community facilities a lot of happy people.
Sydney airport is controversial because it is surrounded by people and their ears. Within a kilometre of its northern, eastern and western boundaries are densely-populated suburbs.
One oft-used flight path starts in the city's north and spreads noise over several safe Liberal electorates – including Bennelong, once held by John Howard – en route to the runway. One electorate adjacent to the airport is held by Labor's Transport Minister Anthony Albanese.
To ameliorate the noise, the airport operates under a “noise sharing” arrangement that promises residents of the noisiest suburbs “respite hours” during which planes will fly beyond the reach of their ears.
There's also an 11pm to 6am curfew during which very few aircraft movements are allowed, in order not to disturb all those ears.
Allowing, or even discussing, more aircraft noise anywhere near those ear-packed suburbs means swift and horrible political death.
But to the airport's south is the suburb of Kurnell, a locale already home to unlovely industrial infrastructure like an oil terminal and a desalination plant. Australia's latest census notes that the suburb is home to 723 dwellings, housing 2204 people.
Without in any way wishing ill upon those 2204, their choice of home is rather inconvenient, as if Kurnell's residents and their ears weren't there it would make it rather easier to fly planes over the suburb 24×7.
At this point it's worth considering the price of a new airport, which everyone agrees is lots of billions of dollars.
Sydney Airport's owner, Sydney Airport Holdings, has first right of refusal to build and operate any new airport, but tends to favour any alternative proposal that lets it keep making money from the current facilities instead of getting into the horrid business of funding and building a new one.
Which is why acquiring and bulldozing Kurnell to remove its ears deserves consideration.
Buying a whole suburb may seem expensive, but according to Homepriceguide.com.au the mean home price in Kurnell is $665,000.
Let's be generous and decree that Kurnell homeowners will be paid market value for their homes and then compensation. $1.25m is a nice round figure per home.
If you multiply 723 by $1.25m that gives us a fund of $915,000,000 to buy out all the houses in the suburb, at prices generous enough to allow residents to resettle somewhere nice.
Let's next assume demolition and remediation costs of $250 million and throw the same amount into the pot for building community facilities on the site once the houses are gone.
Cyclists often ride to Kurnell so I think a nice road racing track, velodrome, cyclocross course and mountain bike park are reasonable starters and will leave plenty more millions for other facilities that aren't disrupted by low-flying noise.
Let's be generous and throw in another $100,000 per household for relocation expenses to bring the whole package to a round $1.5 billion, a tiny sum for clear air and acres of new leisure facilities.
At this point readers with a sense of social justice may feel it's just a little bit unfair to evict the good folk of Kurnell so callously.
To which it is only sensible to respond that the current situation treats the rest of Sydney and indeed the nation callously.
Sydney needs more airport capacity. Has done for ages, because more take-offs and landings in Sydney means more tourists and more jobs. Sydney Airport shareholders also need protection from a policy failure that could impose massive capital requirements on the entity.
The rest of Sydney also needs a break from aircraft noise, and if Kurnell were to be bulldozed there would be less need for respite hours or other noise-abating arrangements.
Tourism would boom. Jobs would be secured. Australia would show the world it can make tough policy decisions and thrive to the extent that we could afford an NDIS, two Gonskis and even a hospital or three. What's not to like?
Simon Sharwood is a Sydney -based journalist and editor.
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