In an era that is being defined by adversarial politics and short term thinking, the Blackheath community is demonstrating another approach –and one that’s proving to be extraordinarily effective. By working collaboratively, with the long game in mind, they’re proving that their strategy is clearly worth emulating.
Ten years ago, when a Federal election led to the announcement of a $250 million upgrade of the Great Western Highway between Lithgow and Katoomba, Blackheath faced the threat of a highway-widening project that would have potentially allowed massive 25m/26m B-double trucks to transport freight through the town. Had this occurred, lives would have been endangered, much of the amenity and character of the town would have been destroyed, and diesel and noise pollution would have dramatically increased – not a good look anywhere, but particularly not in a World Heritage-listed area.
Large, heated public meetings of over 500 people, tore apart the proposal and looked at numerous alternatives that would be more socially and environmentally acceptable. As the rest of the world was introducing congestion taxes and starting to move away from grossly polluting and inefficient trucks to more freight on rail, Australia’s trucking lobby, propped up by a large diesel subsidy, was pushing for even larger trucks on the road – despite the fact that all research indicated that, compared to rail, trucks contribute to more fatalities, more congestion, a higher cost of living, a less efficient economy, and up to three times the carbon emissions.
In 2009 public concern galvanized into the formation of the Blackheath Highway Action Group (BAG) and Highway Action Groups in Mt Victoria and Hartley. By 2010, the strength of the combined communities’ emotions around this issue was so high that 3,500 written submissions (not just signatures) were collected and delivered in a crate to the Member for the Blue Mountains, Phil Koperberg.
According to Michael Paag, convenor of BAG:
“The community came together to call for a safer highway, more freight on rail and better public transport.”
Finally, in 2012, the government redirected the $250 million to a Highway Safety Upgrade project instead of highway widening. “The Highway Action Groups worked together as a team,” said Michael, “and it was their unity, with strong community support, that got us across the line. We’ve been the only group in the State able to redirect project funds to another project!”
Adele Colman, another key member of BAG, emphasises that they also focused on being open to negotiation: “The success of what happens here is dependent on us maintaining a good relationship with the RMS (Roads and Maritime Services). We’ve consulted widely, and negotiated carefully to benefit everyone so that we can have a win/win outcome.”
Recognising the value of collaboration, the Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre worked with the community to form the Blackheath Area Community Alliance in 2012. The Alliance, which now boasts nearly 30 member groups and organisations, seeks to network and share information and resources, as well as collaborating and lobbying for the best interests of the town.
According to George Vergotis, president of the Blackheath Chamber of Commerce, “The value of the Alliance is that it gives all of us an opportunity to hear a broad cross-section of opinion from the wider community, as represented by their groups. This allows each group to make informed decisions when it comes to the community and business interests of Blackheath.”
Local and State Government representatives feel the same. They frequently attend the Alliance meetings so that they, too, can make more informed decisions and better represent the Blackheath area. BAG now consults regularly with the Alliance to guide ongoing negotiations.
“The highway safety upgrades are in their final design phase,” points out George, “and they are being actioned this year. The last draft looks favourable, with a good outcome for Blackheath. Instead of widening the highway and building large road shoulders, as they’ve done in other towns, they’re building narrower shoulders. This creates a funneling effect, which slows down traffic instead of speeding it up. To minimize interruption to trade, we’d now like to negotiate that, when they do the upgrade, roadworks be focused on a section at a time, rather than creating a corridor of safety barriers through the town.”
Other ongoing challenges still being negotiated include getting speed calming measures like safety cameras, and undergrounding
the power lines outside The George (formerly St Mounts) so that tree-planting won’t be impacted by wires.
A big win for the town has been retaining the trees between Evans Lookout Rd and Sutton Park, near the cemetery, and between Radiance and Sunbeam Avenues. There is still a possibility that the much-loved plane tree at the intersection of the highway and Govetts Leap Rd may also be saved. Arborists have been doing ‘air spading’ to map its roots and determine how close they can push the road toward the tree without hurting it.
To help make the highway safer, you can request that the RMS install a safety camera at the intersection of Govetts Leap Rd and the GWH at https://www.saferroadsnsw.com.au/haveyoursayspeedcameras.aspx
To join the Blackheath Area Community Alliance, contact Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre.
Members currently include Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre (BANC), Blackheath Chamber of Commerce, Blackheath Community Centre Hall Committee, Blackheath & District Horticultural Society, Blackheath Highway Action Group (BAG), Blackheath Public School, Blackheath & Mt Victoria Rural Fire Service, Blackheath Scouts, Blackheath RSL, Blackheath Streetscape Group, Blue Mountains Rhododendron Society, Friends of Blackheath Pool & Memorial Park, Medlow Bath Residents Association, Popes Glen Bushcare Group, Rhododendron Festival Committee, Rotary Blackheath, Blackheath Choir Festival, Blackheath Area Men’s Shed, Blackheath Area Adventure & Tourism Group, Blackheath CWA, NSW SES Blue Mountains, Probus Club of Blackheath, The Big Fix, Blackheath Golf & Community Club, and Mt Victoria Community Association.