Yesterday a quiet driveway off flood-prone Ross Lane in Lennox Head was the scene of an unusual moment of pre-election fervour, when political representatives and candidates from across the region and every level of government came together to announce that something was finally being done about Ross Lane, along with numerous other roads across 26 disaster-declared LGAs.
Ballina Mayor Sharon Cadwallader spoke first, saying that almost $4 million to sort out Ross Lane was a great day for the local community. ‘This important project is really something,’ she said. ‘This is where the rubber hits the road, people. This is where things happen for our community. And I couldn’t be more delighted.’
NSW Minister for Regional Transport and Roads, the Nationals’ Sam Farraway MLC then spoke about the wider funding announcement, with the NSW and Commonwealth governments coming together to support 57 road-related infrastructure programs across northern NSW, with $312 million in funding.
‘If we’re going to be serious about building back better, we need real and meaningful programs and projects and funding streams that are going to deliver,’ said Minister Farraway.
‘Ross Lane is an example of a road that locals use in this region every day. And it doesn’t require a large flood for this road to be underwater. It just requires any sort of weather event.’
Slipping into election mode, he said it was proven that for every dollar spent in recovery-focused flood mitigation or ‘betterment’ (in terms of road infrastructure) would save ten dollars later. ‘Betterment is a no-brainer,’ said Minister Farraway.
He went on to say that the north coast and northern NSW would be the first to pilot this new approach, in conjunction with the federal government and local councils.
Federal representative for Richmond, Justine Elliot spoke on behalf of the Albanese Government. She described the joint funding to upgrade Ross Lane as a huge community victory.
‘For years and years locals have called for this, so many people in our community have recognised this road needs to be fixed,’ she said.
‘And we need to recognise all of those that have advocated for that for so many years, including all of the state members that we have here today, all of the mayors – it’s a great day here for this community.’
She said the Ross Lane money was part of a bigger package of support to improve roads across the region after the devastation of the 2022 floods. ‘And as we approach that first anniversary, it is such a difficult time for our community. We all reflect and remember what everyone went through, and continues to go through.’
Mrs Elliot said the $312 million for road rebuilding would also make communities more resilient when facing future natural disasters.
Several local residents were at the press conference, unhappy about drainage issues and concerned about new potential flooding risks for local farms, with the Woodburn catastrophe fresh in many people’s minds.
Minister Farraway sought to reassure them that the new money wasn’t just for raising the road, but for better drainage, community consultation and flood modelling.
He said almost $10 million would be going towards the Lismore for upgrading causeways, with additional money for councils across the region to deal with potholes and patching.
When asked how the successful projects had been chosen, he said information had come from the council level up to government – ‘we didn’t dictate this’.
In response to another question from a local farmer about drainage issues, Ballina’s Mayor Sharon Cadwallader said ‘we need proper funding for floodplain management… and the red and green tape needs to be cut through.’
She said floodplain management needed all three levels of government to come together to be adequately funded.
‘We found out today that things happen when all levels of government work together. Let’s make sure we can also work together on the drains and affordable housing and social housing.’
Greens MP for Ballina Tamara Smith was not given the opportunity to speak publicly, and told The Echo she wasn’t even invited to the multi-party press conference.
‘We welcome this investment in critical infrastructure,’ she said, ‘but boy, we really need to move past this pork barreling model. We need our ongoing maintenance and needs-based funding for every local community in regional New South Wales.’
Lismore MP Janelle Saffin said betterment was something she’d been advocating for many years, back before the bush fires, and then through the floods.
‘Why didn’t we do it sooner? That’s my point. And on the issue of drains; drains are a big issue I’ve taken up on behalf of all my communities. There’s just not enough money put into it from the state Liberals and Nationals.’
Ms Saffin said the good thing about the new funding was that it was not dependent on the outcome of the 25 March NSW state election.
Richmond MP Justine Elliot told The Echo it was important to recognise that great outcomes could be the result of different levels of government of different political persuasions working together.
‘In light of the devastation of the floods, it’s really important that we do that in a way that’s above politics, and about delivering for the community on this issue.’
Cr Jeff Johnson is a local Ballina councillor who has been pushing for improvements to Ross Lane for many years, and welcomed the new funding, although he was another person who didn’t get an official invite to the press conference.
‘It’s interesting, this announcement just before the election, so hopefully there’s no strings attached, and it’s not contingent on any side of politics winning that election or the outcome of the seat of Ballina.
‘The important thing is that this funding is delivered, and in the next state budget. It’s also great to see Justine Elliot here committing some federal funds,’ he said.
‘[Ballina] Council has done all the designs. It’s all basically ready to go. Hopefully it’s as good as a done deal, but announcing it just before the election, I’m a little bit cynical, a bit nervous.’
Cr Kiri Dicker was happy about the Ross Lane funding announcement, but said the complexity of the local environment had to be kept in mind for the next stages, with the need to listen to local people with local knowledge, as well as engineers and hydrologists.
Lennox-based Cr Dicker also said local expectations needed to be managed, with the understanding that Ross Lane could never be fully flood-proofed, and was also facing other issues as the population boomed. ‘We need to be thinking a bit more holistically about Ross Lane, because there’s no way around it!’
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