Federal Politics


Turbulence at Canberra Airport

It is no surprise that NSW Planning Minister Brad Hazzard's decision to approve a rezoning application to build a housing development at South Tralee - near the flight path into Canberra Airport - has been vehemently criticised by the airport's owner-operator. Canberra Airport wants to develop the biggest freight hub in eastern Australia over the next 20 years, and it views, quite rightly, any encroachment of housing on flight paths as a serious threat to those ambitions.

But had Mr Hazzard rejected the Village Building Company's application, it's probable he would have been denounced with equal ferocity by supporters of the development, notably Queanbeyan City Council. As long ago as 1994, the council proposed urban rezoning for an area including Tralee, and it has argued that the development of this land, six kilometres south-west of Queanbeyan and about 16 kilometres from Canberra, is crucial to meeting pent-up demand for housing.

Mr Hazzard has tried to address some of the competing concerns and arguments by stipulating that the original rezoning application be pared back to exclude the construction of any houses in the zones of highest noise impact as measured by Australian Noise Exposure Forecasts, and by insisting that all new houses be insulated against aircraft noise to the relevant Australian standards. In addition, the council will be required to notify all new residents of South Tralee of the potential for aircraft noise.

Such conditions might be seen by some as an effective insurance policy against future noise complaints, but it would take something of a leap of faith to imagine that Tralee householders would feel constrained by them two and three decades hence, as Mr Hazzard appears to imply. He has sought to portray the rezoning as ''a win-win'' solution, saying it would not hinder the airport's growth or affect its ability to operate as a 24-hour, curfew-free passenger and freight hub. The airport owner, however, views the decision to allow the construction of 2000 new homes close to a flight path as anything but benign.

The airport's attempt to prevent Village Building Company from redeveloping Tralee has been long and litigious. Much of it has turned on what constitutes a tolerable limit of exposure to aircraft noise. The noise exposure forecasts it commissioned, and which were based on the airport's most expansive projections of aircraft activity, suggest that much of the area to be rezoned ought to be classified as unsuited to residential development.

It is only to be expected that the airport owner should want as few constraints as possible on its future operation, and that many people, including in government, might support it in this. The owner's enterprise and willingness to invest has transformed what was once a basic airport operation into a modern and efficient passenger and freight terminal. Further economic benefits will flow to Canberra and the region if it becomes a major freight hub and Sydney's quasi second airport.


The question of who has greater standing in this matter is therefore an interesting one. The superior economic potential of the airport probably warrants greater support, but the benefits, both social and economic, of a new housing estate in the region cannot be discounted. Those who favour housing over aeroplanes might say that because the redevelopment of Tralee was proposed some years before the airport was sold in 1998, the airport has the weaker argument. Those in the airport's corner, however, would say that the operation and expansion of such an important piece of regional infrastructure should not be impeded under any circumstances.

The deal under which it was privatised means that Canberra Airport, like major airports elsewhere, is not subject to territory planning laws for developments within its own domain. Critics of the airport's expansion into areas such as office and retail space will no doubt see irony in it coming off second-best in a planning stoush, but will conveniently overlook the fact that the same developments have helped to fund a world-class redevelopment of the terminal into a facility befitting Australia's capital city.

If there is a villain in this piece, it is the federal government. It has failed to take responsibility for ''ensuring complementary development outcomes'' on land in the vicinity of airports and under flight paths, despite this being identified as a significant problem in a 2009 white paper on aviation.

Canberrans, who face the real prospect of having flights diverted over their suburbs if noise-sharing arrangements are implemented in future, have good reason to feel uneasy.