When two crises collide: Outrage over plan to solve housing shortage

While humans are facing a housing crisis, wildlife is facing an extinction crisis.

Australia’s housing shortage is worsening, but details of a controversial plan to combat the problem in southwest Sydney has shocked conservationists.

Lendlease revealed its proposed Gilead development site near Campbelltown provides sanctuary to at least nine federally-listed species and ecological communities that are threatened with extinction. According to the company's federal environment application, this includes koalas and swift parrots as well as 46 hectares of remnant critically endangered Cumberland Plains Woodland.

Dashcam video showing a koala crossing Appin Road, with a sign advertising Lendlease's FigTree Hill development in the background.
Dashcam video shows a koala crossing Appin Road, with a sign advertising Lendlease's FigTree Hill development in the background. Source: Supplied

In a statement, Lendlease's head of NSW residential communities Brendan O'Brien told Yahoo there is a "critical shortage of housing in Sydney" and that Gilead is close to jobs, transport, medical centres and educational facilities.

But Saul Deane from non-profit Total Environment Centre said to use a housing crisis to justify the removal of endangered species habitat "is repulsive".

"These species on the edge of Sydney are having a habitat crisis to the point that they won't have any homes, and they will go extinct," he said.

So while Lendlease argues it can balance “urgently needed new homes” with “urgently needed conservation measures”, critics have accused it of "greenwashing".

Reads 'What on Earth? Koala habitats continue to be bulldozed in QLD and NSW despite them being listed as endangered.' With an image of a koala in a tree.
Reads 'What on Earth? Koala habitats continue to be bulldozed in QLD and NSW despite them being listed as endangered.' With an image of a koala in a tree.

Can you bulldoze trees and help koalas?

Lendlease maintains it’s possible to remove trees, but continue to have a “positive impact on biodiversity and nature” by planting new ones elsewhere.

For instance, the Gilead plans will destroy koala feed trees and impact at least three hectares of forest deemed high-quality koala habitat, but Lendlease argues its subsequent tree planting will create added benefit for the animals.

“Importantly, significant areas of formerly cleared grazing land will be restored and regenerated to increase core koala habitat by 70 hectares over the span of the project, 30 per cent more than what’s there today,” Mr O’Brien said in a statement.

Source: Yahoo
Source: Yahoo

But conservationist Jon Dee isn’t convinced — noting that koalas are endangered now, he argues they can’t afford to be losing any more habitat.

Lendlease's promises about future benefits to koalas are “not enough” to satisfy him. “The simple truth is that Lendlease will be destroying existing koala habitat,” he told Yahoo.

"Lendlease is claiming that this housing development will benefit koalas — that sounds like greenwashing to me. Surely there's no way you can build thousands of new homes in koala country and have no impact on koalas?"

The development by the numbers

  • Lendlease's Gilead development site is 644 hectares.

  • Its 3300-home Gilead is adjacent to its 1700-home FigTree Hill development.

  • All 450 lots of FigTree Hill's stage one have been sold.

Two screenshots showing the 190 page EPBC report.
In its 190-page EPBC report, Lendlease found there are endangered species (including koalas and swift parrots) that could be utilising its Gilead site. Source: Lendlease

Why koalas living near the development site are important

In 2020, a NSW parliamentary inquiry warned koalas face extinction by 2050 if development of habitat isn’t reined in.

Sydney southwest population is considered particularly important because they are the only population in the state that hasn’t been infected with chlamydia — a disease thought to have been contracted from cattle or sheep that causes infertility and death.

It’s not just proposed habitat loss that’s caused concern. Photos shared with Yahoo from a conservation source show just how precarious the situation koalas already face when they try to cross roads in the area. One shows a koala crossing in front of a sign advertising the FigTree Hill/Gildead development.

Since Transport for NSW began assessing Lendlease's proposal five years ago, the surrounding areas’ human and koala populations have increased and that’s led to a growing amount of roadkill. In that time, on Appin Road where the estates are being built, 28 koalas have been hit and killed, according to Lendlease.

"We’ve proposed to Transport for NSW that we’ll fund and construct two urgently needed underpasses at Appin Road," Mr O'Brien said.

Reads 'What on Earth? Australia has the worst record of mammal extinction in the world.' with a collage of Australian animals and landscape.
Australia has the worst record of mammal extinction in the world.

Details of Gilead project remain unclear

While Lendlease has made several announcements about plans to create road underpasses and tree corridors that will allow koalas to travel around the development, critics have been frustrated by what they say is a lack of detail. This was raised by superannuation giant Australian Ethical in May when it sold its $11 million stake in Lendlease.

Conservationists have also seized on the issue. “It beggars belief that Lendlease fails to provide such information,” Mr Dee said on Tuesday, accusing Lendlease of “failing to be transparent".

Corridors and underpasses are critical if koalas are to avoid the thousands of extra cars, dogs, cats and other threats the project will bring to the region.

Environmentalists have raised concerns koalas will not use proposed underpasses because of their design, but Lendlease says the final decision about their construction will be made by Transport for NSW.

When it comes to tree corridors all that's known is the average width will be 390 metres and that they must meet the recommendations of the NSW Chief Scientist. Because these pathways will intersect multiple landholdings, Lendlease directed requests for exact measurements to the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPIE).

DPIE's final assessment of Gilead will likely not be released until the latter part of 2023, and Yahoo understands no final decision as to the width of koala corridors will be released publicly until then.

"The Cumberland Plain Conservation Plan is a complex plan that we need to get right," a spokesperson said in a statement. "The NSW Government is working through the issues to ensure that we protect koalas and the rest of the conservation outcomes stated in the plan."

Environment minister Penny Sharpe is currently reviewing the Cumberland Plains Conservation Plan, and this could impact the future of developments in southwest Sydney. Her office has been contacted for comment.

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