TransGrid is continuing to explore an alternative route for the 500kV ‘HumeLink’ project, which would take the line largely through state forests instead of private farmland. The company says they recognise that they didn’t approach the community sensitively in the beginning and have brought on former NSW Fair Trading Commissioner Rod Stowe to make sure they’re getting the process right.
Mr Stowe said he isn’t directly a TransGrid employee and his aim is to ensure the community feels like they’re being heard.
“I really think they have turned a bit of a corner,” he said this week.
“They’ve made it clear that the initial community engagement on the HumeLink project was less than optimal.
“They’re really determined to get this process right.”
Mr Stowe said that when he was brought on as a ‘Community Advocate’ by TransGrid, he was shown the impact which local knowledge is starting to have on the powerline project which will eventually run from Wagga and Maragle in the west to Bannaby in the east, connecting Snowy 2.0 to the wider grid.
“When you’re drawing neat lines on maps, things have a tendency to look very different from the ground,” he said.
“TransGrid is very genuine in wanting to have that interaction and have said to me already that through these consultations they’ve learned a lot and people have come up with things they haven’t thought of.”
He said that included the suggestion from community groups that the powerlines could be run through state forests, since the land is already in public hands and is likely to already have some of the infrastructure and road access which TransGrid will need.
“Local knowledge and experience is very valuable,” he said.
Work is continuing on those route explorations and is expected to ramp up again near the end of this month. Mr Stowe said TransGrid has promised him access to their executive team and their records as he helps create a process to ensure communities which are affected by TransGrid’s work are being heard.
He’s also been promised the opportunity to visit the sites and view the work which is being done.
“Essentially what I’ll be doing is contributing and critically reviewing all the TransGrid policies, procedures for engagement with landowners. That process has begun,” he said.
“It’s all about trust really. Making sure that from the very outset you’re open and clear about your intentions and you spell out very clearly what the process will be.
“That’s really all you can ask for in these sort of circumstances.”
That transparency and community consultation doesn’t mean that everyone will be happy. Mr Stowe said his experience has shown him that it’s very difficult to strike the right balance between the needs of landholders and major projects. His goal is to ensure that people are heard and options are explored.
Matt Pearce, one of the leaders of the Yaven Creek, Lower Bago and Willigobung Community Committee, said he was aware of TransGrid engaging Mr Stowe as a Community Advocate, but he’s withholding judgement for now.
“Until we have any kind of contact with him, then it’s going to be hard to make a call to whether there’ll be a change to how the consultation goes,” said Mr Pearce.
“Obviously he’s very experienced and has a consumer kind of focus, but I guess we’ll let that one be decided as we go into this new year and see what happens.”
Mr Pearce said he was impressed by Mr Stowe’s resume and believed that the former Commissioner would bring skills and consideration for affected landholders to the discussions, but wanted to see those skills in action before putting his confidence in the role of the advocate.
“[TransGrid’s Head of Corporate Affairs] Graeme Wedderburn has been particularly beneficial for us in his involvement,” said Mr Pearce.
“Once he got involved we saw a big change in how we were being interacted with. The fact that [Mr Stowe’s] been engaged by Graeme shows he has confidence in him to fill that role.”
The community committee is waiting for a meeting with Mr Stowe to “set the platform going forward” to ensure that there will be open communication between the lower and upper ranks of decision-makers.
“Ideally I’d like to have a meeting with him, make that a priority to have a meeting with the leaders of the community representative groups right across the project area,” said Mr Pearce.
“You’d imagine he should be in touch with us pretty shortly.”
Mr Stowe won’t be involved in individual property disputes, but said he wants to hear about any situations where landholders don’t feel like they’ve been fairly listened to.
“It’s always very hard to get that balance absolutely right, but if you have a process that’s fair and honest and people understand it, they’re much more accepting of the outcome,” he said.
“One of the things that is very clear to me in the process is that it’s important to be able to see things from the point of view of the people that are impacted and an approach can mean everything.”
He believes TransGrid also recognises that they weren’t fully aware of the depth of the impact that last summer’s fires and recent drought conditions were having on landowners living along the proposed HumeLink route.
“TransGrid now understands that they went into an environment not properly understanding this community had been adversely impacted by fires and drought and more recently Covid,” he said.
“The thing is being empathetic with the individuals involved and the community.”
Mr Stowe was NSW Fair Trading Commissioner for six years and has spent more than 40 years’ experience in the public sector. He is the current Chair of the Consumer Advocacy Trust Board and a member of the State Insurance Regulatory Authority (SIRA) Board. He also led the New South Wales Government’s consumer protection strategy for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
Mr Stowe was a recipient of the Public Service Medal for services to consumer protection in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours List and was named the CHOICE Consumer Champion Award in 2017.