The Department of Defence (Defence) seeks approval from the Committee to proceed with the proposed redevelopment of HMAS Watson, the Royal Australian Navy’s principal warfare and navigation training establishment. The aim of the project is to address functionality deficiencies and capacity constraints in facilities and infrastructure at HMAS Watson which support demand levels greater than what they were originally designed for. The project also aims to address high risk issues associated with non-compliant facilities, and reduce ongoing operating costs by rationalising and consolidating similar functions.
The estimated cost of the project is $430.5 million (excluding GST).
The project was referred to the Committee on 10 September 2019.
Conduct of the inquiry
Following referral, the inquiry was publicised on the Committee’s website and via media release.
The Committee received nine submissions, three supplementary submissions and one confidential submission. A list of submissions can be found at Appendix A.
On 31 October 2019, the Committee conducted a public and in-camera hearing in Sydney, New South Wales. A transcript of the public hearing is available on the Committee’s website.
Need for the works
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has long been in residence at Watson’s Bay with its origins going back to 1942 when the RAN’s Radio Detection Finding School was established there during World War II. However the site has been occupied by the military since 1871 with the development of Artillery emplacements to defend the Port of Sydney.
Today, HMAS Watson is the RAN’s principal warfare and navigation training establishment and provides basic and advanced training for Junior and Senior Sailors in the Combat System Category and Junior Seaman Officers in ship handling, navigation and tactics. Advanced training is conducted for Principal Warfare Officers, and at the high end, Watson trains newly appointed Commanding and Executive Officers, giving them the finish needed to succeed in commanding the highly professional people who crew the ships and establishments that make up Australia's Navy.
In its submission to the Committee, Defence stated:
HMAS Watson currently facilitates training for approximately 1300 personnel each year; with this number gradually increasing with the delivery of new capabilities… HMAS Watson was established in 1945, prior to when technology was used as a training tool. Training methods have since evolved to meet the needs of a contemporary Navy. Greater complexity of combat systems and connectivity within the Defence environment has increased the reliance on technically skilled Sailors and Officers. Flexible modern learning centres are required to achieve the desired training and capability outcomes of modern Navy.
At the public hearing Defence told the Committee that:
Whilst facilities at HMAS Watson have been maintained and adaptively re-used, many of them have now reached the end of their design life and do not meet contemporary working, training or living standards, or are not fit for their current purpose. The supporting base engineering services and security, as well as facilities for accommodation, catering and health support, are also below the required standard to support the throughput of the base.
Defence told the Committee that the current state of the facilities at HMAS Watson represent a risk to Navy capability.
The Committee was able to inspect a range of current facilities during the site inspection and noted that many of the facilities fell below contemporary Defence standards.
Defence stated that although isolated works had occurred at HMAS Watson, ‘including in 2013 and in 1994,’ there has been no significant investment in training facilities in over 30 years.
In its submission, Defence noted that it had considered three options to ‘meet Defence’s capability and estate requirements under the project’. The options were:
Option 2 – Essential Scope with Limited Living in Accommodation Upgrade.
Option 3 – Essential Scope plus full Living in Accommodation Upgrade and consequential works.
Defence stated that it had selected Option 3 as it ‘represents the best value for money as it fully addresses functionality deficiencies in existing facilities, key engineering services high risk issues, and provides robust training facilities to meet the needs of Navy.’
At the public hearing, Defence explained to the Committee that as part of a 2006 review into future Navy training infrastructure requirements, the Government had agreed that ‘Garden Island and those four bases that surround it—HMAS, Waterhen, Penguin, Watson and Kuttabul would also be enduring bases.’ Defence told the Committee that the decision ‘provided us the basis to then base our future investment on the Defence estate with the knowledge that there was government approval that those locations would be enduring.’
Defence further noted that to ‘start afresh and find a greenfields site for another Garden Island and another series of linked training base… would be incredibly cost prohibitive,’ estimating that the cost would ‘be in the tens of billions’.
In response to questions by the Committee as to why HMAS Watson needed to remain located in the Sydney area, Defence explained that having HMAS Watson and similar training bases nearby to Garden Island was a training benefit which realised a number of training efficiencies. Defence explained:
At HMAS Watson they will coordinate between doing simulated work and then having the young men and women on the courses then going across to Garden Island and actually going on a ship and doing live what they've just trained in.
In addition, the command teams on board ships regularly come and use our facilities to conduct their own individual and command team training prior to going on operations.
Defence also noted that having HMAS Watson located near to Garden Island and other linked bases benefited the Navy through increased retention and recruitment of personnel. Defence told the Committee that Navy personnel ‘can have their personnel and families based in one location for a reasonable amount of time without the need to be posting them throughout the countryside in regular postings that would move them around and potentially cause problems for retention for them.’
Defence further explained:
Clearly we need the best and brightest to come and operate what is technically challenging equipment in a difficult and challenging role. Being able to recruit and retain by being in an area such as Sydney certainly assists in that.
Defence stated that it had also considered options for moving the function of HMAS Watson to nearby bases in the Sydney area, however, due to a lack of required space, this option was discounted. Defence explained:
To be able to replicate [HMAS Watson’s] function elsewhere—it was certainly looked at whether there was capacity and functionality on bases nearby to be able to do any of these functions that are performed at Watson. Randwick Barracks was carefully looked at. Randwick Barracks already has Navy simulation systems there and will have another one added shortly. That base is at capacity, though. Defence over the years has sold off portions of that base, to the point now where the physical room on that base is at capacity. There is not the room there to replicate what HMAS Watson does. Likewise with HMAS Waterhen, Penguin and Kuttabul. They are very small, congested sites, much like HMAS Watson is as well. So there wasn't the ability to move them there, either.
Scope of the works
Defence stated that the objective of the works was to:
… upgrade key training and support facilities and base infrastructure… including the construction of a new 24,500 square metre training facility; consolidating training staff and staff support functions into a modern flexible fit-for-purpose facility; upgrading base engineering services, including electrical, hydraulics, civil and communications; upgrading base security, including perimeter upgrades and a new base entry; upgrading the base galleys; constructing a minimum of 236 single occupancy units of living-in accommodation; a new medical and support services facility; and finally constructing some replacement car parking.
In its submission, Defence set out the proposed scope of the redevelopment, stating that the works are comprised of six elements:
Work Element 1: Construct a new four story 24,500 metre squared Training Precinct
Work Element 2: Upgrade and refurbish Base Engineering Services, including fire/potable water, communications networks, and civil infrastructure
Work Element 3: Install new Base Security Systems at the front entry, conduct fencing upgrades and install CCTV I high risk areas
Work Element 4: Refurbish the existing Galleys through spatial layout upgrades
Work Element 5: Construct new Trainee Living In Accommodation for at least 236 students in four new accommodation block, plus consequential works including Medical clinic and enabling services
Work Element 6: Construct replacement car parking with, at minimum, 100 spaces to offset all carparks removed through the proposed works.
In its submission to the Committee, Defence stated it had conducted a number of community consultation sessions which were aimed at ensuring ‘…the community, base residents and other stakeholders were well informed about the project’s details; and provided the opportunity to raise any concerns or to seek further information so that, wherever feasible, Defence could address these in its program of works.’
Defence stated that it had ‘engaged with a variety of internal and external stakeholders’ and would continue to consult with stakeholders as part of the project’s community consultation plans and communications strategy.
The Committee received a number of submissions expressing concern over the lack of community and local consultation made prior to Defence submitting the proposal to the Committee. During the public hearing Defence told the Committee that ‘the project achieved government approval in August . The project was then referred to [the Public Works Committee] in September, at which point we were able to then, as far as the process runs, to commence our community consultations, which are ongoing.’
Bondi to Manly walk
During the inquiry, the Committee received a number of submissions from local residents in support of the Bondi to Manly Walk, due to open in December 2019. The submissions received by the Committee raised concerns that the fencing works at HMAS Watson may restrict the future potential for the walk to be expanded along the eastern side of the base, should funding become available in the future.
Mr John Faulkner told the Committee at the public hearing that:
…for many years, as part of the Bondi to Manly Walk I had hoped to see a walking track established on the eastern—or, if you like, the ocean—side of HMAS Watson, effectively between The Gap and South Head. As we've heard, at the moment the only walking track or access to South Head is on the western—or harbour—side of the HMAS Watson base. In my submission, I described my really strongly held belief that such a track would be considered one of the most scenic and dramatic coastal walking tracks in the world. As part of its submission to this inquiry, Defence notes that included in the HMAS Watson redevelopment project is its preferred option to install 'new fencing to the entire base perimeter'. I've got no issue with new fencing at all, to be honest with you, but I do sincerely hope that this committee and Defence can be flexible enough—and I'm sure this really only means a bit of a tweak here or there—to take account of the possibility of a clifftop walking track being built sometime in the future on the eastern perimeter of the base.
At the public hearing Defence stated that they were working with Mr Faulkner, co-founder of the Bondi to Manly Walk Supporters, ‘to see what the art of the possible is’ and were ‘working with Mr Faulkner and looking very closely at what we can physically do on the ground to be able to achieve that intent’. Defence noted that to accommodate the request, the fence would need to be inset ‘to allow there to be the physical room to make it feasible to do a walking track on the eastern side of the base’.
The Sydney Harbour Association raised a number of issues with the proposal, in particular, the relocation of the helipad site.
At the public hearing, Mrs Hylda Rolfe, president of the Sydney Harbour Association, stated that:
…the return of the helipad from its present location back to Wilson's Field would be found to be very objectionable by those of us who have lived there long enough to remember how it used to be. The grounds that originally led to its removal are still valid as far as we're concerned.
Vehicle and traffic management
A number of submissions received by the Committee expressed concerns that the volume of vehicles entering and exiting the base during the five year construction period would cause considerable disruption to local residents in the area. Defence acknowledged that this issue had been discussed at the community consultation sessions and, as a result of conducting assessments, estimated that ‘the height of construction would be…around the third quarter of 2023’. Defence told the Committee that:
The assessment thus far has estimated that over that three-month period or so where construction will be at its height, there will be an increase in traffic by way of trucks in and out of the base to the tune of up to 70 or more truck movements per day. However, that would be spread out throughout a 10-hour work period, and our contractors will look very carefully at ensuring that we can deconflict those truck movements with the peak traffic times so that we're not causing any more disruption than we need to. There will also be a number of measures taken for noise and vibration.
Defence also stated that it would ‘adopt a just-in-time approach for deliveries, so that we don't have trucks banking up idling outside the base. Combined with that, where possible we'll have holding areas adjacent to the worksite within the base.’
At the public hearing Defence told the Committee that it had met with representatives from Woollahra Municipal Council and had made a commitment to work closely with them to ensure the ‘council is satisfied and happy with, particularly traffic management [plans].’
Cost of the works
HMAS Watson Redevelopment Project has an estimated cost of $430.5 million, exclusive of GST.
Defence noted that the operating costs of the completed facilities will increase by $3.2 million annually due to:
The maintenance costs to support the large increase in ICT hardware installed within the new facilities; and
The additional facilities operations costs increase to account for the increased gross floor area across each work element.
Defence provided further details on project costings in its confidential submission and during an in-camera hearing.
The Committee is satisfied that the costings for the project provided to it have been adequately assessed by the proponent entity.
The Committee recognises HMAS Watson as the Royal Australian Navy’s principal warfare and navigation training establishment, and acknowledges its contribution to training men and women for their careers in the Australian Royal Navy.
The Committee notes the HMAS Watson Redevelopment Project aims to address functionality deficiencies and capacity constraints in facilities and infrastructure at HMAS Watson which support demand levels greater than they were originally designed for.
The Committee acknowledges that some local residents expressed a view for HMAS Watson to be moved to another location outside of the Sydney area. This request falls outside of the Committee’s terms of reference in relation to this inquiry.
The Committee notes that a detailed review of the navy’s future training infrastructure requirements was conducted in 2006, and concluded that ‘In Sydney, HMAS Kuttabul, the primary support base for Fleet Base East, plus training and operational support bases at HMAS Watson at Watsons Bay, HMAS Waterhen at Waverton and HMAS Penguin at Mosman would also stay at their present locations.’
The Committee notes that while the option of Defence utilising water transport options to reduce traffic congestion during the construction period was discussed, the Committee recognises the lack of supporting infrastructure at the base limits the viability of this option.
As part of the HMAS Watson redevelopment project, Defence proposes to install new fencing to the entire base perimeter. The Committee sees no reason as to why the new fence cannot be installed to accommodate the potential for a cliff top track to be built along the eastern perimeter of the base as part of the Bondi to Sydney Walk should future funding become available.
The Committee was pleased to hear that Defence were working with Mr Faulkner and other members of the community with regards to the future options for the Bondi to Manly Walking Trail, and encourage Defence to continue to work towards an agreeable outcome.
Noting concerns from local residents in regard to the relocation of the helipad site, the Committee encourages Defence to work with the local community to find a suitable outcome.
The Committee encourages Defence to continue to consult with Woollahra Municipal Council and members of the local community with regard to issues surrounding parking availability and traffic management prior to the commencement of the construction period.
Having had some presence on the site since 1871, the Committee recognises Defence’s longstanding presence in Watson’s Bay and was encouraged to hear that HMAS Watson is regarded as a good neighbour by the local community. The Committee encourages Defence to continue working with the local community and maintaining a level of openness with regards to finding solutions to issues and concerns raised by its neighbours.
The Committee did not identify any issues of concern with the proposal and is satisfied that the project has merit in terms of need, scope and cost.
Having regard to its role and responsibilities contained in the Public Works Committee Act 1969, the Committee is of the view that this project signifies value for money for the Commonwealth and constitutes a project which is fit for purpose, having regard to the established need.
The Committee recommends that Defence ensure the proposed works at HMAS Watson do not preclude the building of a cliff top track along the eastern perimeter of the base as part of the Bondi to Sydney Walk.
The Committee recommends that the House of Representatives resolve, pursuant to Section 18(7) of the Public Works Committee Act 1969, that it is expedient to carry out the following proposed works: HMAS Watson Redevelopment Project, New South Wales.
Proponent entities must notify the Committee of any changes to the project scope, time, cost, function or design. The Committee also requires that a post-implementation report be provided within three months of project completion. A report template can be found on the Committee’s website.