By Lisa Cox, originally published in the Guardian 28 April 2021.
An environmental consultant who holds interests in a property that made more than $40m selling conservation offsets to governments is part of a consortium that has made tens of millions of dollars more, Guardian Australia can reveal.
Steven House is a former director of Eco Logical Australia, a firm that advised governments on major projects in western Sydney.
He is also a director of Meridolum No 1 – a company that Guardian Australia revealed had made more than $40m selling offsets for infrastructure projects that Eco Logical, which employed two of Meridolum’s directors, provided offset advice on.
The directors denied any suggestion of wrongdoing or conflict of interest and said they made the appropriate declarations.
Now Guardian Australia can reveal that one of those directors – House – holds interests in two other properties that sold a further $66.8m in offsets for developments in western Sydney from 2017 to 2019.
The offsets on the properties – known as Hampden Vale and Hardwicke – were predominantly bought by the state and federal governments to compensate for developments including the second Sydney airport and new suburbs in western Sydney.
The windfall gains across all of the properties add up to more than $100m and account for 27% of all offsets sold since such schemes began in New South Wales.
The owners of these four properties made more than $100m from offsets over 2.5 years. Composite: David Fanner
Anthony Whealy, the director of the Centre for Public Integrity and a former NSW supreme court judge, said: “The sheer magnitude of the profits realised by private individuals and companies from a scheme essentially designed to protect and restore the environment raises serious concerns.”
The transactions warranted “a thorough investigation by the NSW auditor general”, he said.
Offsets are used to compensate for the environmental destruction caused by major development by protecting and restoring endangered habitat elsewhere.
In NSW, developers can do this by purchasing offset credits from properties that landholders have committed to conserving permanently under an agreement with the state government.
“Surely, the purpose of this scheme was not to make untold millions for private investors,” Whealy said.
“This is especially so when some of those who have profited were involved in the very consultancy process which advised government on western Sydney development.”
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