Sydney business leader Angela Vithoulkas says government has learnt nothing from light rail ‘disaster’

Angela Vithoulkas outside her cafe in George Street. Picture: Jessica Hromas
Angela Vithoulkas outside her cafe in George Street. Picture: Jessica Hromas

The businesswoman who led the fight for light-rail compensation in Sydney has told Newcastle traders not to expect much sympathy or understanding from the state government.

Angela Vithoulkas told the Newcastle Herald the government had “fallen over” on its advocacy for small businesses whose revenue had been decimated by light-rail works and was not surprised to hear Newcastle was facing similar issues.

“They are in complete and utter denial. For a bunch of very smart people, they are incredibly stupid,” she said. 

“They’ve fallen over on their advocacy for us. They’ve fallen over on their economic assistance for us. They’ve fallen over on learning lessons from this city to Newcastle. They’ve learnt nothing.

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“They have absolutely no interest in sorting anything out. They don’t care. They are so far removed from the reality of the situation of what people are going through. They think we are all being melodramatic because we’re hanging on.

“They don’t get that we are doing without to such great degrees. I have tried. I have said to them, ‘Imagine you don’t get paid for three years. Can you imagine it?’

“You’re never going to get that back. That’s three years you didn’t contribute to your super. That’s three years you couldn’t pay your mortgage that you had to draw down on.

“The flow-on effect is so massive on the individual family. It is safe to say they will never recover from that hole, and they don’t get that, they don’t want to hear it, they don’t want to deal with it.

“There’s absolutely no accountability.”

Ms Vithoulkas, an independent City of Sydney councillor who plans to contest next year’s state election, has had a construction zone outside her George Street cafe for more than two years.

She said the plight of traders like herself could even be worse in Newcastle, where shoppers were avoiding the CBD altogether.  

“We share your pain. In your world, not being a [big] city centre, it’s probably even worse. What hope do you have?” she said. “We have maybe hundreds of thousands of people who come into the city that you can try and get. You have a very limited pool.

“And once people learn a new behaviour, which they are with you guys because your parking situation has changed – another thing they conveniently forget that affects everyone – they go somewhere else and they stay there until everything settles again.”

The state government has all but rejected financial help for Newcastle businesses, arguing the tram project is on time to open early next year.

Transport for NSW said the ALTRAC consortium building the Sydney light rail had found 1400 “unexpected utilities” under George Street, significantly extending the construction period.   

The Newcastle project began in September, but some Hunter and Scott street traders have already moved out and others are reporting they have lost about a third of their sales revenue in recent months.  

Ms Vithoulkas said the state assistance scheme for affected Sydney traders had paid out about 30 claims of between $10,000 and $70,000.

“As many people as there are who have received some financial assistance, there are many, many more who have been refused,” she said.

“If you went bankrupt, they said it was too late. If you went into receivership, it was too late. If you were locked out by your landlord because you couldn’t pay the rent, too late.

You had to be able to afford to destroy your life in order to get some assistance.

“You had to basically prove you were in screaming debt and you were continuing to trade even if you were trading at a loss. 

“You had to be able to afford to destroy your life in order to get some assistance.

“I’m into my third year of construction on the light-rail route and my trajectory is downwards. There’s no improvement, even though the zone next to me opened with great fanfare. Nothing. It doesn’t get better.

“So even if you received some assistance last year, it didn’t even put a dent in anything. It’s a year later for me now, and I’m worse than I was then.”

She said a class action for compensation was “under way” but “not everyone has the stomach for it”.

The street outside her cafe looked like a “garbage dump compound”.

“It’s just an absolute disaster, and they do not recognise when they start these programs that they rip the economic roots out of the local area.

“It has consistently taken longer than anyone knew. My zone is going to be about 18 months overdue. 

“The excuse is they keep finding things they didn’t know were there. I can’t use that excuse in my business. It’s the same excuses everywhere. They’re not new. These people doing these projects have done these projects all over the world.

“This may be the normal course of life. Sometimes these things happen, and we get that things change. But three years of my lease will have been spent in the construction zone with no rent relief.”

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