ABE Presentation to Council 8th June 2021

Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to address Council and the community this morning on Item GMR21/029, dealing with the sale of Coopers Island Road to the adjoining landholder.

I am presenting as Co-Convenor of A Better Eurobodalla (ABE), a community forum dedicated to having open and inclusive government in our region. ABE expects that before governments, at any level, make decisions that will impact their communities, they will undertake broad and meaningful consultation, listen to and share expert advice, and proceed using a transparent decision-making process so that the community understands who makes decisions, when and why. 

ABE has applied these principles to the issue of the possible sale of Coopers Island Road, which leads it to strongly support Option 2 that Council should not sell Coopers Island Road, and instead maintain the road as a public asset, with the illegal gate removed and appropriate signage erected on-site. 

ABE presented to Council at Public Access session on the 4 May on alienation of public assets, citing examples of the premature closure and leasing of the Batemans Bay Community Centre, the closure of its Visitor Information Centres and the illegal gate on Coopers Island Road.

That presentation indicated that the extended delay in taking any regulatory action regarding the illegal gate on Coopers Island Road had fuelled community unease and speculation that Council’s lack of action was the result of ongoing negotiations for the purchase of the public road by the adjoining landowner. Today’s Council paper unfortunately confirms that this speculation was justified.

ABE notes that Council has claimed that, despite being aware of the illegal gate in October 2019, compliance was not pursued because of a focus on “bushfires and flood repairs”. This is curious reasoning, given that extensive fires were already occurring in northern NSW in October with the fires forecast to spread south. It would be in the community and wider public safety interest that an illegal gate be removed from a public road. This would facilitate ready access to a potential local watering point for use by any fire fighting units should the need arise in the approaching fire season. An illegal gate could have literally had “life or death” consequences for emergency responders under bushfire conditions.

ABE noted in its 4 May presentation that sale of Coopers Island Road would remove public access to this valuable community asset and have significant implications for many other public roads and assets throughout the Eurobodalla Shire. ABE has reviewed the information provided in today’s agenda papers, and sees no cogent reason to amend its position. ABE notes:

  • The Eurobodalla community have been significantly impacted by natural disasters of bushfire, drought and flooding, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that Council’s community service and support responsibilities are now more important than ever. Council has been aware of public concern about the road for nearly two years, with a significant public petition urging Council not to sell the road being formally received at today’s meeting. Any move to sell Cooper’s Island Road would be at odds with the “community led” recovery approach which Council professes to be at the core of its own Eurobodalla Bushfire Recovery Action Plan.  
  • Expert advice tells us that strong community connections are a key to recovering from disasters such as the bushfires and COVID-19. The sale and public alienation of a significant public asset such as Coopers Road will directly impact a wide range of community groups and individuals who have used the site for decades. It will also cast a shadow over the security of other similar community assets throughout the Eurobodalla Shire, generating ongoing community concerns and unease.
  • Council needs to recognise the long-term Aboriginal connection to Coopers Island, including local Aboriginal families who have cultural fishing links to the site going back for many generations. If Council has sought any advice on this issue from its own Aboriginal Affairs Advisory Committee, there is no mention of this group in today’s agenda papers. If this is the case, why not? 
  • The owner of the adjoining land made a commercial decision in 2017 purchase the block “as is”, with existing public use and access rights.  This owner is now raising ‘biosecurity” concerns as a reason for taking over the road. Today’s agenda papers do not disclose any evidence that the owner actually has a valid biosecurity management plan in place or that they have fulfilled requirements of the relevant Act, including public signage. The community should not be expected to lose its existing use rights to such a valuable public asset in order to ameliorate an imperfect commercial decision made by a private entity under a smokescreen of unverified biosecurity concerns. 
  • ABE also draws to Council’s attention advice it received on 31 May 2021 regarding public access to Crown Waterways over Council owned or Crown Roads which states:

‘Please be advised that the Commissioner is of the view that, as a matter of principle, it is of the utmost importance to retain public access to Crown Waterways over Council owned or Crown Roads, and that those roads should not be privatised to exclude that public access’.

ABE supports this advice from the Office of the NSW Crown Lands Commissioner.

The current situation reflects poor administrative practice, lack of transparency and meaningful consultation, and is at odds with informed advice regarding effective post-disaster community recovery practices. 

As a consequence, ABE strongly supports Option 2 that Council should not sell Coopers Island Road, and instead maintain the road as a public asset, with the illegal gate removed and appropriate signage erected on-site to facilitate ongoing public access to this valuable public asset. This is an opportunity for elected Councillors to prove their commitment both to the community and to good public administration.

Thank you for your attention.

Bernie O’Neil