Once again the Eurobodalla Council has found itself in the national spotlight for the wrong reasons and will now be the subject of a Parliamentary inquiry into grants to look deeper into the partisan use of bushfire relief funds. The latest alleged pork-barrelling revelations are around the granting of $5.3 million awarded under the panel selected $177 million "fast tracked" projects funded from the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund. According to the joint media release from Minister Littleproud and John Barilaro, projects fast-tracked were:
“Known priority, community and industry recovery projects such as the 71 projects identified by the NSW Government and agreed to by the Commonwealth Government, following local and industry consultation.”
Eurobodalla Council's Batemans Bay Coastal Headlands Walking Trail & Observation Point Viewing Platform project was identified as a "fast track" project worthy of bypassing any application process with immediate provision of funds On November 24th 2020 the NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro explained that shovel-ready projects were separately identified in bushfire affected areas, so they could be fast tracked to provide community and economic benefit as quickly as possible. A number of these fast tracked projects have already been announced." The $5.3 million Batemans Bay Coastal Walk had already been announced on November 13th,2020 by the Member for Bega, Andrew Constance. The joint media release of November 2nd, 2020 quoted Australian Minister for Emergency Management, David Littleproud saying : “Getting local industries back on their feet is a crucial part of bushfire recovery,” Minister Littleproud said. “Funding for projects in NSW’s forestry, oyster, apiary, apple, horticulture and wine making industries will ensure the continued viability and growth of these local employers. “This funding will help these businesses keep employing locals, keep spending locally and allow them to play an important role in community recovery after the fires.” So, in the opinion of the panel who selected the fast track projects the Batemans Bay Coastal Walk was considered "shovel ready" and "was crucial" to get "local industries back on their feet". Fact: Up until November 2nd 2020 the only thing the community knew of the 33km headland walking track was that Council had made provision for the trail in its four-year Delivery Plan was to "Progress the implementation of the Nature Based Tourism Feasibility Study"
That Nature Based Tourism Feasibility Study 2019 was prepared by consultants in May 2019 and it identified the Coastal Headland Trail as a "Category 3 Mid Term Leveraging Project" that was dependent on grant funding to allow the project to proceed. It is clear from the May 2019 Study that there was still much to be done before any grant funding could be applied for such as: ACTION PLAN Undertake community consultation and assessments (e.g. impacts, risk, operational) to meet planning and development approval requirements, Review and identify the site, and Review the budget and prioritise to ensure selected sites and visitor facilities will deliver expectations for quality nature-based tourism experiences
Above: this table is the ACTION PLAN from the Nature Based Study that Council had not yet endorsed in December 2020. Clearly it indicates that the Headland Walking Trail was a long way from being shovel ready. Fact: Had the Coastal Walk not been fast-tracked it would have required a Bushfire Local Economic Recovery (BLER) Fund application that included the specific scope of works and key milestones of the project along with evidence of alignment with regional objectives, evidence of local support and participation, evidence of the need for the project as well as its feasibility and evidence of enduring benefit. Had the Walking Track not been fast-tracked it would also have required a completed business case with evidence of estimated costs. It is clear that in in December 2020, one month after the announcement, that Council had NOT undertaken community consultation, reviewed sites or reviewed budgets as it was only on December 10th, 2020, one month AFTER the announcement of the $5.3m unsolicited grant that they adopted the Nature Based Tourism Feasibility Study 2019 that called for such actions to be undertaken. Fact: When asked "Has Council made provisions in budgets, management and delivery plans for any associated costs?" Lindsay Usher, Director Planning and Sustainability Services at Eurobodalla Council said of the budget for the 33km proposed Coastal Walk and Observation Point upgrade: "Recent funding approval for the design and construction of Observation Point Lookout allows this component of the overall project to be considered as market-ready." But Council already had money for the Observation Point Lookout being $672,000 from Building Better Regions Fund, $145,000 from Bushfire Regional Tourism Fund, $75,000 from Stronger Country Communities Fund, along with contributions from Rotary Club and Council. Fact: Council offers, as a justification that the Headland Walking Trail is a long planned project by saying "By way of background, the concept for the walking trail has a long history dating back to at least 2010 when a report was prepared for the Council - A Concept Plan for the Batemans Bay Coastal Headlands Walking Trail – Gondwana Consulting June 2010 (the Concept Plan)," adding that, "More recently the Concept Plan was raised and reviewed as part of two key strategic processes of Council and it was found to have merit." NOTE: Council staff may well have raised and reviewed the 2010 Concept Plan and found "it was found to have merit" HOWEVER that Concept Plan had NOT gone to public consultation nor been endorsed for action or any budget committed. It was a Concept. "The medium term route and associated improvements provide direction for the Trail’s gradual but planned upgrading over 2 to 5 year timeframe, and represent the Trail’s continuing development as a recreation and tourism attraction. Indicative orders of cost were estimated for the Initial and Medium Term routes and recommended works (in 2010 values and excluding Council staff time, vehicle operating costs, routine overheads, geotechnical investigations, risk audits and other preliminaries). "It is estimated that establishment of the Trail’s Initial route would cost in the order of $335,000, as well as other staff and resources inputs by Council. The medium term upgrading of the Trail would require a more substantial investment – in the order of $2,090,000. However it is considered that undertaking the bulk of the Trail upgrading works in this second stage will allow the early success of the Trail to be gauged, and plans amended if necessary, prior to this more substantial expenditure." Yet Council justifies these unfunded, unapproved thought bubbles that require a variety of actions to be set in place saying: "These two key strategies are: The Recreation and Open Space Strategy; ROSS Planning 2018, and the Nature Based Tourism Feasibility Study; Inspiring Place 2019. Both these documents identify the importance of the coastal headland walk as a key strategic priority for our Shire, from an environmental management, risk management, visitor economy and health and wellbeing perspective." The telling bit is the next statement from Dr Catherine Dale, General Manager of Eurobodalla Council in a letter to local group ABE dated Dec 14th, 2020: "Both strategies [ROSS and Nature Based Study] were developed through extensive consultation processes with community, including public exhibition and adoption by Council during 2018 and 2019." Fact: While both strategies [ROSS and Nature Based Study] were developed generally through "extensive consultation" processes with community this statement from Council does a disservice to the details. In the Nature Based Study May 2019 it clearly states: "The Eurobodalla Shire Council commissioned the preparation of a concept plan (Gondwana) for the Batemans Bay Coastal Headlands Walking Trail, a 23 km long walk between Observation Head and McKenzies Beach." "The Council is seeking grant funding of $3.6 million towards the staged implementation of the walking trail. Funding for upgrading visitor arrival and facilities at Observation Point has been approved. How was the $3.6 million costed? And how did Council find itself gifted with $5.3 million that it hadn't made application to for money that was meant to be "fast tracked" to shovel ready projects that were intended for "Getting local industries back on their feet is a crucial part of bushfire recovery,” according to Minister Littleproud who added “Funding for projects in NSW’s forestry, oyster, apiary, apple, horticulture and wine making industries will ensure the continued viability and growth of these local employers. This funding will help these businesses keep employing locals, keep spending locally and allow them to play an important role in community recovery after the fires.” Fact : Council did NOT make application for the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund grant with Council saying: "While Council did not officially submit an application for funding for this project [Batemans Bay Coastal Headland walk] under the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery fund, the Government was aware of this project as a result of the above strategies." Fact: Had the project not been "fast tracked" it would have had to go through due process of application. The Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund (BLER) Fund is a competitive funding program and the assessment process is in accordance with that published in the Program Guidelines. The Gondwana Concept Plan for the Batemans Bay Coastal Headlands Walking Trail – Draft V3 (June 2010) advised: "It is recommended that Eurobodalla Shire Council formally endorse the concept of a Coastal Headlands Walking Trail, including in-principle support for the identified route. This is essential to ensure that the project has “status” and should include a commitment to dedicating expertise, resources, funding and support to the planning, development and on-going promotion and management of the Trail. Such endorsement will also assist in attracting both community and corporate, as well as other government agency, support for the project." While Council may have "endorsed" the Coastal Headlands Walking Trail in their 2018 Recreational Open Space Strategy the required action was to "Consult with relevant stakeholders as was reiterated in the now endorsed (Dec 2020) Nature Coast Strategy"
While the Coastal Walk is a great project the questions raised regarding the "fast tracking" of the project as if it were "Shovel Ready" and that it made a crucial contribution to local industry inspite of the fact that the specific project had not been endorsed, no budget other than notional 2010 figures existed and the call to action required public consultation and a scope of reports and investigations before any action could be initiated. Keep in mind the funding was for: “Known priority, community and industry recovery projects such as the 71 projects identified by the NSW Government and agreed to by the Commonwealth Government, following local and industry consultation.”