There is still no news from Council, six months from the 2020 announcement of $5.25M granted under the fast-tracked Commonwealth and NSW Government’s Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund for a 33km coastal walking trail linking the headlands and beaches of Batemans Bay's southern shoreline, including construction of a lookout at Observation Point in Batehaven. Council say that high level planning is complete and that a detailed design is underway for first stage of work at Observation Point with an aim to start construction first half of 2021. It is considered that Council's inclusion of the Observation Point viewing platform in this project is unjustifiable as the project had already begun prior to the bushfires having secured $672,000 from Building Better Regions Fund, $145,000 from Bushfire Regional Tourism Fund, and $75,000 from Stronger Country Communities Fund, along with contributions from Rotary Club and Council. In actual fact the project is long overdue for commencement and does not rely on the $5.25M from the Commonwealth and NSW Government’s Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund other than by association that the platform plays a part, as do other landmarks, in the Coastal Walk The alleged rorting by the NSW Coalition government of the state and federal Bushfire Local Economic Recovery (BLER) Fund continues to bear a sour note with this this potentially worthwhile project that is still very much a concept and no where near 'shovel ready'. As Michael West Media revealed earlier this year, $5.25 million was given to Eurobodalla Shire Council for a 33-kilometre Coastal Walking Trail around Batemans Bay, with grants handed out on the basis they were going to “shovel ready” projects vital to the local economy.
When Deputy Premier John Barilaro testified before the Public Accounts Committee in February 2021 he was asked by The Hon. COURTNEY HOUSSOS: "What was the criteria for being fast-tracked?
Mr JOHN BARILARO: Shovel-ready projects that could be started in six months, projects that were identified by the agency that were ready to go and projects that had merit. There is a set of criteria and, again, I can provide the—we may have already provided the Committee. The Hon. COURTNEY HOUSSOS: It is the publicly available guidelines for the BLER fund, as you are calling it. Mr JOHN BARILARO: Yes. a little later: Mr JOHN BARILARO: Projects were sought from every bushfire impacted local government area. There were 47 in total. Then those options were narrowed to high and moderately impacted local government areas. High to moderate impact, it was all dependent on—high impact was 100 buildings damaged or destroyed, moderate was 15 to 99 buildings damaged or destroyed and low impact was 15 buildings damaged or destroyed. The CHAIR: Can we break this down a little bit. That criteria was never made publicly known, was it? Mr JOHN BARILARO: It was. It was advertised. The CHAIR: Where? Mr JOHN BARILARO: Firstly, the program was announced by the Prime Minister. Secondly, we contacted councils. Criteria is always part of the contact. Local members also received an email—I know Trish Doyle received an email—in relation to the program. That is why I get upset when I am told that nobody knew. People knew. The criteria would have been available when those particular councils made those applications. Some councils did not apply through the sector development. I know Blue Mountains made no application. Under the other component they put those 20-odd projects up but they did not meet criteria. The criteria was there for them to have a look at.
However, via a response to a letter from A Better Eurobodalla it was discovered that Eurobodalla Council had not submitted a bushfire grant application. The general manager of Eurobodalla Shire Council confirmed this in a letter to the local residents group.
Moreover, Page 5 of the BLER guidelines submitted to the committee inquiry by Deputy Premier Barilaro clearly state that: “The specific scope of works and key milestones of the project must be defined in the application.”
Given there was no application for the walking trail, obviously no information was available on the “scope of works and key milestones”.
And given that the Eurobodalla Shire Council still has not formally endorsed the trail proposal, first put forward in 2010, it is even harder to describe the project as shovel ready – widely accepted to be “a construction project or site that is ready for work to start”.
The Trail proposal was first identified in 2010, with the consultants pointing to the need for significant preparation work, including detailed geotechnical investigations, and assessments for environmental impacts, operational risks, and cultural heritage impacts. None of this work has been done. Nor has there been the required community consultation or a proper feasibility study that would specify a definitive track route and “scope of works”.
The 2010 Concept plan strongly recommended the council endorse the concept of a coastal headlands walking trail, initially costed at $335,000 (in 2010 dollars), but the council only noted the plan, and is still yet to formally endorse it.
For eight years, nothing happened, and then the proposal resurfaced. It was mentioned just five times in passing in the 2019 Eurobodalla Recreation & Open Space Strategy, with one instance disclosing an “indicative cost” of $3.63 million. No route details, options or maps were provided; no indication that any of the key issues outlined earlier had been undertaken. The Trail made another appearance in Council reports in a 2019 feasibility study reporting that all the key issues needed to be completed.
A proposal yet to be formally endorsed by Council, based on a concept plan written 10 years ago whose key recommendations are still yet to be implemented, and which has not undergone community consultation or any assessments (e.g. environmental impacts, risks, operational, cultural) to meet contemporary planning and development approval requirements is a priority “shovel-ready” project worthy of $5.25 million.
Another key bushfire funding criteria is that the trail be completed by June 2023, which given the above appears somewhat ambitious.
Best use of money?
Deputy Premier Barilaro gave evidence to the Inquiry that the BLER program was massively oversubscribed, with 650 applications totalling $6 billion competing for $250 million.
Compare how neighbouring shires are spending grants from the massively oversubscribed program aimed at fostering recovery in bushfire devastated communities across NSW.
Bega Valley is using a $3 million grant to rebuild community halls in Kiah, Wandella and Tumbarumba that were destroyed or damaged in the Black Summer bushfires.
Shoalhaven City Council allocated $2 million to improve the resilience of power networks and communications by funding development of micro-grids in place of existing and fire-damaged power infrastructure and delivering back-up communication connectivity through satellite communication.
Eurobodalla shire residents say the area’s evacuation centres were completely inadequate in both capacity and capability during the Black Summer bushfire crisis. Yet the council has allocated just $200,000 towards upgrading those facilities.
Residents are calling for power and communications facilities across the shire to be upgraded and for bushfire resistant community centres to be built in villages that currently don’t have any.
Meanwhile, no figures have been provided to explain how the funding required suddenly increased by more than 70% in one year, from $3.63 million in 2019 to $6.14 million in 2020, when the announcement appeared on the shire council’s website after local Liberal MP Andrew Constance announced the bushfire recovery grant in November 2020.