The 33km "fast-tracked" Coastal Walking Trail funding and process under the spotlight
On Nov 13, 2020 Andrew Constance MP announced "exciting news for both locals and visitors to the Eurobodalla" saying a a new waterside walking trail is on the way.
"Thanks to the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund, co-funded by the NSW and Australian Governments, we’ve announced $5.2m to help deliver the Batemans Bay Coastal Headlands Walking Trail."
"The funding will help with the construction of a 30km accessible walking track, starting at Observation Point in Batehaven - where a new lookout will be built - and stretching south along the headlands to Pretty Point near Mackenzies Beach
"We know the Eurobodalla is home to some of the state’s most beautiful beaches and coastlines. And we’ll soon have yet another reason for visitors to come, stay a little longer and spend money in our local businesses". Council advise on their website that the coastal walking trail linking the headlands and beaches of Batemans Bay's southern shoreline, including construction of a lookout at Observation Point in Batehaven will be funded from $5.25M from the Commonwealth and NSW Government’s Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund, $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.
Council say they will "deliver a coastal walking trail to further enhance the area as a nature-based holiday destination." They also forecast that the trail will attract "around 26,000 visitors a year, and the direct spending associated with these visitors is approximately $400,000 per year." But how did the $5.3m for the Coastal Walking Trail come about?
On November 2nd, 2020 Australian Minister for Emergency Management, David Littleproud and NSW Liberal Senator Jim Molan co-announced 49 "fast-tracked" projects jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales Government to support local economic recovery after the fires. The Media release revealed locally in the Federal seat of Gilmore: 8 Industry projects worth a total of $17,292,707 million have just been approved in Gilmore by the Australian and New South Wales governments, to boost local economies as communities recover from the 2019-20 bushfires. The announcement included $ 5,250,000 to Batemans Bay Coastal Headlands Walking Trail & Observation Point Viewing Platform (Spotted Gum Track) in Batemans Bay saying "The project will deliver a 30-kilometre accessible walking track and lookout. The track will pass through various local communities and connect a number of beaches, tourist sites and retail precincts. The project will deliver a tourism highlight for visitors to the region, boosting the nature-based tourism economy in the region." The joint media release also 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.” At the bottom of the media release it states: "Overall, the Australian and NSW governments are investing more than $500 million to support bushfire projects that drive local economic, community and industry recovery. This joint funding is being delivered in two ways: 1) Fast-tracked community and industry recovery projects, including these 49 projects, are being identified by the NSW Government following local and industry consultation. 2) Applications are open from 27 October for project funding under the $250 million Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund. In a nutshell 1) On Nov 2nd David Littleproud and Jim Molan announce $5.3m for the Batemans Bay Coastal Headlands Walking Trail & Observation Point Viewing Platform. The project was identified by agreement between Federal and State that it should be "fast tracked". 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. On November 16th 2020 at 1:50PM a Project Officer from the NSW Regional Programs Unit , Public Works Advisory and Regional Development confirmed, in regards to a query on the fast tracked funding announcement for the Batemans Bay Coastal Headland Walking Track: "A series of fast-tracked projects, including the Batemans Bay Coastal Headland Walking Track, have been identified for co-funding through the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery (BLER) Fund by the Australian and NSW governments. The fast-tracked projects are funded from a separate source and have not reduced the amount available through the $250 million BLER Fund open round."
On Thursday November 12th, 2020 the Member for Bega, Andrew Constance announced, with Councillor Rob Pollock and Eurobodalla Director of Planning, Lindsay Usher the $5.3m grant from the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery (BLER) Fund.
From the media release of November 2nd, 2020 all we know is that a series of fast-tracked projects including the Batemans Bay Coastal Walk were identified. Who exactly identified these fast tracked projects? When were the the fast-track projects identified? What was the criteria to be identified? Did the fast track projects require documented scoped submissions from recipients? Did Eurobodalla Council make any such a submission? 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: Undertake community consultation and assessments (e.g. impacts, risk, operational) to meet planning and development approval requirements Review and identify the site Review the budget and prioritise to ensure selected sites and visitor facilities will deliver expectations for quality nature-based tourism experiences
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 that they adopted the Nature Based Tourism Feasibility Study 2019 that called for such actions to be undertaken. 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." "Council reviews its budgets on an annual basis. Council will make the provision in its budgets for any changes required for the future maintenance based on the improvements that will be made. This arrangement will also take into consideration how Landcare groups will continue to be engaged in the maintenance of the area. Upgraded and new infrastructure will not require any significant maintenance in the first few years of operation." To speak with such clarity of the details of the project comes as a surprise for many in the community who are only now hearing of the Coastal Walk that was approved in December 2019. Until then it was a behind closed doors discussion with planning staff. Even Council's own Recreation and Open Space Strategy document stated it incorporated extensive community feedback gathered between 2016 and 2018. Council's own ROSS reports a key action that was required before moving ahead with the Trail project as: “Consult with relevant stakeholders to investigate key projects and investment needed for
outdoor recreation infrastructure within bushland reserves and foreshores. Key projects
include the Batemans Bay Coastal Headlands Walking Trail, Deep Creek Dam multi-discipline mountain bike park, Deua Valley wilderness trail, and an expansion of the existing kayaking routes” ROSS Key Action E12; pg 57 . (yet no community group or resident located along the route knew of any specific consultation and were surprised at the announcement of the funding and the "approval" of the project without any further community discussion).
In Council's Annual Report 2019-2020, presented and adopted by Councillors on November 24th, 2020 under 188.8.131.52 "Seeking sources of funding to implement community vision" it stated "Further submissions are being considered, progressing or awaiting outcomes, including: Bushfire Tourism Recovery Stream 2 - Coastal Walk $1M" This line is telling in that the Coastal Walk, according to the Annual Report sought only $1M - yet $5.3M was granted without a business case and no evidence of need, benefit or public consultation. The fast-tracked project that had no councillor approval, no public consultation, no detail of route that might warrant local consultation and environmental considerations, milestones, infrastructure needs nor any commitment to resources or budget appeared to be approved by the Federal and State Governments and announced to a surprised community who had not voiced any need for such a Walk. To those watching on it appeared as a "Captains Call". An investigation is underway to determine who actually made these fast-tracked calls and what the criteria was. When the Director of Planning, Lindsay Usher, was asked "Who will be responsible for the depreciation and maintenance obligations, costs once completed? Council or State Government?" his response was "Council is responsible for the depreciation and maintenance obligations. The land that is impacted by the trail, is land that Council already manages." That may well be true however "the land that is impacted by the trail" is also along the headlands adjacent to private property and such a Walk would require regular clearing, ongoing maintenance and continued access.
Mr Usher says "Sustainability and future maintenance demands have been figured into the route selection and planning," yet it appears that it is only he who knows the 33km route.
When asked "What will the provisions as required amount to on an annual basis in dollars?" he was a little more evasive of actual dollars responding "Modelling utilised to determine the cost benefit analysis of the project relied upon the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services data for walking tracks (endorsed and recommended by the NSW Government) of .027% per annum of the construction cost. However this cost will be spread cross the first few years of operation as new improved infrastructure will not require significant maintenance during this period." 0.027% of $5.25M is $14,175 per year. From that figure it appears as if Council is prepared to commit $430 per kilometre to maintain the iconic Batemans Bay Headland Walking Trail. Addendum: 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." Council offer: "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. " "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." So it appears that the Federal Government and the State Government were aware of a notional idea of a Coastal Walk that had no route, no costings, no evidence of SPECIFIC PROJECT consultation with the community and they decided it was such a vital project that they would bypass all scrutiny and give $5.25M to the project even though Eurobodalla hadn't actually asked for it. Below is an extract regarding the 2010 A.52 Concept Plan for the Batemans Bay Coastal Headlands Walking Trail (Gondwana Consulting, 2010) "This report by Gondwana Consulting presented a concept plan to guide the planning and development of a three phase formal walking trail linking the coastal headlands and beaches of the southern shoreline of Batemans Bay (Observation Head to Pretty Point). "Parts of the trail are in the Coastal Hazard Assessment study area and include Caseys Beach, Sunshine Bay and Malua Bay. Acid sulphate soils were noted to occur along and landward of Sunshine Bay (west of Beach Road) and landward of Malua Bay (and along Reedy Creek). "In the first phase, the works proposed at each of the coastline sub-sections within the Coastal Hazard Assessment study area are minimal (i.e. addition of signage, drainage treatments and upgrade of existing walking track surfaces). "The exception to this is at Caseys Beach, where a new footpath is to be built on the western side of Beach Road to allow travel between the northern end of Caseys Beach and Short Beach Creek before crossing back to the eastern side of the Beach Road. This footpath is to be constructed to avoid wave impacts on walkers under high tides and/or storm conditions. "During the second phase, the following significant works are proposed: picnic furniture is to be installed at the southern end of Caseys Beach; picnic furniture is to be installed at Sunshine Bay; and a footbridge is to be built over Reedy Creek at the northern end of Malua Bay. "In the third phase, it is proposed that Beach Road may be converted to a one-way road system at Caseys Beach and a foreshore reserve be established for the trail."