The fight to retain a site for a high school in the fast-growing Pottsville area has embroiled federal and state MPs as well as candidates in what has become a major council election issue on the Tweed coast.
The issue was debated at a meeting at Pottsville on Tuesday attended by over 100 people, including federal Richmond MP Justine Elliot, who was scathing of state Tweed MP Geoff Provest for not showing up or backing the community on the issue in government.
It was held to discuss a recently proposed amendment to the development-control plan for the Seabreeze estate, which removes the site earmarked for a high school, and was followed by a meet-the-candidates session.
Mrs Elliot’s Labor colleague vying for a seat on council, Michael Armstrong, pledged his support at the meeting for the high school, while 10 of the 12 groups running for election also told the meeting they’d back the campaign.
The state education department was invited to send a representative to explain its decision not to take up the site, but failed to do so.
The long-held ambition by parents for the high school was sidelined by Tweed Shire Council in July when a majority voted for a staff recommendation to support a request by Metricon, the developer of the Seabreeze estate, to ditch the high-school plan and build 160 more homes instead.
The move to change the land use of the greenfield, six-hectare site to residential followed the department’s verbal advice to council planners that the site was not required for a high school for the foreseeable future due to insufficient demand.
The developer sought the amendment without identifying a designated school site, telling council exhibiting it would give the education department a chance to ‘finally determine if they want a site, and if so a commitment to acquire the site promptly’.
Cr Warren Polglase, backed by Crs Phil Youngblutt, Kevin Skinner and Joan van Lieshout, voted to give the developer his wish, with Cr Polglase saying he could understand Metricon’s ‘reluctance’ to hang onto the site for a high school given the department didn’t think current population levels there warranted it.
But his National Party colleague, Tweed MP Geoff Provest, gave a different explanation for the government’s about face, telling media the land had become ‘too expensive’ for the education department.
Mrs Elliot this week slammed Mr Provest for ‘running scared and hiding from the people’ on the issue.
‘He should explain to the families of Pottsville why he hasn’t delivered on his promise for a high school at Pottsville. This is a state government issue and the state member is either unwilling or unable to deliver on his election commitment for a high school at Pottsville and he’s hiding from the people,’ she said.
Mr Provest responded yesterday, telling Echonetdaily, ‘the decision to apply for rezoning should be seen as a commercial decision by the developer’.
He said the education department didn’t want to buy the site ‘for a number of reasons and it has other sites and Crown land available for consideration’.
President of the Pottsville Community Association, Chris Cherry, said the community was feeling frustrated with the education department’s unwillingness to explain its reasons ‘and having no plans to even identify a possible future site’.
‘We tried very hard to get the departmental rep to attend the meeting but they flatly refused without even offering a reason,’ Ms Cherry, an ungrouped independent candidate in the shire election, told Echonetdaily.
‘The community have bought into Seabreeze with a school promised and, as yet, Tweed Shire Council has not received a definitive response from the department in writing that they will not use that land in the future.
‘The community position is that that land should be retained as the identified potential high-school site until an equally suitable site in the Pottsville area is identified and allocated for future use. We do not expect a high school overnight. We expect the potential to build a high school in a suitable site in Pottsville to be retained.’
Ms Cherry said she was heartened by the fact that all candidates attending the meeting committed to not voting for any amendment of the Pottsville DCP concerning the high-school site until a suitable alternative site was identified.
Cr Youngblutt and candidate Bruce Campbell did not attend the meeting.
Labor candidate Michael Armstrong said, ‘there is no doubt that the local Pottsville community needs a high school’.
‘Tweed Shire Council cannot by itself force the state government to build a school, but it can make sure that there is the land available.’