The controlling rightwing Byron shire council faction have again delayed action on saving the region’s dwindling koala population, citing their inability to understand a key document aimed at the marsupial’s preservation.
Additionally, ‘glaring errors’ and legal issues were claimed by Cr Di Woods, along with its potential to ‘lock up land’.
Four years in the making and at a cost of $60,000, the Koala Plan of Management (KPoM) outlines legal parameters and sets a course to improve local koala numbers, which are estimated to be below 200.
The KPoM was prepared by consultants Douglas Jardine and Dr Stephen Phillips, with input from a Project Reference Group comprising key stakeholders and state and local bureaucrats.
But at last Thursday’s meeting, Crs Hunter, Woods, Cubis and Wanchap outvoted Crs Dey, Spooner and Cameron (Crs Ibrahim and Richardson were absent) in adopting the long-awaited plans. Staff also recommended adopting the KPoM.
Instead, a peer review will be commissioned, to be undertaken by a ‘preferred’ competing consultancy, the Koala Ecology Group, based at the QLD Uni. No costs associated were discussed.
Cr Woods told the chamber that while she was ‘determined we will have a comprehensive koala plan of management, when we we do it, it will be a workable document, and not 78 pages long.’
She then accused the authors of ‘glaring errors’, and said, ‘The suggestion to use [instead] the QLD Uni consultants is to get it away from NSW, as result of legal advice we have had.’ When pushed by Cr Spooner to reveal specifics, she said that advice was confidential.
She said, ‘I have major concerns we will be challenged many times over unless we get it right. Our area is huge, and I read a report last night from NSW Local Government. Our Shire wasn’t even mentioned as a critical area… we are not doing what we are supposed to be doing here, we are just locking up land.’
Similarly, Cr Wanchap challenged the KPoM, arguing that it focused too much on the loss of habitat while not paying attention to other factors that are leading to koala deaths, such as disease. But it’s a position unsupported by the NSW Office Of Environment & Heritage. Their website www.environment.nsw.gov.au/animals/TheKoala.htm states, ‘loss and degradation of habitat’ is the ‘main threat’ to koala populations.
Additionally, leading koala conservation groups such as www.koalasincare.org.au also hold that view.
Regardless, Cr Wanchap told the chamber the answer is to create a sanctuary on two hectares of West Byron land to house the remaining population as a tourist attraction. She even said it could house ‘all our wildlife’ and tourism will fund it. She criticised the KPoM for not including tourism solutions or government funding possibilities, as outlined in a report for Port Stephens Council.
‘It’s very confusing,’ she said, ‘many points are unclear and ambiguous.’
‘I wanted the revised plan in red to see the changes. I wanted a workshop instead of being slammed with it in seven days.’
Illiterate councillors v flawed reports
So is the KPoM too hard to understand and flawed, or are the majority councillors just blocking it for political reasons?
While a submission on the KPoM by the Planners North group in early 2014 agrees with Crs Woods and Wanchap that it is dense and difficult to read, they argue that the KPoM is technically proficient and comprehensive.
‘[It] is not a document aimed at capturing the imagination and enthusiasm of the great bulk of the community,’ their submission reads.
And that view is supported by Cr Duncan Dey (Greens), who told The Echo, ‘The lack of logic [from Crs Wanchap and Woods] is sad: it is a planning document that will guide development, and it must thus withstand court challenges. The planners and lawyers are the folk who have to understand it. A better stance by the Councillors would have been to adopt it, and have a plain English summary published.’
He added, ‘The problem is that by the time we get a KPoM, there may be no koalas to accommodate in the habitat that the KPoM should preserve/create.’
Additionally, Friends of the Koala president Lorraine Vass agrees the delay is entirely political and questioned the councillor’s competency in understanding basic planning instruments.
She told The Echo, ‘In my view the resolution is quite mischievous and demonstrates to me that Council’s pro-development cohort doesn’t want any sort of planning framework for managing Byron’s coastal koalas. They may protest that the draft plan doesn’t measure up but from what I’ve seen and heard their understanding of State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) 44 and comparable comprehensive koala plans of management are at best confused.’
‘As for preferring the UQ Koala Ecology Group to peer review the CKPoM and mapping, I would have hoped that such a review (given the resolution) would be unquestionably independent and unbiased. That seems unlikely, given the very public critique that the UQ Koala Ecology Group has published on the SAT methodology used by Biolink, and the less public disagreement over the impact of music festivals, etc.’