One of the biggest post-flood issues facing residents in the Northern Rivers is choosing sites for temporary pod-type accommodation. Communities are torn between the desperate need for housing and the fear that the government is creating slums, and possibly more flood hazards.
Tuesday’s debate in the Lismore Council chambers was mostly about the community’s need for open, green space for sport and recreation balanced against the need for places to live.
A report was tabled at the July Ordinary Council meeting advising correspondence had been received from the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation requesting an agreement to lease part of Hepburn Park as a temporary housing site.
July motion had no seconder
At the time the motion lapsed due to want of a seconder.
After that meeting Council received correspondence from the Minister for Emergency Services and Resilience and Minister for Flood Recovery, requesting Council’s agreement again for use of the site due to no other suitable alternative sites.
Due to the lack of support from the Council for this proposal, this report sought to note the receipt of the correspondence and advise the Minister accordingly.
The NSW Government verbally advised it would compensate Council significantly should agreement be forthcoming.
Public access saw residents who were all against the the proposal.
A place for recreation and sport
Peace Decle spoke on behalf of the Far North Coast Hockey Association saying that they needed access to Hepburn Park. ‘It is a is intimately connected with what we do – in terms of access overflow, we run carnivals, and people do training up there.’
Decle also mentioned that in 2018 council loaned the association $250,000 to build a second turf which needed to be repaid with the crowds the fields attracted. ‘It’s our understanding that they bring in the millions of dollars to the area. That’s what New South Wales hockey estimates. And it brings hundreds of competitors, their families, from juniors from masters to come to the local area.
’It’s absolutely essential that before any decisions are made, that council releases as much detail as possible about what is proposed and consults with organizations, like FNC hockey, about what those impacts might be because this is not a little thing in terms of our association, our membership, which are all the same people.
A blow for the community
Rebekkah Battista said she acknowledged that the city has been through so much and the road to recovery and rebuild rebuild will be long. ‘The note and recommendation from the state government regarding Hepburn Park coming as a blow for our community, particularly those who use the park.
‘Most of you know that I host the Samson (Fitness Challenge) for our kids. Over 60 businesses and community groups help and assist our kids just to host this event. It’s the biggest fundraiser for the kids which buys pediatric equipment not only for Lismore Base, but for all the hospitals in the region, including Grafton and Tweed.
Ms Battista went on to conclude that council needed to put pressure on the state government for a permanent solution for our housing, not a temporary one. ‘This is such a delicate time and I trust together we all work together for the city to rebuild this beautiful city what it’s meant to be.’
An important part of the community
Goonellabah resident and homeowner Bonnie Merkel said the proposal affected her on a personal level.’It would be absolutely devastating for the community to lose this Hepburn Park is an important part of the community as it contributes significantly to the mental and physical well being to the people of Goonellabah and surrounding areas.’
Ms Merkel said she wanted to bring to Council’s attention to the changes in the oval during wet weather. ‘After several days of heavy rain there are very large pools of water on the oval. I don’t think this is a suitable place for housing.
‘I just strongly implore the council to reject this proposal and have a look at a better small suitable, sustainable long term option.’
Susannah French and Sherilee Matthews also both spoke about the space as a much-needed recreational area.
Councillor Elly said the issue was giving her a lot of sleepless nights – she was unable to contain her sadness for flood-affected residents during the meeting. ‘I want to acknowledge that I really hear the community sentiment around the importance of Hepburn Park. But I would just urge you as our wider community to consider what it means to people to have no home, to have no safety.
‘There’s been a lot of conversation in this room this evening about “just go back to your home. Just go back and get a caravan and go and live on your home”. These people don’t have that choice. If they had that choice, they would be there!
‘We’re talking about the most vulnerable people in our community who have nowhere to go. If they had somewhere to go, they would be there.
Cr Bird said she wanted to acknowledge that there has been a failure of resilience New South Wales to engage in in comprehensive community consultation. ‘I hear that, but I believe the only reason Hepburn Park is on the table for this consideration is that there are no other suitable sites.
No other suitable sites
‘They have been working on this for five and a half months. If there are suitable sites other than this, they would be on the table. This is not an easy option. This is not an easy solution.’
Cr Bird foreshadowed a motion to propose that there is a conversation – as a community – including that a briefing is held regarding the possible proposed and potential temporary accommodation sites in the Lismore LGA. ‘So we have that conversation with stakeholders, that we talk about what the possible solutions are, that we understand the impacts on these people from, our community.
‘These people from our community who have lived through the scariest, most traumatizing thing in their entire lives, and they have no homes.
A higher risk of suicidal ideation away from home
‘A study was done by the University Centre for Rural Health shortly after the floods in 2017, that clearly showed that the longer you were away from your home, the higher your risk of suicidal ideation. We have a broader responsibility as a community as a society to care for each other.
‘This is an incredibly disruptive disaster that we are all living through together, but we will be able to be strong if we can support each other with care and compassion. So I just urge Councillors to consider having that conversation as a community, bringing into this space compassion and understanding of the complexity of the situation that is before us.
‘There’s a lot of information to understand about this proposal and I don’t think we’ve got all of that information before us. So I just urge you to think about the greater needs of our community before we throw this out, right here, right now.
The difficulties of living away from a home base
Cr Jeri Hall spoke for the current motion and in line with Councillor Bird’s sentiments about ‘just throw a caravan on your property’. ‘I strongly disagree with that. A lot of the people that I know that have been impacted by the flood have had great difficulties in cleaning their properties, removing their possessions, trying to clean them, because, then they go back to their temporary accommodation and [things that they’ve] left at their homes get stolen and their homes are vandalized and there’s no one there to help take care of it.
‘A lot of people I know want to stay at their homes to fix them up to get them ready to hopefully relocate them. And they can’t do that when they’re travelling from Ballina back to Lismore – there’s nowhere in Lismore to stay. ‘So definitely I feel like we do need to offer caravans to these people, not necessarily just pod options, if they’re happy with that.
Hepburn Park used heavily by the community
Hepburn Park is used so heavily by our community and we’ve heard about all of the sporting organizations and charity organizations and everyone that uses them. A lot of our schools in the basin were destroyed. My kids school was destroyed and the only normality they have had with regards to athletics, carnivals cross countries, sports, anything like that has all been conducted at Hepburn Park.
‘I don’t feel like Hepburn Park is the appropriate option. However, I do think that we do need a briefing like point one of Councillor Bird’s foreshadowed motion – it’d be nice to incorporate them both but I’m definitely speaking to leave Hepburn Park alone.’
Cr Andrew Gordon spoke for the motion and against the foreshadowed motion. ‘I think the amount of emails and public consultations that we’ve had during the week, is unrivalled.
The community’s appetite
Overwhelmingly, well I think we have one that might have said they were for the pods on the on Hepburn Park. Everyone else is against I just don’t think there’s a community appetite for it.
No one is disrespecting the humanity in this situation. everyone acknowledges that there is a solution or solution needs to be found. I think we just found the easiest one.’
Cr Vanessa Ekins spoke for the foreshadowed emotion motion and against the recommendation. ‘I understand and appreciate the people who came tonight spoke about their sporting the importance of sport, we know how important sport is to our community, but we have over 270 parks and fields in this town.
‘I think it’s a real shame that we weren’t able to sit down and actually look at all of the parks we have and talk with the sporting organizations about where people could go and how we could manage this for a few years. But that is what the foreshadowed motion intends to do so that we can actually have a decent conversation with the people here who run events.
A hard decision but someone has to make it
This is a hard decision. The hard decision is the location that works is Hepburn Park and we need to communicate with our community about why that decision is so important, why it works and what the other options are. It’s not like the decisions we make are easy in here. I know we’ll all go back to a safe comfortable bed tonight. But there are a lot of people in our community that won’t.’
Cr Steve Krieg also wanted to speak to the chamber and the public gallery. ‘As councillor Ekins said, there is no easy option. There is no clarity in and around this. I’ve been a user of Hepburn Park, my family players Oz tag and touch football and we do the Samson Challenge – I understand the amount of use that Hepburn Park has.
’Is it the best option? I don’t know. I would say no.
The mayor’s ‘gut feeling’
Is my gut feeling I would say that the state government are probably seeing it as the easiest option. There might be other options out there. Maybe we just got to keep looking.
‘I think the foreshadowed motion for me – stands up at the moment. We need to look at this a little bit more. We need more options. If the Samson can be around at Mortimer Oval for example, free of charge with no traffic management plan or something along those lines. Maybe that’s an option. We need to explore those options down the track.
‘What we do need to understand is as we heard tonight, there are 1,000 people, residents of our community who are currently living outside of our community who want to come back. We need to provide options for those 1.000 odd people.
‘The foreshadowed motion is not taking away Hepburn Park – It is exploring the avenue of what is best for our community. I want to keep Hepburn as much as anyone, believe me – but we need to look deeper into this if there are offsets that will benefit our overall community, which has been discussed and that needs to come in front of the Councillors as a group that we need to look at those offsets.
‘The sporting groups need to know their options before we take this park away from them – they need to know their options.
Against the trend
Cr Krieg said he was going against the trend. ‘I know that but, I am actually in favour of the foreshadowed motion so that we look deeper into what all of our options are for our broader community.’
The original motion was placed on the board that: 1: Council note that the request was recieved from the New South Wales government for the use of Hepburn park as a temporary housing site, and 2: advise the State Government that Hepburn Park is not available for housing.
The mayor facilitated the vote asking for all those in favour of the original motion. Councillors, Rob, Bing, Jensen and Gordon and Hall. All those opposed were got councillors Bird, Ekinns, Guise and Krieg.
The motion is carried and foreshadowed motion lapsed.