Image for Bugger history, the environment and aesthetics

Huon Valley’s seven male councillors on Wednesday evening displayed their contempt for the concept of “consultation and communication” with the people they represent and for the history and beauty of the municipality they seem to think they rule.

Two development applications before the council’s monthly meeting involved stark examples of possible legal, almost certainly procedural, irregularities — yet the men of the council ignored the pleas of reason from its two female councillors. 

While indicating their sensitivity to historic and aesthetic values, the two women’s main argument was that there was a vital need for the rules to be adhered to and for the council to be seen to be exercising proper governance.

In each case, the weaknesses in the approach of the male councillors to due process were obvious, possibly because they did not want to be fussed with the red tape of bureaucracy; perhaps because they have inadequate understanding of how important it is in a democratic society to play by the rules.

— On Southern Water’s development application to perform engineering works across the Huon River between Franklin and Cradoc (including running a pipeline along the historic canal through South Egg Island), the frailty of the council’s recommendation for approval was glaring: the development application council was making a decision on was not the one that the public had been invited to comment on. Rather, it was an updated version of Southern Water’s original application (the application on which the public had been invited to comment). 

Without going into detail, I know that, where the public’s ability to comment on development applications is concerned, a council is not allowed to, so to speak, change horses in mid-stream.

In a nutshell, what had happened was that Southern Water — having run into resident opposition to the idea of huge concrete blocks carrying the pipeline through the canal — had submitted to council new plans (detailing another means of supporting the pipeline through the canal) after the closing date for public representations on the original development application. 

These new plans — major, not minor (and never advertised by council to allow the public to make representations on them) — were incorporated into the original development application and subsequently presented to Wednesday night’s meeting with a recommendation to approve them. I reiterate: this was clearly a case of a development application going to council for a decision without the public having had an opportunity to examine it.

At two public forums in Franklin this year to discuss its proposed water scheme, Southern Water heard from residents that, yes, piles rather than concrete blocks might be a more sensitive way of laying the pipe through the canal; but in no way had either of those meetings condoned the idea of the canal ever being used to carry the pipeline. The preferred option of those who attended the forums was for the pipe to be buried across the island; taken through the channel between north and south Egg Islands; or laid south of the islands.

— In the case of the application to build two multi-person guesthouses on Port Cygnet’s eye-catching Green Point promontory, the council’s seven male councillors seemed to choose to conveniently forget the ruling last year of the RPDC (Resource Planning and Development Commission) against any development in excess of “two houses” on the Green Point land.

Not only that, the council advertised the development application on January 15 (a small, black print on a grey background) in the Mercury newspaper (a publication many in Cygnet never read most of the time and even less at holiday time), thus managing to avoid the attention of the scores of people who had lodged representations against the 2008 Green Point development application that failed on challenge at the RPDC last year.

In the RPDC’s rejection of last year’s application, it is stated that, at most, only “two houses” would be allowed to be built on the promontory. If two guesthouses each with four en suite bedrooms, central catering facilities and a permanent residence in one of them for a caretaker are not “houses”, what are they?

At Wednesday night’s meeting, council’s general manager, expressing the intention of not buying into either side of the debate, explained to council that — despite the RPDC ruling about only “two houses” — in fact it was now possible for not only a second “house” to be erected on the promontory but for a guesthouse to be built on each of the remaining “sub-minimal” blocks. 

That is news that will horrify protectors of the natural state of Green Point.

Without understanding the intricacies of planning, subdivisions etc, I sense that council — choosing to turn a blind eye to the RPDC’s ruling last year — has by some means arranged for the promontory land (bought as a single lot some years ago) to now comprise seven blocks, most of them sub-minimal (less than two hectares). My reading of the planning rules is that the zoning for that land (low-density residential B) makes the sub-minimal blocks, under normal circumstances, ineligible to be built on.

It will take lawyers to work out the ramifications of council’s position vis-a-vis the higher-authority RPDC’s position. But, in the meantime, ringing in my ears are the words of columnist Leo Schofield, who wrote in last Saturday’s Mercury: “Developers love to announce schemes when the public is in no mood to contemplate their impact, the Christmas and New Year periods being top times for squeaking through a dud scheme.”

In his article, Schofield talks of “modern Goths and Vandals laying waste to the urban and rural landscape, not caring a fig for the consequences of their depredations”. There are those today in Franklin and Cygnet who are thinking that they know first-hand what Schofield is talking about.

It should be noted that the council’s two female members who opposed passage of the recommendation on each of the two development applications did not oppose the essence of the recommendations per se. 

They simply argued that council was not following due process; that it was not abiding by the laws and rules governing the matters for debate. 

We, in the public gallery, were watching a council that, despite its much trumpeted new “Consultation & Communications Strategy” (a classic mish-mash of spin, verbosity and unattainably lofty idealism) still doesn’t seem to give a damn what the public thinks. 

Instead, it seems far too eager to find a way of slipping around rules (such as by conjecturing on “interpretation”) specifically designed to cater for heritage, historical, environmental and aesthetic considerations.

I don’t think council has heard the last of these issues, either from those who believe a pipeline in any form along the South egg Island canal will despoil its natural beauty (and, ultimately, its navigability as a result of not being able to dredge the canal); or from those who want Green Point preserved as an outstanding, largely natural, feature of the magnificent Port Cygnet arm of the Huon River.

Enough of the municipality’s history already has been swept away; and enough of its beauty has been destroyed or mutilated.

Council’s behaviour on Wednesday night had me thinking about a project of great foresight that was embarked upon soon after Gough Whitlam became prime minister in 1972. Whitlam coined the expression “national estate”, an all-embracing term for Australia’s historical, heritage, cultural and environmental (natural and built) qualities. 

Tasmania’s premier of the day, Eric Reece, summed up the concept most succinctly. It was, he said, “the things that you keep”. 

I also recalled an observation by a born and bred Cygnetian only a few months ago when I pointed out to him a couple of lovely trees threatened with removal for road “improvements”: “No place for trees in a town,” he said.  “Trees belong in the bush.” Had I known then what was in store for Green Point, I should have countered: “No room for urban developments in natural beauty spots. Urban developments belong in urbia.”

While Eric Reece’s message clearly has not found a place in the hearts of the Huon Valley’s seven male councillors, the words of the old Cygnetian certainly seem welcome there.

One gets the impression when listening to these men, elected representatives of the people, that anything old or delightful to the eye is without merit. 

Do they really think that we are all so much better off in a world of brick veneers rampant; missing (read demolished) historic monuments; poorly controlled development; ill-conceived parking lots; footpath pavers that are dangerously slippery when wet; inappropriate street trees; hideously over-designed public toilet blocks; virtually no control over vegetation clearance; inadequate pollution-monitoring of waterways . . .?

Perhaps one of them might like to explain that this is not at all what they really think about the wondrous valley that is their home too.

— Bob Hawkins is a Huon Valley ratepayer and an advocate for transparency in all democratic institutions. He is not a member of any political organisation.