Image for Huon Valley Guessing Games (14)

Pumphouse blues

Not quite a storm in a tearoom, but there was plenty of straight talking and a fair bit of hot air when Southern Water staff were confronted by grumpy locals in the refreshment room of the Franklin Palais on Friday morning (December 11).

Every now and then it verged on a shouting match but goodwill and good sense prevailed, and, by the time the informal gathering broke up, no one could deny either the spontaneity or courage under fire of the Southern Water (SW) representatives who had turned up to explain their organisation’s intentions (See Huon Valley Guessing Games (13) HERE. SW is the council-owned water and wastewater corporation responsible for southern Tasmania and eastern Tasmania north to Bicheno.)

SW’s senior man present showed a refreshing willingness to tell it like it is and, while acknowledging that it would be “really reckless” to make a commitment to specific action, gave the assurance that nothing was yet set in concrete.

At the heart of the brouhaha is the prospect of a huge, probably ugly and almost certainly noisy pumphouse on the foreshore straight across the road from the Palais, the civic and social heart of the historic Huon River town.

Valley residents usually have to be hopping mad to start publicly pointing fingers of blame. This time they really were, and there seemed to be consensus. The disquiet over the water scheme (now SW’s responsibility) is, basically, the fault of the local council: not so much of the present council (although it did, at its November meeting, hand over almost without question the part of its crown lease on the foreshore that Southern Water needs to put the pumphouse on); rather it is the fault of an earlier council under different management that, without consulting the community, devised a scheme to integrate the municipality’s water and sewerage services. (That scheme is now the responsibility of SW.)

The people of Franklin, said one of those in the tearoom crush, had only known about the pumphouse plan for a week.

Another person talked of “a pre-history” to the town’s latest grievance. She recalled the community’s ultimately triumphant struggle to save the Palais from a council intent on demolishing it; and she talked of the treachery of council earlier this year when, starting at first light, it destroyed the football clubrooms alongside the oval at a time when community moves were afoot to find a new use for a building that symbolised so brilliantly mid-20th century sporting architecture.

A third critic suggested it was now obvious that the destruction of the clubrooms had been done to clear the passage between the pumphouse site and the 19th century “cut” through South Egg Island, along which SW wants to lay a pipeline to Cradoc on the east side of the Huon.

Southern Water, at this impromptu meeting, responded — as it had a few minutes earlier to a meeting in the main hall of the Palais of the council-appointed Township Development Committee — by saying it was not “wedded” to the pumphouse being built where it was planned, and agreeing that the site had been the choice of council planners because it was opposite the cut.

It also made clear that the urgency was not so much to get the scheme under way as it was to illustrate to the Federal Government — from which it is hoping to get a grant of about half the $25 million or so all up cost — that it was pushing ahead with the necessary planning. (It seems we must be at that stage of the federal electoral cycle where Canberra dangles multi-million dollar carrots that are only up for grabs for a strictly finite period and for a strictly specific purpose.)

The terms “December 22” and DA (development application) were bandied about at the Palais on Friday. In the Huon Valley News (HVN) on Wednesday (December 9), a council press release said that the council had acceded at short notice to SW’s request to take over the pumphouse site because “Southern Water had an immediate deadline to sign a funding agreement with the Federal Government”.

When questioned on Friday, the SW team seemed uncertain about the significance of the December 22 reference, saying they had only just heard about it.

(The “immediate deadline” line of argument must have originated somewhere. Perhaps it refers to a development application running out of time. Or was it another piece of the type of “misinformation circulating in the community” that Councillor Mike Wilson complained about in a council media release this week? Council media releases that have been published verbatim and without analysis throughout the year by HVN have sometimes been perfect models of misinformation, if only because of the sin of information omission.)

A straw of hope for pumphouse critics came when the leader of the SW team acknowledged that if circumstances resulted in refusal of permission to lay the pipeline through the South Egg Island cut it would mean the existing plan to get water to Cradoc would be “scuttled”. (North and South Egg Islands are the property of Tasmanian Land Conservancy, which has not yet shown its hand. Heritage and conservation aspects will have to be considered.)

The SW staff left Franklin fully informed about what locals are thinking (several original ideas were put up by what was clearly an informed and surprisingly well-qualified group). And they were fully aware of what they do not want:

— They do not want the pumphouse built where SW wants to put it

— They do not want to have to put up with the noise of its operations day and night (nearby residents made no bones about it: they would fight its construction, even if it meant lying down in the path of concrete trucks)

— They do not want a pipeline that includes huge lumps of concrete laid at intervals along the Egg Island cut (John Young — a founder of Franklin’s Wooden Boat School and its Living Boat Trust — pleading for a possible delay in proceedings, warned SW that, “ultimately, you will have to deal with the community”)

— They do not want the town to be abused again simply because it is a “corridor” to points further south along the Huon Highway

— They do not, yet again, want to be told what, “like it or not”, they will be getting

— They do not want, yet again, to see an atrocity such as the football clubrooms demolition perpetrated on their town . . .

What they do want is:

— To be closely consulted and kept fully informed

— And to no longer have to live with the sense of disempowerment so many say they have felt for far too many years

The turnout in Franklin on Friday was a show of community solidarity that Huon Valley Council’s elected members and staff should note carefully. The council is doing its best to prove it has turned over a new leaf. Some residents may be convinced that it has. Some still feel — with much more plausible evidence to support their case than that possessed by sceptics of global warming — that they have reason to remain sceptical of the council’s new modus operandi. Give it a year or so, they are saying, and then we’ll tell you what we think.

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.