What a year? Methinks not a year that anyone would want repeated in a hurry. Bushfires, drought, floods and Covid-19 have pushed many of us to the brink. And it now seems Covid is again raising its head.
But what has this meant for our local decision makers, those responsible for the daily continuation of our local services, while ensuring the community’s safety and preparedness? How has the year’s events affected them and how have these events shaped policy and planning going forward?
Bellingen Shire Mayor Dominic King and Bellingen Shire Council General Manager Liz Jeremy form a formidable team. Both are tough and both have a progressive agenda for our region. Like them or not, there is no doubt they are getting things done. And their achievements have now been recognised with the A.R. Bluett (rural) Award, the highest accolade a rural council can achieve. A win that is possibly even more significant, purely because of the events of the past 12 months.
We wanted to hear from them directly to gain an understanding of the challenges and achievements of the year that was and what we can expect into 2021…….
Liz, how difficult has the past 12 months been for daily Council operations?
Extremely challenging. We have been directly impacted by fire, water shortages, floods and a pandemic. The different challenges posed by each of these events has meant a constantly moving feast, affecting what we can and can’t do in terms of operations but more importantly, how we could support our community.
The safety of our community was always forefront in our decision-making. A lot of what we did to ensure this was largely invisible. We did a lot of work with the RFS during the fires and lots of work with the pandemic response group to support the work of our clinicians, our neighbourhood care network and local businesses. Even things that would appear simple to achieve were challenging- a case in point: ensuring the safety of our Urunga community and compliance with NSW Health guidelines over the Easter break involved liaising with police, the crown and Reflections Holiday Park Trust.
The Covid constraints and restrictions meant a complete restructure of how our staff could continue to work, like so many organisations. Half of our staff needed to work from home. Just the IT and safety issues that needed to be addressed with that change alone were challenging.
Dom, what has been the greatest challenge for you as Mayor?
There has been many challenges over the past four years. The one that sticks in my mind is not being properly prepared for the catastrophic fire season of 2019. Liz and I spent time up on the plateau during the peak of the Bees Nest fire and as we descended the mountain were informed of new fires in Kalang. Despite clearly understanding the science and warnings around climate change, the situation we were faced with made it very real. It also made us determined; we would not get caught like that again. We realised that we needed to be more prepared, take the initiatives so that we could be on the front foot in future crises.
So do you think that sense of unpreparedness contributed to our swift response at the outset of the Covid Pandemic?
Liz: Partly, but I also believe our swift Covid response can be attributed to the professionalism of our local health care workers, leaders in the community with extraordinary skill-sets and our business community working closely with Council. The collaborative approach towards ensuring the safety of our community was commendable. The ‘pop-up’ Covid clinic in Bellingen was established even before similar clinics could be organised by NSW Health and Federal Health.
Council’s role was to help secure funding and provide resources for the initiatives that resulted from this collaboration. What resulted was a response with 5 tranches, all of which could be stood up or down or embellished depending on the circumstances in the future.
Dom: Definitely post fires we knew the community needed to be more prepared going forward. When Covid hit we jumped into action, preparing for the worst-case scenario. Most impressive was the speed with which the community came on board with our response to Covid. This has given me a renewed hope that we are ready and can deal with whatever is coming. It shows what we can do.
Based on the impressive Covid response, do you now believe we are ready for future catastrophic events?
Liz: We are certainly more ready. The world has fundamentally changed and disruption in many forms can be expected going forward based on the climate change science. We have to do everything we can to be ready and to keep our community safe.
The council has looked very broadly and has used the bushfire recovery funds to establish programs that are designed to build community resilience and preparedness, while allowing the community to get back to some semblance of normal. We have also ensured there is funding for events, bringing back tourists and making sure we can support the local economy.
We are also excited to have 19 shire community members from a broad range of backgrounds currently undertaking the Charles Sturt University Community Resilience Course. Having more community leaders in this space will contribute greatly to our preparedness and resilience.
Dom: The unequivocal scientific facts around climate change means that future climatic disasters are inevitable. This was the driver for our declaration around climate emergency even prior to the bushfires. In fact, I see this declaration as one of the most significant achievements of my tenure as Mayor.
I’m sitting on the Strategic Advisory Group for Climate Emergency Australia. There are now 1849 local government groups in 33 countries that have declared a climate emergency. We need to listen to the science on this and act accordingly.
There is still a range of initiatives that need to roll out to support the declaration of a climate emergency- unfortunately slower than we would have liked due to events of the past 12 months. There will be community planning around the climate emergency declaration that will start early next year, which will help to drive further projects and contribute to our readiness and resilience.
Are there any projects currently in the pipeline that relate to our declaration of climate emergency?
Liz: Yes. The next really pressing issue is water security. We are currently doing a study to better understand the quantity and quality of our groundwater. We need to understand how the river and aquifer interact when our water supply gets low. The information we gain from the ground water study will be incorporated into our ‘integrated water cycle management plan’, which we talk to our community about early next year.
Council will be putting a water resilience officer in place in the near future, to consult with the community and businesses and address water saving measures, to enable all of us to manage water more sustainably.
There is currently a project that is sitting in the Mid North Coast Joint Organisation, which involves a bulk buy of water storage, resulting in cheaper tanks for our community and we hope to roll this out early next year.
Desalination is our last option when it comes to water security. Due to water shortages last year, we are so much better prepared. We have the approvals if required, and the pipes and pumps are in place in the case that we need to resort to this measure. However, Im sure all of us would rather manage our water usage better to make us more water resilient without resorting to this.
Does our future water security also entail conversations about our water sources and the efficacy around logging?
Dom: Yes we have to discuss the water catchment for this region and the effects of logging on this catchment. There is no doubt that industrial logging is drying the landscapes and reducing the catchment of water. We need to look after our existing river system.
We need to ask the big questions. What value are we getting out of the industrial style logging of our forests? What danger is that putting our residents under? The science is clear. New forests are much thirstier and more prone to burn.
Very early in my tenure I called for a moratorium on logging, which the EPA agreed with. Unfortunately the deputy premier has overruled this position purely to fill quotas for Boral.
Liz: During the fires late last year we nearly lost a lot of our precious Gondwana Rainforest. We are about to do a study so that we can truly understand the vegetation types and quality across the Shire to consolidate work already done in this arena. This will arm us with the information required to talk to government agencies around protection of this really valuable asset.
Amidst all of the chaos you have managed to be awarded with the A.R. Bluett Award 2020 for Rural Councils. Why was Bellingen Shire Council recognised in this way?
Liz: I think we won the award because we have done so many things over a number of years that have positioned the council as a sustainable organisation for our community. Many of our decisions have proved challenging; understandably rate rises are one of them. However, we needed to do a lot of work to ensure that our asset base worth half a billion dollars, and finances were in much better shape. More than half of our local government area isn’t rateable. We have 85 timber bridges. These are enormous challenges and the decisions Council needed to make were brave and sometimes unpopular. Council has been reflective on its decision making, and commissioned the University of Technology Sydney to undertake an independent financial assessment which validated the actions Council had taken in improving Councils financial position.
We’ve also done values-based research, which has been instrumental in driving direction. This research established that ‘sense of place’ and the Shire’s environmental assets were of paramount importance to our community and will continue to drive decision-making. We are also proud of working with the community through a deliberative panel, which will continue as we tackle the challenges of 2021.
We have been very successful in securing grant funding to supplement what the Council is able to do. The Memorial Hall upgrade, Coronation Park , Dangar Falls and the Mylestom sewerage infrastructure are some of the larger projects for which we have managed to secure funds. This sort of investment for our communities hasn’t been seen for decades.
The Council has advocated over many issues- the climate, koala protection, local government financing, emergency services funding, things that are very important to the community. We strongly recognise our local Gumbaynggirr community and this is embedded deeply into our Community Vision.
Dom: The judges recognised that to be a progressive Council requires harnessing the community’s trust. There is no doubt our Covid response was extremely well regarded. The ‘buy in’ from the community was extraordinary. Over 100 community champions came together to act as coordinators for their own area. That demonstrates a strong cohesive community.
We also recognise our staff from the higher levels of management right through to our service providers. The latter continued through the chaotic times of fires and Covid, providing continuous service. The majority of our staff are local and doing a good job. The seven Councillors come from a mixture of backgrounds representing their constituents, but we are a cohesive group who diligently do a range of things to ensure we understand the important issues.
So does the Council management team and the Councillors work well together?
Liz: Yes we work hard to have a real partnership. We work collegiately and collaboratively, listening to differing opinions. But at the end of the day our objective is to get things done in the best interests of our community.
Dom: Liz’s approach to making sure we are really well briefed means that the Councillors are fully versed and can vote on issues armed with all of the necessary information. We really appreciate this.
I agree, the collaboration between management and Councillors is commendable, meaning we have a firm record of getting things done: the main street Bellingen beautification, the Lido, the Mylestom pathway on top of improvements to our road and bridge network and ensuring a more accessible Shire.
I’m priviledged to be the Mayor in one of the most beautiful regions in Australia with a strong community. I’m proud of our record.