Brett Stevenson - 1 June 2021

Brett Stevenson presented to Council as the Co-Convenor of A Better Eurobodalla, at the Public Access Session on 1 June 2021.

A Better Eurobodalla (ABE) presentation to the Eurobodalla Shire Council Public Access Session on Tuesday 1st June 2021

Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to address Council. I am presenting as Co-Convenor of A Better Eurobodalla (ABE), a community forum dedicated to having open and inclusive government in our region. Over the last few months, ABE has attended markets and other community gatherings across the shire which has given us the opportunity to talk to the community about what is important to them.

This presentation focuses on the issue of disaster preparedness and recovery and the role of the community in these activities after the 2019-2020 bushfires.

Council’s response to the impacts of the “black summer” bushfires is outlined in the Eurobodalla Bushfire Recovery Action Plan April 2020. The Plan states that Eurobodalla recovery actions should be consistent with the NSW Recovery Plan, which promotes a community–led recovery approach as outlined in the following statement :.

Supporting self-help and strengthening the resources, capacity and resiliency already present within individuals and communities are the keys to successful recovery. Empowering communities to create their own solutions can improve overall social cohesion, and this is critical to sustainable recovery outcomes.”(NSW Recovery Plan, page 14).

With this in mind, it is notable that the Eurobodalla Local Recovery Action Committee does not include any community members, instead consisting of 16 members drawn exclusively from government agencies, businesses and Council staff.

The NSW Recovery Plan also states that a Local Recovery Action Committee can establish Local Community Consultation Groups to enable members of the community, including people affected by the event and representatives from local organisations, to provide input to the recovery process. However, the Eurobodalla Recovery Plan makes no mention of any Community Consultation Groups. Indeed, the word “consultation” occurs only once in the Eurobodalla Plan, in relation to business. In addition, the words “community input” and “partnership” are also absent from the Eurobodalla Recovery Plan. How can the Eurobodalla community have a direct voice in the recovery process within such a structure?

The neighbouring Shoalhaven and Bega Valley areas were also badly impacted by the 2019-20 fires and have developed their own recovery plans. In contrast to the Eurobodalla, the Shoalhaven Recovery Action Plan emphasises “community input”, stating that: “Community input is the best way to inform Council and is the foundation of the Recovery Committee information flow. In fact, the term “community input” is mentioned 4 times in the Shoalhaven Recovery Action Plan, but nowhere in the Eurobodalla Plan. Shoalhaven Council has also invited community members to join a working group to develop a Community-led Resilience Plan for the Shoalhaven, noting that “Community-led planning enables local residents to create stronger, more vibrant and resilient communities, better able to respond to local challenges and opportunities.”

In October 2020 the Shoalhaven Community Recovery Into Resilience Project (RRP) was initiated. This is Shoalhaven Council’s organizational response to the Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements and the NSW Independent Inquiry into the 2020 Bushfires. It also identifies community-led resilience as the foundation of a communities’ preparation for, response to, and recovery from, disasters and environmental challenges.

Through the Shoalhaven Community RRP, Council aims to develop partnerships with research and commercial providers to grow community resilience. Shoalhaven Council plans to coordinate the growth of community-led resilience and establish ‘Information Hubs’ by upgrading power and communication reliability of facilities across the Shoalhaven. The plan is being driven by Shoalhaven Council’s use of $2 million in BLER funding to improve the resilience of power and communications infrastructure by the development of micro-grids in place of existing and fire-damaged power infrastructure, and delivering back-up communication connectivity through satellite digital communication.

The Bega Valley Local Recovery Action Plan is also focussed on community- led recovery, and features a Communications and Community Engagement Sub-committee as part of the Local Recovery Committee. This subcommittee  developed the Bega Valley Together (BVT) framework aimed at creating a “go to” space and network for bushfire recovery, news, information and community support. “BVT is our commitment to community- led recovery; to inform, assist, support and empower residents.” Bega Valley ran town-hall-style community meetings in all impacted localities, with meetings streamed live online. This helped community members to engage on projects of high community value and interest such as community hall rebuilds and the greenshoots program to revegetate environmentally significant areas. Opportunities for collaborative projects were identified and supported, and Bega Valley Council staff were upskilled in community engagement and collaboration within a recovery context. These projects were given practical support by Bega Valley Council using $3 million in BLER funding to rebuild and retrofit community halls in Kiah, Wandella and Tumbarumba impacted by the Black Summer bushfires.

In contrast to these community-led and supported BLER projects, Eurobodalla Council has chosen to allocate $5.25 million of BLER funding to a 10 year old walking trail concept plan which has never been formally endorsed by Council, and about which there has been no public consultation. This large allocation ignores telecommunication weaknesses in the Eurobodalla (e.g. South Durras) and significant emergency transportation and communication issues (e.g. Araluen Road). While Shoalhaven and Bega Valley are allocating their resources into building back better to enhance resilience after the fires, Eurobodalla continues with a “Business As Usual” tourism development.

In addition, Bega Valley Shire has community involvement embedded in its Disaster Relief Fund, established by means of an MOU in partnership with the local community group Social Justice Advocates of the Sapphire Coast (SJA).  The Bega Fund has tax deductibility status, and is managed by a Committee co-chaired by Council and SJA. The management committee consists of 3 SJA representatives, 3 Bega Valley Council reps and 2 independent community reps. This community-focussed management committee contrasts with the Eurobodalla Shire Council Disaster Relief Fund, which is run in-house by Council and managed by a committee composed of the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, General Manager and 2 community representatives.

Another area of contrast between the recovery practices of this council and our neighbouring councils is in the treatment of development fees for people rebuilding their homes destroyed by the fires. Both Shoalhaven and Bega Valley waive all Council development application fees, whereas Eurobodalla Council requires applicants to pay their fees in full, after which they are eligible for a rebate of “up to S1,000”, leaving many of these applicants significantly out of pocket.

Today’s presentation by ABE has outlined several community-led approaches that are being employed by neighbouring councils to facilitate community engagement in developing and implementing disaster recovery and resilience solutions. These are helping to deliver tangible community benefits in the recovery process for our neighbouring shires. They are readily adaptable to the Eurobodalla, and could be applied in our Shire to ensure that our disaster preparedness and local recovery outcomes truly reflect the needs of our community.

Thank you for your attention.

Dr Brett Stevenson
Co-Convenor ABE