Forum Overview (Part 1)
On Wednesday, July 27, 2011, the Lithgow Business Association hosted a forum with members of the Lithgow City Council, Councillors and the general public. More than 110 people attended the event, held in the Tuscan Room at the Lithgow Workman’s Club to hear guest speakers talk about the reasons why our town is headed in the direction that it is and what the solutions could be to make it a thriving town once again.
The first speaker was Jamie Giokaris, principal of L.J. Hooker Lithgow. He spoke of the many developers, builders and architects he had come in contact with and some of the grievances they have with the processes involved in getting development applications (D.A.’s) approved through Council. He also spoke briefly on the Land Use Strategy (L.U.S.) that was open for submission. Whilst he saw many positives in the document, he believed that more information needed to be available to the general public – suggesting workshops and information evenings to help the community understand the near-800 page document better. Jamie also touched on the need for Council to have better first-up contact with potential investors, suggesting a customer liaison in the front office and better communication through all levels and section of the development process. He also talked about the constraints on investors/developers regarding heritage requirements and that some more thinking to go into these matters. His overall message was to be positive and to look to the future.
The next guest speaker was Steve Anderson from Anderson Surveying. He read from a prepared statement that covered many problems (as he saw them) with the processes involved with Council. He spoke passionately about the L.U.S. and his personal experience regarding this document. He said that Council had had seven years to prepare the L.U.S. and, until the draft was published, Council didn’t have any discussions with landowners regarding the preparation of the document. He also spoke on the changes the L.U.S. will have on zoning and that Council had not contacted landowners regarding these changes. He told of the many meetings he requested with Council regarding the rezoning of his own land and how his requests had been ignored – in fact, Steve had submitted more than 30 pieces of correspondence with Council and that the only time he was favoured with a response was when he pointed out mistakes in the plans. He also questioned who was going to be reading the 300+ submissions regarding the L.U.S. and claimed that if Council were to be the ones to make decisions based on the submissions that they will then have taken up a dictatorial role within the community. He finished by asking whether it would be beneficial for our town to amalgamate with the Bathurst Council. This was met with warm applause (and a few cries of "no!")
Robert Cluff was the next speaker and his talk was mainly aimed at the processes involved with getting D.A.’s approved, and the sometimes lengthy delays that will cause potential investors to walk away from the area. He believes that approvals are getting harder and that Council seem to spend more time looking for possible reasons to deny applications, rather than focussing on the potential benefits to the town from the incoming development. He also spoke of the growing costs of having to use consultants – especially heritage consultants – and that sometimes the success or failure of a proposed investment/development will come down to the costs involved in getting the approval from a consultant. He believes that Council should show a more positive outlook on D.A.’s from small to medium sized business and move away from the perceived "Mining, Coal, Power Station" attitude that Council has. He admitted that businesses need to make sure that all the small things are done properly before making submissions and that Council should look more for "7 positives before 7 negatives."
Brett Partridge was the last of the guest speakers and was probably the most passionate talk of the four. His first concern was that the community and Council should "pick a point and start from there" in relation to starting a new era and that the town shouldn’t embrace a "Us vs. Them" attitude with Council. He then said that he believes that middle management at Council misleads the whole of that body and he mentioned that discussions for a business park in Lithgow had begun more than a dozen years ago and yet nothing has been accomplished due to poor management from Council. He also raised issues of confidentiality at Council and cited a personal experience of what he considered to be a private discussion with members of Council regarding a large investment in our town being talked about a few days later in local businesses. He also cited the "Gas Works Debacle", where Council offered the site up for sale in 2006, took a deposit and held it for 4 years before claiming that the site was contaminated and the developers lost their chance to make something out of it. His frustration with lack of knowledge and understanding within Council regarding the values of land, the costs involved in major works (he mentioned an incident where a tender was put out by Council to redo the hockey fields and he waited for a response – he was told he was over their proposed budget tenfold.) He stated that currently the standards being employed by Council are not up to scratch and that a new direction – and new blood – were needed if we plan on attracting developers to our town.
Council’s response to these speakers came, in the main, from Mayor Neville Castle. He congratulated the people for turning out and cited the effect of "people power" in relation to the proposed 2nd jail a few years ago, claiming that Council would listen to the people and their wishes. He stated that he had spoken with all of the Councillors and that they had taken the position that they would read all submissions relating to the L.U.S. and would make time for more workshops and discussions and that Council would take all recommendations seriously. He said he was worried that people were getting caught up in one part of the L.U.S. and ignoring some of the other very good things in the document – such as the plans for a business or industrial park. He said that if the people wanted the 40 hectare lots to remain then Council would more than likely accept that recommendation. His big message regarding the L.U.S. was twofold – "We are listening" and "This is only a draft." He mentioned the business park was voted on and accepted in 1999, only to have new Council elections happen shortly after and the motion was repealed. He spoke of the many new businesses and developments that Council had overseen – Thales, Police Assistance Line and State Debt Centre, Emirites, Plaza expansion, B.W.S., Hungry Jacks and Supercheap Auto. He cited costs recently to Water Transfer System, Sewerage Plant upgrades and sports precinct as a reason for less spending on other matters. He also said that Council would continue to report to the Lithgow Business Association quarterly and that they would make the undertaking to follow up on this forum and questions/issues relating to it, and that they would actively be involved in further discussions.
(More to come...)