Community Consultation

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In 2016, I wrote a series of ACS blogs on the paper by Robert Thompson on “Cultural models and shoreline social conflict” (Coastal Management, 2007, 35, 211-237). This is a most inspiring contribution to coastal management literature. I have used it in teaching on a number of occasions, and in September will be used again in lectures at UNSW and Sydney University. It is ideal for role play and demonstrating diversity of perspectives that people bring to the contested space we call the “coast”.

I was reminded of Thompson’s work again this past week. On Wednesday evening, I was privileged to participate in a community meeting in the Strathfield Town Hall to discuss the future of one of Australia’s most damaged estuaries, the Cooks River, in Sydney. Then on Friday, Colin Woodroffe invited me to assist him prepare video lectures on coastal management by recollecting my experience in 2003 in resolving community angst over the fate of Lake Illawarra during a drought period. Both events reminded me of the struggles we face in bringing together the numerous stakeholders who get involved in planning and managing coastal assets, something Thompson made so clear in his discussion of “cultural models”.

One of the seven models that Thompson described is termed “community”. The primary focus of this model is on social interaction, proper behaviour and a sense of place. In some respects it is linked to another model, termed “ecology” where the emphasis is on ecological functions and connectivity.

The meeting on Cooks River problems brought these two perspectives together, under the heading “The Cooks River Congress: united action for a healthy Cooks River and catchment”. It was organised by the Cooks River Alliance, an umbrella group of four local councils: Bayside, Canterbury Bankstown, Inner West and Strathfield. This alliance has used state and federal funds to help rehabilitate an urban estuary and catchment that has endured considerable degradation over many decades. It is now in the process of developing a Coastal Management Program and other activities based on collaboration and partnerships. At the meeting, local mayors and community representatives spoke of the need for “united action”. To this end the “Cooks River People’s Plan” was presented as a strategy to deliver environmental and social outcomes consistent with state and local interests.

Tony Wong (CEO, CRC for Water Sensitive Cities), Rod Simpson (Environmental Commissioner, Greater Sydney Commission), and I also spoke at this meeting. We provided a broader context looking to the future including the need to be innovative in water use and incorporate green infrastructure into renewal of the lands around the estuary. I was able to place the strategic thinking of the Alliance into the context of new Coastal Reforms in NSW. It was apparent that we were addressing a like-minded audience of over 100 people who were dedicated to a better future for their “place”. This was symbolised by the availability of a paper on the Aboriginal history along the river and free native plants for participants to take home. It was a passionate group intent on making a difference to the amenity and environment by learning about its history and building on existing knowledge to overcome the adverse impacts of the industrial past. There are many challenges ahead including remediating sewer and stormwater overflows, and managing contaminated groundwater seepage. In this respect the People’s Plan must be coordinated with actions of entities such as Sydney Water if it is to meet its goals.

When I was asked by Colin Woodroffe to go to Wollongong to develop materials of use to his coastal management course, I thought one topic of interest might be my recollections of the Lake Illawarra crisis of 2002-3 and how it was addressed. This crisis arose as a result of the Lake entrance being blocked by a beach berm with water levels falling below sea level as a result of evaporation during this drought period. Large areas of the shallow lake were exposed and stunk! It was in a state of ecological shock. Local industries dependent on the lake were badly affected. Several protest meetings were held and accusations were made against state and local agencies including the failure of the then Lake Illawarra Authority (LIA) to keep the entrance open to the sea.

I was invited by the State Government to chair an independent group to offer advice on a “permanent solution” for a healthy Lake Illawarra. Fortunately the LIA had already engaged consultants to prepare options. But first the people who lived and worked around the lake had to be consulted. So in April 2003, I chaired a rather tense community meeting to discuss these options. The State Government had offered initial funds to assist in delivering an outcome if agreement could be reached with the community and with the two local councils: Shellharbour and Wollongong. By 2005 works had progressed to meet the objectives of Option 9, which had received unanimous support at this time. The lake has subsequently stayed open as a result of works on training walls and dredging sand shoals, with the sand used to nourish the nearby Warilla Beach.

I was very pleased with what was achieved by this process and the hard and difficult work undertaken by the then LIA, consultants, and members of my independent review panel which consisted of dedicated local community representatives as well as some more technical folk. Having a Government prepared to underwrite an outcome was vital but the selected option had to be "sold". Taking a community group through the details of the options and listening to their concerns was an essential part of the process. They had a desperate need to restore the long term health of their “place”. It was an excellent example of how social conflict could be resolved through effective partnership once a mechanism was established.

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2018, posted 26 August 2018, for correspondence about this blog post please email