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Bega council plays politics with Woolworths

By Richard Stanton - posted Monday, 4 February 2013


When the local elected representatives in the southeast NSW shire of Bega Valley knocked back a development application from a major corporate supermarket they demonstrated conclusively that they fitted the image of local governance: unprofessional, part time and out of touch.

A development application for a supermarket in the small seaside fishing village of Bermagui was recommended by the Bega Council executive after it did its due diligence and determined the development did not breach any regulations.

The application, made by Woolworths to build a supermarket and liquor shop in a village that probably cannot sustain such things, first appeared in early 2012 after the corporation bought a nice piece of land opposite the beach and park at the end of the main street.

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Bermagui has only one side to its main street: the shops and hotel all face north, and all have marvelous views across the glistening ocean and white sand beaches to Gulaga, a mountain behind the village of Tilba Tilba. The setting is idyllic and includes a boat harbour not far west of the main street.

The Woolworths plan was received ambivalently in the village by locals and tourists: Bermagui's economy, like a lot of coastal towns, relies to a large extent on seasonal tourism since various governments killed off fishing and forestry.

A lot of elderly locals were said to approve of the development because it would mean they no longer needed to travel to Bega or Narooma for supplies. Bermagui is services by a mid sized independent grocer, a local bottle shop, a butcher and a number of other small businesses supplying fresh local produce.

The perception is though that the cost of getting to Narooma or Bega to shop at Coles or Woolworths outweighs the cost of buying local. It is a perception, not a reality.

On the other hand, long time residents - many going back generations - flatly refused to accept the idea. For them, the supermarket meant the death of their village, its atmosphere, its sense of isolation and its very real sense of place. there were plenty of theme park towns around - leave Bermagui alone was their message.

Two things emerged to make this issue important.

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The first was the idea that there was a need or desire for such a development. The second was the incompetence and demonstrated lack of communication that had been publicly displayed between the local council, its elected representatives and its residents.

Setting aside the first - given that large organisations tend to make corporate decisions based on nothing more than profit - the second issue demonstrated clearly why resident vigilance was critical and why NSW councils find themselves before the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) or find themselves being sacked by the state government.

The council meeting on Wednesday January 16 was attended by more than 60 Bermagui residents. They had travelled the 61.8 kilometres (50 minutes drive) for the 2pm meeting to register their disapproval of both the development and the process.

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About the Author

Richard Stanton is a political communication writer and media critic. His most recent book is Do What They Like: The Media In The Australian Election Campaign 2010.

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All articles by Richard Stanton

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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