Cudgen Plateau protection has been mired in controversy for three decades, as governments, political parties, farmers, environmentalists and private investors have tried to start or stop various forms of exploitation. A history can be reviewed here. The most recent decisions on locating the Tweed Valley Regional Hospital and its associated peripheral development may now be the key to reducing the remnant farmland to less than viable for a local industry and thus unlocking it all. These decisions could well mark the ‘end of the road‘ for Cudgen farmland.
The ‘Move the Hospital‘ saga has adopted a “crash through or crash” philosophy from the beginning. What is normally a nine month process for the private sector has been compressed into six weeks by government corner-cutting. This fast-track shortcircuit approach has been conceived to avoid the very processes that government departments advocate on their own websites. Take a look at the chart on the Project Timeline page to see how many steps have already been skipped (if you can even identify where it’s actually reached at the moment.)
Apart from the above issues which flag a determination to block any relevant concerns even being introduced before the DA is approved, there are two flawed decision-making events that should justifiably be revisited by whatever government is in power after March 2019. The first is the unilateral decision to relocate the hospital and the second is the flawed site choice criteria.
1. Relocation flaws.
The current government has held office for three terms, constantly promising Tweed health services improvements , but doing little, except planning. To their credit they consulted with the community in devising a North Coast Regional Plan 2036 (released March 2017) showing a new hospital site at the core of a Health Services precinct which was to be the economic driver for the expanded Regional City of Tweed Heads. At the same time, this Regional Plan argued strongly for better protection of what is simply the best agricultural land in Australia. The state government also authorized the 2017 exhibition of the draft Tweed Local Environmental Plan strongly reinforcing the Tweed Heads Regional Hospital & Health Precinct at Tweed Heads. They encouraged Tweed Council to spend a hundred thousand dollars on two years of public consultation to prepare and exhibit a Locality Master Plan for Kingscliff & Cudgen without ever mentioning relocating the Tweed Regional Hospital Precinct there. Yet, in early 2018 they simply used their recently increased planning powers to over-rule this decade of community-based planning.
Having formerly been NSW Minister for Planning, Minister Hazzard knew full well that in the stroke of a pen, he was unraveling years of public and community decisions by people who had placed their trust in government integrity. Disappointingly the new NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts has remained utterly silent while his Cabinet colleague undermines his portfolio. The fallout from this high-handed intervention is explored further here.
If the Hospital is to be moved, the former site adoption process needs to be revisited with full community participation.
2. Site Selection Flaws
On April 4, 2018 the Health Minister announced without any prior consultation that a new regional hospital precinct will be located on statute protected prime agricultural land on the Cudgen plateau.
After a public uproar over the site choice, he agreed to publish an executive summary of the report on his site selection. It was clear that the site selection criteria favoured his preferred site, but a little scrutiny suggests the possibility that the selection criteria and analysis style could have prejudiced the outcome in favour of one location. These and other concerns are set out below.
Firstly, part of the government’s flawed fast-track agenda is of course the avoidance of resistance to site acquisition. This is achieved by NOT actually identifying the optimal site but rather inviting regional landowners to self-nominate for purchase and then picking the least-bad site from the offerings received, at whatever the cost. This is quicker as it avoids negotiation with reluctant vendors and prevents objections from aggrieved recipients of resumption notices. However it is a far cry from “choosing the best site” as constantly claimed, and is clearly sub-optimal in every aspect except speed and political popularity.
Secondly the published site criteria did not exclude legally protected lands, a peculiar omission from a government that has put into law a policy specifically designed to protect prime agricultural land from development, and indeed has just adopted a new NCRP2036 to reinforce that policy. Given this, and the historical controversy, why did the first round EoI choose not to warn proponents that legally protected lands could not be considered? And why were certain Cudgen Plateau landowners in particular selected to be contacted in advance by real estate agents to alert them to a coming EoI?
Thirdly, two critical criteria referred to flooding. One was the isolation of the hospital site above the PMF (Probable Maximum Flood expected once every 10,000 years), and the second was maintenance of access to the hospital during major flood events. These separate desires seemed to be wrongly conflated by the analysis. Putting aside for a moment the peculiarity of a 100 year life hospital being designed for a 10,000 year flood event which itself is based on a climate change scenario to which the LNP does not subscribe, these principles do not necessarily exclude the alternative sites as claimed.
Contrary to the Minister’s claims of accessibility, in the last major flood Kingscliff was cut off for several days from road access to the Pacific Motorway, the Gold Coast and all of the Tweed Shire except the 3 coastal villages to the south. In this respect it is no better than a number of other rejected sites. In regard to the PMF, the flood event referred to is on a scale well beyond experience, but is by definition catastrophic. All public utilities serving the hospital will be shut down; all road access in all directions will be closed; 17,000 homes and most streets in the Shire will be flooded; 41,000 of today’s population will be displaced; the Tweed River will likely have broken into the sea south of the current estuary; and traffic movement will be confined to flood boats and helicopters. The regional hospital will presumably be in all but Emergency Services lock-down in such conditions if they ever occur.
So the real criterion for PMF should have been that all active floors of the Regional Hospital are isolated from the PMF, not necessarily the site itself. That isolation can readily be achieved with filling, building elevation, and/or water barriers on sites presently well below the PMF.
Fourthly the current availability of utilities criterion is conveniently short-sighted. It should really address the availability of road service corridors and public utilities in 2023 when the hospital is actually scheduled to open. Both Council and local developers are amenable to addressing these needs in the timeframe of the hospital development and this aspect should be reconsidered.
Fifthly the Site Selection Summary Report published to justify the “expert” selection of the optimal site included metadata showing the author to be the HI NSW project manager and is dated subsequent to the public announcement of the chosen site. Its source appears to be neither from recognized “experts” nor without a conflict of interest. The full original document by authors unknown remains a NSW state secret protected from multiple GIPA requests. Its alleged authors have never confirmed consistency with their own conclusions. This is entirely unsatisfactory as justification for such a major investment and digression from State policy.
And finally the Minister has defended his final site choice decision as an economic one “… additional infrastructure costs (of other sites) would significantly impact on the budget available to build clinical space.” (Hon. Brad Hazzard media release 16-07-18). This is an extraordinary budget lock-in given there was no adopted budget in the 2018/19 financial year, no agreed purchase price for the land at the time, no geotechnical reports on site-specific building costs, no exploration of cost-sharing for public utility provision and no building size or clinical service scope actually adopted. In the absence of any comparative pricing, these grounds for exclusion are facile and absurd.
Based on the above, the Relocate group continue to believe the entire site selection process was fundamentally flawed.
When did they Really Decide?
Anecdotal evidence from several rural landowners on the Cudgen Plateau suggests that prior to the advertising for Expressions of Interest, they were canvassed by Ray White Real Estate, presumably acting on behalf of Health Infrastructure NSW, to alert them to an imminent opportunity to sell their property to the NSW Government. If true, this suggests the Government was already targeting protected agricultural lands in its first-round search for a “greenfields” hospital site, despite that option only being permitted as a fall-back once it was clearly demonstrated that no other practical sites exist.
In several published defences of its site choice, the Government has vigorously argued that no location other than Cudgen Plateau fully met the key criteria it set for reviewing received Expressions of Interest (EoI) from interested landowners. If so, a few minutes perusal of available mapping before advertising the EoI would have confirmed the final criteria as written did indeed in effect disqualify any offer that was not from the Cudgen Plateau.
So why were shire-wide offers invited if the location decision had already been made?