The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.
Tony Blair, ex British Prime Minister
Local and state politicians might well consider the words of Tony Blair when they assess their level of support for the push to have Hornsby Council establish a large sporting complex within the boundaries of their local national park, the Berowra Valley National Park. Do any of them still have the intestinal fortitude to say no to what has for years now seem to be a well-organised campaign to build team sports grounds, with associated parking facilities, night lighting and change room facilities, in an area specifically set aside by legislation ‘to conserve nature and cultural heritage’?
STEP members may recall that in June 2012 we reported on The Curious Saga of Stringybark Ridge (STEP Matters 165, p2–4).
Stringybark Ridge, once the site of a long abandoned pony club, is part of the Berowra Valley National Park (BVNP). All physical traces of the pony club have long since been removed and the site was substantially remediated by Hornsby Council during the years of its joint tenure with NPWS in its earlier status as a regional park. For some unknown reason two small level areas once used by the pony club have continued to be mown, but apart from that and a pathway into the site, you would now have difficulty in knowing the area was once anything other than good quality bushland.
The main parties involved seemed then to be in agreement that this is how it should remain.
All NSW national parks are governed by a legally binding Plan of Management (PoM). Then:
- In 2005 a new Regional Park PoM was supported by both Hornsby Council and NPWS after more than two years of community consultation with a wide range of local sporting and recreational groups, neighbours and other community groups. This PoM stated that the main recreational use of the park was to be for bush walking, with some provision for limited dog walking on three management trails.
- In 2006 Hornsby Council, after a careful review of potential sports grounds in the shire, adopted a Sports Facility Strategy Plan, which specifically discounted the possibility of ever again using the old pony club site for active sporting purposes.
All of which would seem to indicate that the future of Stringybark Ridge as an easily accessible urban lung for the local community, rather than as a basis for team sporting ovals, was assured. However, not so fast, where local politics are concerned.
- In 2012, despite the agreements reached above, then mayor, Nick Berman, unilaterally wrote to local state MPs asking for their support for the Stringybark Ridge site to be made available to provide additional team sporting facilities for soccer, cricket, AFL, netball and ‘other sports’, including attendant amenity blocks and spectator support arrangements and parking (see STEP Matters 165, p2–4 for full details of the ensuring events).
Fast forward to March 2015
NPWS has issued a new draft PoM which, while specifically required under the relevant legislation 'to protect and conserve' the area, in point of fact proposes a spectacular reversal of their own previous policy.
Page 18 now identifies the Stringybark Ridge area as a potential area for a number of purposes, including 'activities of a recreational, sporting, educational or cultural nature'.
Precisely what has led to this turnaround is not mentioned, but a sense of it can be ascertained by the following paragraphs in the draft PoM:
Hornsby Shire Council has expressed an interest to the Office of Environment and Heritage in the establishment of a sportsground in the modified natural areas of Stringybark Ridge. Consideration of sporting facilities at Stringybark Ridge is in response to a shortage of sportsgrounds in the southern areas of Hornsby local government area and increasing participation in organised sports.
Potential sporting facilities could include a single sportsground on the larger, open grassed area suitable for team sports such as cricket, rugby and/or soccer. The smaller open grassed area could potentially be utilised for field athletics such as throwing and jumping events.
Hornsby Council in addition proposes to build change rooms, amenities buildings, kiosks, parking and to erect tower lighting. The facilities would be used both mid-week and over weekends.
The draft PoM goes on to state that NPWS will, in consultation with the community and Hornsby Council, prepare a precinct plan for Stringybark Ridge to articulate the specific activities and facilities for future use, including possible planned future use.
Does it really Matter?
Yes it does.
STEP understands and is sympathetic to the fact that local sporting groups sometimes wish for additional sporting facilities. However, our primary purpose has always been, and remains, the protection of our remaining natural urban bushland. No-one is making any more urban bushland and with Sydney’s population set to grow substantially over the next two decades, Stringybark Ridge is in many respects a test of how our local society and political leadership will address the competing interests of urban growth and urban bushland protection.
We all know that it is bad debt management to pay off one credit card by racking up the debt on another and the same goes for our management of our ecological debt. Ultimately the quality of our urban life style is a wholly owned subsidiary of the health and quality of our natural environment and we as a society need to protect both. Taking our local environment for granted is no more sensible that taking our global environment for granted. One is simply a subset of the other and we can no longer plunder either with impunity. With human population impacts now so large in urban environments such as Sydney, past ways of thinking that there is always going to be enough ‘free land’ for all requirements can no longer prevail.
The Stringybark Ridge location is ideally suited to provide the vast majority of local residents safe and close contact with the natural bushland. The PoM quotes research which has time and again indicated the health advantages of this type of exercise.
Stringybark Ridge is also one of the relatively few significant ridge top sites still located within urban national park boundaries, making for easier walking by the many middle-aged locals.
The PoM (p20) also confirms that in terms of physical activities in NSW, walking is by far the most popular undertaken by any group (55%). Hornsby Council’s own Unstructured Recreation Facility Plan (2009) reflects essentially the same finding, this time across the totality of the shire as a whole.
While the Environmental Defenders Office NSW has questioned the legality of the proposed sports fields’ construction, if approved Stringybark Ridge will establish a precedent which other well-organised pressure groups will likely use in an attempt to have new team sporting facilities and amenities built in national parks throughout NSW. A netball complex here, a BMX track there, more space for team sports somewhere else.
All perfectly understandable in one sense, but signalling the death of a thousand cuts for our already small amount of land set aside for conservation. It is common knowledge that there are currently ‘on hold’ well-developed plans to also have an extensive mountain bike track system built around the Stringybark Ridge site, for which initial site planning has already commenced, and there is little doubt that this will be the next cab off the rank if the sports fields are approved.
After that, what? Quad bikes and motorised trail bikes?
STEP understands that in a civil society all groups are free to approach local elected officials to help them achieve their goals. We however also expect our elected representatives to fully represent our interest in protecting urban bushland and with regard to the Stringybark Ridge that effort seems to have been manifestly absent. While the bushland has no vote, the mass of local walkers who do so all want to have their interests protected, but we need to remind them. After all, the team sporting lobby groups do so all the time.
Make a Submission
While STEP will also make a submission, the way the game works is based on numbers. The STEP submission will count as one only and will be measured against all other submissions on that basis only, not on the merits of its contents. So a one line ‘I support the Proposal’ from anyone else in favour of the proposal will count equally alongside the STEP submission on behalf of its 400 members.
STEP members in their email need simply say that they do not support the BVNP PoM proposal on pages 18 and 19 to provide for 'activities of a … sporting nature' on Stringybark Ridge as they do not believe such activities fit with the need to protect the and conserve the area, as required under the NPW Act.