Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Nobbys Lighthouse redevelopment

To: The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

Dear Mr Garrett,

I refer to your request for comments on your proposed decision in relation to the Nobbys Lighthouse redevelopment.

Your proposed decision is definitely the correct one and I commend you for it.

Refusing this proposal is the only way of protecting the Commonwealth Heritage values of the Nobbys lighthouse and ensuring the continuation of its freestanding character and iconic significance.

You should consider the following when reviewing your proposed decision:

1. The proposal will damage the protected Commonwealth heritage values of Nobbys lighthouse.

The following facts have been objectively established by the Clive Lucas Stapleton & Partners (CLS) report and confirmed by your own department's Recommendation Report:

i) Nobbys lighthouse meets assessment criteria A, B, F & G on the Commonwealth Heritage List and has the corresponding protected Commonwealth heritage attributes.

ii) The impact of the proposed restaurant building will damage every one of the heritage values

While the proponents have claimed that the damage will be minimal, their arguments are weak as the assessment of your own department indicates: "the proposal to construct and operate a restaurant facility in very close proximity to the Commonwealth Heritage listed Nobbys Lighthouse will result in significant degradation or loss of Commonwealth Heritage values".

It is essential that your decision protect these values from damage.

2. Your department's assessment of the proposal in relation to criterion G (social value) is weak.

* There is a focus on the architectural aspects of the proposal and a lack of information about (and therefore assessment of) the cultural heritage impact of the proposal. The CLS report identifies that there has been insufficient consultation on this aspect and correctly notes "Simply advertising a scheme and seeking public comment does not test the community's regard for the place, nor how the proposal would affect that regard."

* There has been a particular lack of consideration of the value of Nobbys Lighthouse as the one surviving connection between the modern landform of Nobbys and the original rocky island (known to the indigenous Awabakal people as Wybagamba) which was cut down specifically to provide the platform for the lighthouse building.

* The proponents' disagreement with the characterisation of Nobbys Lighthouse as "remote" misses the point of the lighthouse's iconic significance as identified by the CLS report – it was and is perfectly correct to characterise the iconic lighthouse structure as being "remote" in so far as it was, and is, freestanding in the most prominent seaward position on top of a 'recaptured' island headland, accessible only via a long causeway, jutting out at the edge of an historically stormy ocean. Your department's assessment does not give this sufficient consideration – the 'remote' character of the lighthouse, properly understood, is a fundamental aspect of the social heritage value and one which will be most damaged by the proposed restaurant building.

* In relation to public access the department's assessment places too much weight on the "verbal advice" from the Newcastle Port Corporation that no public access would be allowed if you refused this proposal. Your department fails to assess the significance of the fact that the Port Corporation is actually one of the proponents of the proposal before them and that their advice to you on this matter is therefore fundamentally conflicted and unsound. It would be equally possible to argue that unless you refuse this proposal there will be no opportunity to apply public pressure to the Port Corporation to bring forward a more appropriate proposal that would allow greater access AND maintain the Commonwealth Heritage values of the lighthouse.

* Your department's report fails to assess that the undeniably huge support for public access to Nobbys does not automatically imply approval of the wrap-around restaurant building aspect of the proposal. It also fails to acknowledge that the majority of the public still may not know the objectionable specifics of the intention to wall-off the lighthouse from the sea and deprive it of its freestanding character and prominence as the most seaward building.

* In relation to public access and interpretative signage the department fails to consider that no amount of signage can replace some heritage values such as the loss of the premier seaward position and the ability to appreciate the unique freestanding character of the lighthouse "in the round". The comment above in relation to 'remote' nature of the place is also relevant. The character of the lighthouse would be fundamentally altered in a way that no amount of new interpretation could correct.

* In relation to public access, the department's report does not identify or analyse the fact that the "exciting new views" available to the public will consist of new privately controlled spaces in and on the proposed restaurant building. The existing possibility for truly public views from the historic parapet (ie the views from the foot of the lighthouse) would be utterly lost. The uncritical acceptance of the proponents characterisation of their new viewing platform as 'public' is not appropriate either since access to it will be at the grace and favour of the managers of the private restaurant facility and may easily be restricted for private functions and other purposes from time to time.

The significance of the Commonwealth Heritage values, and the degree of their loss if the proposal were to be approved, are greater than your department has identified. In addition, your department's uncritical analysis of the public access benefits of the proposal is a significant flaw in their Recommendation Report. Both of these things confirm that your correct course is to persist in your decision to refuse the proposal.

3. The chronology detailed by your department fails to document the actions of the proponents that show disrespect for the Commonwealth Heritage values of Nobbys Lighthouse.

* Significant community pressure had to be applied before the proponents acknowledged any Commonwealth jurisdiction (they were in breach of the EPBC Act for a considerable period). It is clear that there was an attempt to avoid scrutiny of the impact of the proposal on the Commonwealth Heritage values of the lighthouse.

* The delay caused by the failure of the proponents to comply with the EPBC process earlier has been perversely cited in the local media as an example of bureaucratic, pettifogging obstruction. Alternatively the current process is sometimes mischaracterised in the media as being the result of "an appeal to the Commonwealth" by those objecting to the proposal. This irrational public criticism should not sway your decision in favour of the proponents.

* Your department has not documented or analysed the significance of the fact that this development was originally processed by NSW authorities as a private proposal in 2005, subjected to conditions limiting the controversial restaurant building by the NSW Heritage Office, but then withdrawn by the proponent and resubmitted with the Port Authority as a "Crown development" (thus avoiding the imposition of the previously unwelcome conditions).

4. Your department's conclusion that the social & economic benefits outweigh the loss of heritage values is extremely weak and unsupported by any assessment or evidence.

* The second part of the conclusion to your department's report does not flow from any of the analysis that precedes it and therefore does not seem to be a technical judgement based on any objective information discernable to the public. In fact the report's abrupt conclusion seems consistent with it having been politically re-written, possibly in reaction to the lobbying orchestrated through the local media, particularly the Newcastle Herald which attacked the department as "bureaucrats poised to end the dream" in December 2007.

* The cynical manipulation of public opinion in favour of the proposal (through the 'management' of the local Newcastle media) has reached a blatant level of intensity. This has a direct bearing on your consideration weighing the 'social and economic benefits' of the proposal because you are likely to receive public comments on the issue that have been generated by mischievous disinformation. For example the following myths seem to be in wide circulation in Newcastle:

i) anyone who objects to any aspect of the proposal is against public access to Nobbys

ii) anyone who questions any aspect of the proposal is against any development on Nobbys

iii) your proposed decision has been motivated by an irrational anti-modern conspiracy to ensure nothing ever changes, or is whimsical and without proper reason at all

iv) if you refuse to approve the proposal, Nobbys lighthouse will become a crumbling relic and a burden on the local council

It would be inappropriate to uncritically credit support created by such disinformation as evidence of the proposal's "social and economic benefits".

* Important questions remain unanswered in relation to your department's conclusion: What social & economic impact studies were done to justify the department's recommendation? Why haven't these been released to the public? What is the department's expertise for assessing these matters and making such judgements? What analytical method did the department use to balance the degree of heritage value to be lost against the economic and social benefits to be gained?

In the absence of evidence or analysis it would be most unsound for you to accept the subjective recommendation of your department that the economic and social benefits outweigh the loss of heritage values – all the evidence and analysis in your department's report apart from the final few words in the conclusion actually confirms you in your proposed decision; that is to refuse permission.


Nobbys Lighthouse and its surrounding compound is one of the most significant public sites in Newcastle. It deserves a development that is consistent with its historic character and enormous iconic importance - all the social and economic benefits of the proposed development identified by your department could be achieved by a better alternative or modified design that did not destroy Commonwealth Heritage values. The people of Australia are entitled to nothing less.

If you refuse the proposal we will be able to lobby the Port Corporation for a better development in future – using the interest generated by this controversy to demand the public access to Nobbys that all are in favour of achieving. If, on the other hand, you changed your decision and allowed the proposal to destroy the Commonwealth Heritage values of the lighthouse the damage will persist for the foreseeable future and may prove permanent and irreparable.

Please stand firm.

Yours sincerely,

(temporarily exiled, but previously a proud resident of historic Newcastle)

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