24 May 2024

Goulburn Council ‘muzzles’ community solar supporters

| John Thistleton
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Mike Steketee

Mike Steketee says members of Goulburn Mulwaree Council are representing a tiny minority of people and ignoring the rest by giving the NSW Government the impression the local government area is against renewable energy projects. Photo: Urs Walterlin.

The Goulburn Group (TGG) says it is being muzzled from asking questions about one of the biggest developments in the city’s history, the proposed $540 million Gundary solar farm.

Lightsource BP is proposing to build the 400-megawatt Gundary solar farm with battery energy storage on 632 hectares off Windellama and Kooringaroo roads, southeast of Goulburn. The development would comprise about 700,000 solar panels.

TGG, a group of Goulburn activists with a strong record of community projects, had asked if they could speak at the council meeting on Tuesday night, 21 May. Time is set aside for members of the public to address council meetings in open forum at every ordinary council meeting. But because the Gundary solar farm proposal wasn’t on the agenda, the council refused.

“There is no other way to put it – this is an outrageous attempt to muzzle a community group that supports renewable energy and wants to see the best deal for Goulburn from a $540 million project,” TGG vice-president Mike Steketee said.

“We are dismayed that council has adopted an anti-development stance, that it is acting against the interests of the broader community and is conducting its affairs in secret.”

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He said TGG last week learnt from a meeting with Lightsource BP that it is negotiating a so-called voluntary planning agreement with the council on the Gundary solar farm. (Under voluntary planning agreements, a developer negotiates with planners including councils, on what funds for infrastructure will be provided, and money for services and public amenities.)

“This is the same council that voted 8-1 to oppose the solar farm, raising an obvious question – how can they negotiate benefits for a project they are doing their level best to block?” Mr Steketee said. “This is a clear conflict of interest.”

Because of the council’s opposition, the proposal will be determined by the NSW Planning Assessment Commission instead of the state’s planners.

Four TGG committee members registered to speak at the public forum at the council meeting but were refused. “The reason given was a technicality that could have been easily waived if the council had been willing to hear our views,” Mr Steketee said.

“In the five minutes each which the council website says would be available, we simply wanted to ask some questions on behalf of the community about the negotiations.

“Like who is negotiating the agreement on behalf of Council? What is being negotiated? Where can we find information on the VPA? Why has the public not been informed about the negotiations?”

Meeting with Lightsource BP last week, TGG asked for commitments on employing local people, contracts for local businesses, giving local young people apprenticeships and other training.

“We want a decent community benefit fund that pays for road upgrades, builds community facilities and supports the many groups in our community that are trying to run very worthwhile community activities on the smell of an oily rag,” Mr Steketee said.

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Communities around Australia were already receiving benefits from solar and wind projects to the tune of millions of dollars.

TGG has suggested Lightsource BP contribute money for the rail trail to Goulburn – something that would attract hundreds of visitors.

“The council has been listening solely to a tiny minority that opposes the Gundary project,” he said.

“It has ignored the views of the many members of the community who strongly support the transition to renewables and want Gundary to go ahead provided there are real benefits to the community,” he said.

Mr Steketee pointed to hundreds of people having attended meetings in Goulburn in recent times to hear about solar projects and the benefits of renewable energy. In light of this keen interest, TGG wants the council to engage in a proper consultation with the community rather than negotiating in secret and presenting the people of Goulburn with a fait accompli.

Goulburn Mulwaree Council Chief Executive Officer, Aaron Johansson said the time to address matters raised by The Goulburn Group would be when these VPAs were presented to council for consideration.

He confirmed negotiations with the project’s proponent and that a report would be presented to Council in the future. “Importantly, prior to any agreements being formalised or entered into, a transparent legal process must be observed, which includes community consultation and consideration at an ordinary meeting of Council,” he said.

“It is truly disheartening that The Goulburn Group has chosen not to address their concerns directly with the council. This marks the third occasion where The Goulburn Group has opted for public forums to discuss council matters, neglecting the opportunity to resolve these issues through direct communication with the council initially,” said Mr Johansson.

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