WRAP - No prison in Westbury

Westbury prison: neighbours no closer to answers one year on since Brushy Rivulet bush block chosen

By Adam Holmes
The Examiner
6 June 2021

One year since the government announced a native bush block as the site for a new prison near Westbury, neighbouring families - including the Browns and Readers - say questions are going unanswered. Picture: Paul Scambler

Few know the land near Brushy Rivulet better than Philip Brown.

Over the course of decades, he has watched as farms north of Westbury grew in size and more land was cleared to provide space for pivot irrigation systems.

They caused fence lines to disappear and, with them, wildlife corridors were flattened.

He was one of 12 children raised on a rural property on Birralee Road. As an adult, he bought a portion of his father's land on the other side of the road to raise a family of his own with wife Jenny. It's just down from the Brushy Rivulet informal reserve, where the Tasmanian Government is planning to clear at least 15 hectares for a prison.

"There's not many wildlife corridors left because of the agricultural clearing and all the pivots going in, there was an awful lot cleared," Jenny Brown said.

They see the Brushy Rivulet land as providing a vital corridor for native wildlife travelling between Brushy Lagoon and the Meander River, but they say the prison would act as a blockage, leaving few passages.

The Browns were always aware of how much native flora and fauna relied on the bush nearby, yet lately, they have had to become experts.

On June 18 last year, the government suddenly announced it was moving the site of its proposed prison from an industrial estate on the edge of Westbury, to right next door. Some nearby residents were told 30 minutes before the announcement, others found out through the media.

Over the course of the past 12 months, the Browns and their neighbours have been consumed by their quest to get answers from the government about the plans, with little success.

"I've basically been coming home from work, getting tea organised, then running away and having meetings," Mrs Brown said.

Those meetings resulted in the group of neighbours forming Concerned Residents Opposed to the Westbury Prison. The neighbours all get along, but they never intended to form such a relationship.

That includes Aaron and Olivia Reader, who moved from Perth to a block of land alongside Brushy Rivulet seven years ago.

"The fact is, we're all living out here for a reason - not to have that many neighbours in the one spot," Aaron Reader said.

The Readers planned to build a house, and they say that if the prison hadn't been announced, it would be finished by now. Instead, a slab sits alone on a rise, overlooking the site of the proposed prison.

"We're just sitting in limbo," Ms Reader said.

Not In My Backyard?

The group of Birralee Road residents never dreamed they would be vigorously lobbying government ministers, the council and scouring detailed environmental reports and federal conservation schemes.

But one of the most difficult things to cope with has been attitudes from the broader community and the label "NIMBY": not in my backyard.

"If that was a flat block of grass that had been farmed for the last 100 years, and it had everything running past it - services - on a good road, it'd be hard for me to make an argument against it," Mr Reader said.

"If it was a prime site and we were against it, then yes, maybe we would be NIMBYs."

"People think it's just a bush block, it only affects three people. Well it's not like that, it's not that simple," Mrs Brown added.

"We're learnt so much about the extra conservation values of this land. We thought it was the eagles and the masked owl, but there's so much more."

The neighbours all agreed that the ongoing situation was having an impact on their mental health.

Another common criticism of the group was that they would rather make the prison someone else's problem by moving it.

"We've never said you should build it at Ashley, or you should build it at George Town, we've never said that. That's not our job," Ms Reader said. "We didn't choose to live next door to a prison ... why should it be forced upon us?"

"We built here because we want to stay here, we like it, the kids like it too," Mrs Brown said.

"It just changes everything."

Search for answers

The group has sent three letters to Premier Peter Gutwein - on August 27, March 11 and May 30 - but only received an acknowledgement of the third.

They met with Corrections Minister Elise Archer in November, but came away disappointed.

"It took us nearly six months of pushing to get her here, but she was still here on the door-to-door sales situation where they were still trying to flog it," Mr Reader said.

"They think our issues are irrelevant."

The group compiled a list of their main grievances, including the impact on their livelihoods, lifestyle and property values, farming operations, environmental value of the bush block and wildlife corridor, safety on Birralee Road, bushfire risk with extra traffic, a lack of transparency and the impact on their mental health.

On Wednesday, Ms Archer sent a letter to the residents offering another meeting, but stated the government's position on the site was unchanged.

Neighbouring resident Lee-ann Barwick said the group wanted to meet with the Premier, not Ms Archer.

"We fail to understand why the Premier will not meet with us or even respond to us, but passes it on to Minister Archer," she said.

"We already (met with her) in November, we want to speak to our Premier directly."

In February last year, Mr Gutwein visited Westbury to discuss the prison with residents - before the government decided to move it up Birralee Road. He has not directly engaged with the community on the issue since.

A long process

The Department of Justice is continuing "due diligence" on the land, including plans for core test drilling in the coming weeks - works that were delayed from October last year.

Mr Gutwein has previously said he wants the development application to be ready for the Meander Valley Council by the end of 2021, but the government did not respond to a question asking whether this was still the planned timeframe. It could also be subject to appeals.

With the Custodial Inspector repeatedly raising concerns about the Tasmanian corrections system's inability to produce acceptable justice outcomes, the likely delays could hamper long-term improvements, although the Southern Remand Centre at Risdon Prison is being upgraded and $7.3 million is being spent on Ashley Youth Justice Centre.

A government spokesperson said Ms Archer was "best placed" to respond to feedback or concerns.

"All the information collected from the investigations on the proposed Northern Regional Prison site will be made publicly available as part of this process, with any member of the community able to make a representation on the proposed development," a spokesperson said.


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