By Jeremy Sollars
The Southern Downs Regional Council says any changes to its controversial Invasive Pest Control Scheme (IPCS) would need to be passed by a resolution at a council meeting.
Calls for a trial of the scheme in its first year – without the imposition of financial penalties for non-compliance – were made at a public meeting held last Thursday at the Freestone Memorial Hall to discuss the IPCS and the future of the Warwick Saleyards, attended by around 600 local producers and landholders.
Those at the meeting vented their frustration and anger over the scheme – announced as part of the 2017-’18 budget – which could see rural and other landowners slugged with a ‘supplementary rates notice’ if they cannot demonstrate sufficient efforts to control pest plants and animals on their properties.
The scheme paperwork – in the form of ‘Control Works’ forms – is due to be returned to the council by tomorrow, Friday 18 August, but a month’s grace will be available for those who can’t submit theirs in time.
The council’s manager of environmental services, Tim O’Brien, told the Free Times this week there has been “no decision of council to have the first year of the scheme as a trial”.
“As the scheme has already been adopted and commenced, any proposed changes to the scheme must be approved by resolution of council at a council meeting,” Mr O’Brien said.
He also said new staff recruited to implement the scheme “commenced within the last two to three weeks”.
One local farmer who many see as a voice of reason in the debate is Ben Usher, who spoke at last week’s public meeting.
The Elbow Valley cattleman told the Free Times this week he was initially reluctant to address the meeting when asked to do so by organiser and former deputy mayor Ross Bartley.
But he feels strongly about the issue and takes the view that the community is entitled to have a say, something which he says was missing from the council’s pre-planning of the IPCS as part of the 2017-’18 budget.
“I’m not politically motivated – I don’t want another job,” Usher laughed.
“Ross asked me to go along and speak and really I didn’t want to, I didn’t go looking for it.
“But then I thought, ‘You know what? If I don’t do it how can I expect someone else to speak for me?’
“I talk to a lot of different people and there are definitely a lot of concerns about this scheme and a lot of people feel there hasn’t been enough consultation and information.
“People aren’t necessarily against it in its entirety and I’m not either – but there are a lot of questions that haven’t really been answered.
“I think a lot of people see it as being all about the dollars, rather than the council suddenly taking a passionate interest in pest management.
“What I’d like to see – and this is what I said at the meeting – is the scheme run as a trial in the first year, without financial penalties.”
Ben Usher has been heavily involved in pest management in his nearly 20 years of farming at Elbow Valley, principally through wild dog management both locally and regionally, and regularly assists the council and landowners with distribution of 1080 baiting.
He makes it clear that he’s “not a council basher” and acknowledges the support the Southern Downs Regional Council has given to wild dog control.
“I think we also need to give credit to the mayor and the councillors who attended the meeting last week,” he said.
“They knew they were walking into a hostile environment, and it was good to see the CEO and current pest management officers there as well.
“But as producers we do feel that we’re not always listened to – we often feel like we get a ‘political’ answer to our questions.
“With this scheme, the first a lot of people knew about it was when they opened their rates notices.
“Yes it’s been in the media but not everyone keeps up with all the news.
“Maybe the council could have sent a personalised letter to everyone who was going to be affected before the budget came out.
“At least that way no-one could’ve said they didn’t know anything about it.”
Usher – whose property is several thousand acres in size – believes that as well as a lack of communication, a key question about the Invasive Pest Control Scheme is about its “policing” by the council.
“The current (pest management) staff already have full-time jobs and I just don’t see how they and any new staff are going to get around to inspecting every property in the region,” he said.
“I’d want to be with them when they come to my place – and I don’t have a week to chaperone an officer around, which is how long it would take.
“If I’m not getting cattle through I can’t pay my own rates, let alone a supplementary rates notice.
“We just want to know exactly how we’re going to be judged on this.
“The current staff are all reasonable blokes, but what if they move on and someone over-zealous is inspecting your property?
“The other point is that if everyone does the right thing and no-one gets penalised, how are they going to pay for the cost of the extra staff?”
Ben Usher also believes there should be an “exceptional circumstances clause” in the scheme, to allow for such things as extreme weather events – which can hamper weed management activities – and the unexpected, such as a death in the family, a marriage break-up, illness, property transfer and the like.
At the end of the day he, like others, does believe the scheme gives the council “some teeth” to deal with those who blatantly ignore their pest management obligations.
“I know there has to be some motivation for neighbours who won’t do a thing, and maybe that’s where a financial penalty comes in,” he said.
“We all want to get along, no-one wants drama.
“But the council needs to accept that pest management is ongoing – and they have to manage weeds and pests on their own lands as well.”
Usher has urged affected landholders to get their ‘Control Works’ forms in regardless of any changes the council may make to the IPCS.
“You certainly don’t want to be caught short – if you’re in any doubt just tick the box and get one of the officers to come out.”
A petition on the IPCS circulated at last week’s Freestone public meeting can still be signed at Darryl Evans Real Estate on Palmerin Street and is expected to be presented at the next meeting of the Southern Downs Regional Council next Wednesday, 23 August at the Warwick chambers.
A public meeting similar to last Thursday’s at Freestone will be held in Stanthorpe this coming Monday 21 August, at 5.30pm at the rugby league club ovals on McGlew Street. For more information contact Amanda Harrold on 0432 467 966.
How does the IPCS work?
Rates notices issued across the region last month to landowners with holdings zoned ‘Agriculture and Farming’, ‘Horticulture’, ‘Commercial and Industrial’, ‘Residential 4’ and others show an amount for the pest management charge based on a cents-in-the-dollar land valuation.
But the charge is listed as a ‘concession’ and only payable if landowners either fail to meet their obligations under the IPCS to control invasive weeds and animal pests on their properties, or if they fail to submit a ‘Control Works’ form outlining their private pest management strategy by Friday 18 August.
If the council deems it payable the charge will be levied as a ‘Supplementary Rates Notice’ “towards the end of the financial year”, according to a council spokesman.
The minimum ‘special charge’ is $500 but some landowners have been ‘granted’ a ‘concession’ on their rates notices in the thousands, depending on the valuation of their properties.
Landowners who fail to comply and who have parcels zoned Agriculture and Farming categories 1, 2 and 3, and Horticulture 1, 2 and 3 will pay a ‘supplementary rate’ of 0.50 cents in the dollar of the rateable value of their holdings, with the minimum fee of $500 applicable.
Owners of land zoned Residential 4, Commercial and Industrial (Town and Rural), Extractive and Special Uses will pay 0.30 cents in the dollar, also with a minimum $500 fee.