Look for images of Newcastle in New South Wales, and views of Nobby’s headland with its historic lighthouse are bound to feature. In 1854 it was intended to blow the island (as it then was) away to improve the harbour but strong public protests stopped its destruction.
The lighthouse and signal station were then built in 1858. This iconic landmark is again now threatened by a proposed privately funded redevelopment of the site.
The Lighthouse is owned by the NSW Government but is leased by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and is therefore Commonwealth land. The plan has already been approved by the Newcastle Council and the Port Corporation, (and unfortunately Gary Kennedy, leader of the Newcastle Trades Hall Council) amongst others.
This is despite the Port Corporations own initial criteria that any redevelopment plans should be based on adaptive reuse of existing buildings only. However the current plan for this little site includes the demolition of garages, alteration and renovation of existing cottages for the purposes of tourist accommodation, construction of an observation deck and interpretive centre, and a 50 seat glass and concrete restaurant (partly surrounding the lighthouse itself) with kitchen and other facilities.
The proposal is now awaiting a final decision by Minister for the Environment, Peter Garrett, who recently invited public comment on his proposed decision to refuse the redevelopment.
In their efforts to sell the redevelopment proposal, proponents of the plan have consistently played down the impact of the proposed new buildings and pointed to the local community’s support for the site to be opened for public access.
They have also played upon the fear that should their plan not go ahead, the site risked falling into disrepair the way so many of Newcastle’s vacant historic public buildings already have, due to vandalism and lack of council funding for maintenance. This is a complete furphy as the site, although being currently closed to the public, is well maintained.
Opponents of the redevelopment plan have repeatedly made clear they too are in favour of the site being reopened to free public access but that the plans as they exist are not in keeping with the heritage value of the site.
Even the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts report stated, “..In conclusion, the extent, scale and bulk of the proposed restaurant facility will have a number of significant adverse impacts on the historic values of Nobbys Lighthouse”.
There are also fears that this partial privatisation of the control and management of a Commonwealth Heritage listed site may just be the thin edge of the wedge with the private operators later demanding more land for car park facilities for rich paying guests not keen on leaving their cars unattended in the beach car park (10 minute walk away) overnight.
A better plan would surely be to open the site to the public with the present cottages adapted to use as a publicly run kiosk, tearooms and cafe and an information and historical centre with proceeds going to the upkeep of the site and its surrounds, thus providing benefits to locals and tourists alike.
Given the huge pressure to approve the private redevelopment plan coming from the proponents (Nobbys Lighthouse Pty Ltd!) and their backers, it seems public protests such as those in 1854 may once again be necessary to preserve the historical integrity and natural beauty of this iconic landmark and its surrounds.
By Robyn Hohl