Williams River Holiday Park: how a veritable sh*t fight in a tiny council-owned park could affect the rest of the country
Words and Images Wes Whitworth
THE BACK STORY
The background of this story starts as many do; with an apparent knee-jerk reaction by a government body, followed by what would appear to be appropriate uproar in the greater RV community.
To set the scene, Williams River Holiday Park sits on the idyllic Paterson River in Clarence Town, New South Wales, about 40 minutes’ drive north of Newcastle. It’s by no stretch a huge park, it is however well-known, and well-loved by locals and the yearly pilgrims alike.
The park was shut, essentially overnight back in March this year, with all future bookings cancelled and refunded, and the council began organising to have those who had permanent onsite vans removed. There was very little information given as to the closure, other than that there were safety and compliance issues, and that the park had to close immediately.
As you can imagine, there was an immediate uproar from Clarence Town locals, who rely upon the tourism income, as well as long-term visitors of the park.
Just over a month later, after the uproar, the Williams River Holiday Park reopened, albeit in smaller numbers than previously, with some works completed to remedy the critical failures found in the report.
THE REPORT THAT CAUSED THE REACTION
The park was closed in direct response to a report submitted to Dungog Shire Council. The council is not willing to make public the report (nor to media), however, has given some details as to what the concerns were.
Essentially the report identified serious issues relating to: Planning approvals and permits; fire and flooding safety compliance; shortfalls in the number and quality of amenities, and the structural integrity of on-site cabins. It apparently went into further detail about the general lack of upkeep, and how rundown the park had become over the years.
Aside from this, the park also did not have an appropriate licence to operate (and had not had one since 2014), and could not be given one, due to the compliance issues above, so was required to be shut down immediately.
The official reasoning given by the council, included the above, and confirmed that due to the shortfalls in the park, and the lack of licence, the closure was immediate, and without preamble or community consultation. The risk to park users of allowing it to wind up over weeks or months was just too great.
Despite the obvious issues with compliance, and safety for the park, there was also the concern that the park is located on both council and crown land. So, even if the council wanted to continue operating as they were, they needed to meet the compliance obligations for operations on crown land; which they couldn’t without works being completed.
HOW THEY REOPENED THE PARK
It was only a month and a half later, and the Williams River Holiday Park reopened to camping, albeit with fewer sites. In their defence, the council were receptive to the voices of concern at the closure, from both the local business owners and visitors of Clarence Town (and maybe a few journos with big soapboxes). Works began almost immediately on installing fire hose reels and park amenities which allowed council to gain the appropriate licenses to reopen, however with just 30 sites, for the Easter break.
When the park was initially closed, the third-party managers of the park were removed from their caretaking role. After speaking with both locals and visitors, this journalist has learned that there had been more than a few facilities that had been allowed to fall into disrepair over the years of their guardianship. Despite the previous caretakers’ short comings in park upkeep, many also said they will miss the older couple who ran the park as they were warm and accommodating for those visiting the area.
A new caretaker who is employed directly by Dungog Shire Council (as opposed to a third-party business) has been installed into the park and is spearheading the renovations and works being completed.
HOW THIS WILL AFFECT OTHER PARKS ACROSS AUSTRALIA
As we noted earlier, the Williams River Holiday Park is located on both council and crown land. This is quite common across many ‘council-owned’ parks in Australia, and compliance of these parks is taken very seriously from a federal government point of view.
The report the council commissioned into the Clarence Town park was somewhat forced, in that there have recently been fires in other parks around the country, where infrastructure, and travellers’ vans and equipment has been destroyed. Chances are someone from council had been down to the lower campground, not seen any fire-fighting equipment and had a head-scratching moment.
Where this specific example of fielding a report, then making decisions with that information to hand, will impact other parks is that there are many smaller publicly owned (read: council / government owned) parks that will be undertaking the same reviews of their camping and vanning arrangements.
As you’ll have seen in the council document, holding a public meeting, and discussing how and when to close the park, would be akin to holding a public meeting as to whether the community was comfortable with the local school bus not having brakes. A critical deficit was found in the park, and a decision was made to remove the risk to patrons of said park, with a view to undertaking works to have these issues resolved.
If nothing else, the Dungog Shire Council deserve praise for acting swiftly when the severe risk was noted, and then moving just as swiftly to have works carried out to reopen the park in time for Easter. Often, government bodies get buried under copious amounts of red tape; seems Dungog Council was able to shrug it off this time and move forward.
We have it on good authority that further works will be completed as the year progresses, to increase the number of sites at the park back to its former days. If you do manage to get up that way, make sure you swing by the Williams River Holiday Park and have a look; chances are it may become your yearly holiday haunt, just like it is mine.