PARK WATCH March 2019 |

The Andrews Government’s special treatment of the racing industry has reached a whole new level. But so too has the rise of community opposition, explains VNPA Nature Conservation Campaigner Shannon Hurley.

After commercial racehorse training was found to be illegal on Warrnambool’s beaches under local planning laws, it was halted indefinitely. That is, until pressure from the racing industry caused Victoria’s Planning Minister to falter. In an outrageous move, our worst fears became reality.

Unfortunate intervention

The racing industry’s push for control of our public beaches has resulted in racehorses once again being allowed to plough up and down the Belfast Coastal Reserve.

VNPA first wrote to the Planning Minister Richard Wynne back in October 2018 calling on him to refrain from intervening to reallow commercial racehorse training at Levys Beach in Warrnambool.

Warrnambool City Council tied itself up in knots over the issue, going back and forth until finally voting to rescind their earlier decision to support commercial racehorse training on its beaches, in line with it being an illegal activity under its own planning laws.

While it was publicly reported during the state election caretaker period that any planning changes would be a matter for council, the Andrews Government wasted no time after the state election to intervene, seemingly going to great lengths to back the racing industry.

After Racing Victoria and the Warrnambool Racing Club requested the Planning Minister to proceed with the planning amendment, the Minister bowed down to the pressure. Scrapping any opportunity for public consultation, with the consent of Warrnambool City Council he proceeded to fast-track a planning amendment.

In an unusual move that can only occur in ‘extraordinary circumstances’, a new document was incorporated into the Warrnambool Planning Scheme (a so called ‘Special Control Overlay’) and the planning amendment was published in the Victorian Government Gazette on 7 January.

It essentially overrides the previously prohibited use of commercial racehorse training on Warrnambool’s beaches. As soon as the necessary approvals are granted, Levys Beach will become accessible to up to 160 racehorses per day.

Once again damaging hooves can plunder the sensitive coastal habitats of Belfast Coastal Reserve.

But it doesn’t stop there.

The racing industry has also now been given special permission to access Hoon Hill, a large dune area of cultural and environmental significance, via a new access point at Spookys Beach. This will require additional infrastructure and works, and further cultural heritage approval.

This is inconsistent with the plans laid out in the Belfast Coastal Reserve Management Plan, which to date the Andrew Government has hidden behind.

The Andrews Government’s argument of a ‘balanced outcome’ for the reserve has at its core the fact that after initially allowing a tenfold increase in racehorse numbers in 2015, and then creating a plan that essentially halved the number in 2018, it is still allowing roughly a five-fold, or 500 per cent, increase in racehorse traffic in an environmentally sensitive reserve. And this is despite it being unlawful under both its Crown land designation and zoning.

This shows the power of the racing industry, and disappointingly, how much the Andrews Government will seemingly protect those interests.

This new access point was backed in by the Warrnambool City Council last month, with it voting to allow horses permanent access to Hoon Hill via Spookys Beach.

The rise of community power

This outrageous special treatment of the racing industry has been met with strong community opposition. Surfers, fishers and other beachgoers have been actively outspoken about their beaches being handed over.

The Warrnambool Coastcare Landcare Network and FarWest Friends of the Hooded Plover are some of the local groups that have joined forces with the Belfast Coastal Action Group to rally, host community events and contact decision makers. Their tireless efforts have been supported by VNPA and our supporters, Birdlife Australia and Environmental Justice Australia.

Meanwhile, south-west Traditional Owners have set up a ‘Protectors of Country Camp’ in the dunes at Levys Beach. They believe the 160 racehorses a day could be trampling through culturally and environmentally sensitive beaches and dunes, and have invited Premier Andrews to visit Levys Beach and discuss the Indigenous community’s concerns.

The issue is fast-gaining traction as a statewide issue, with recent media coverage in The Age and The Guardian.

Before commercial racehorse training can resume on the Belfast Coastal Reserve’s pristine beaches, consents and licenses still need to be issued by government agencies. But if the community activity so far is anything to go by, this will not come without strong opposition.

Since 2015, VNPA along with the Belfast Coastal Reserve Action Group has been opposed to the plans. The flawed proposal has been criticised every step of the way. Most of these concerns have been ignored by the Andrews Government.

With the recent scandals widely reported in the media about key racing identity Darren Weir, a major user of the reserve, the state government’s response that this is somehow a ‘balanced outcome’ is sounding even more hollow.


Say no to commercial racehorse training on Victoria’s beautiful and beloved beaches. Tell the Premier, Environment Minister, and Warrnambool City Councillors to put an end to damaging commercial racehorse training in the Belfast Coastal Reserve.

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