UPDATE 19 August 2017 |

The Andrews Government seems determined to turn the beaches of Belfast Coastal Reserve into permanent racetracks and privatise their management.

Without any public announcement, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning issued a licence to the Warrnambool Racing Club to coordinate commercial horse training in the reserve. Regulations that go with the licence appear to potentially allow for racing stewards to remove beachgoers from the reserve if horses threaten their safety.

And then there’s Parks Victoria’s report on Phase 2 consultation for preparation of the reserve’s coastal management plan. In what could hardly be described as a good look, the report revealed that the Office of Racing was one of the park agency’s partners — but not the community. The role of that office is to provide policy advice and administrative support to the Minister for Racing, Martin Pakula, whose inappropriate interventions destroyed the community’s confidence in earlier consultation on commercial horse training in the reserve.

The Parks Victoria report does give some insight into the use of the reserve. Most people use it for walking, running, birdwatching, fishing and boating, dog walking and socialising. Very few engage in horseriding/training — the report conflates commercial and recreational horse riding, each very different in terms of intensity and impact — but 25% of the groups and stakeholders consulted were from that sector.

There were also strong community messages conveyed to Parks Victoria about the need to ‘protect the natural environment and the associated plants and animals’, make regulations that are enforced, keep the reserve ‘wild and pristine’ and protect the dunes from people, vehicles, horses, and dogs.

Of the seven issues raised by the community, three focussed on the reserve’s uniqueness, erosion and biodiversity and its cultural and heritage values, and three on the management of people, vehicles and dogs, while just one on horses.

Because the report is a qualitative analysis of comments received, each is given equal weight and prominence without testing of their accuracy. Positive comments about the racing industry are given far more weighting and prominence than they deserve, and negative comment qualified as shown by the following:

“Recreational and commercial horse use on the Reserve was seen as a threat to dune health, public safety and shorebirds when riders did not comply with regulations, codes of conduct or licence conditions.”

Comment: The first part of this sentence reflects community views but not the second part of the sentence. The community wants the horses out, full stop; regulatory compliance is a smoke screen.

“If commercial horse training was removed from the beach, trainers and jobs may leave the area, facilities to mimic the beach conditions would be needed in this case.”

Comment: The economic importance of the racing industry in the Warrnambool region has been vastly exaggerated by the government and the industry. It doesn’t even get a mention in regional economic planning. The government has recently funded the construction of a training pool and sand training track at the Warrnambool Racing Club, facilities designed to ‘mimic the beach conditions’. Trying to prevent the departure of jobs and trainers from the area is beyond the scope of the plan. The prime objective of the plan should be to ensure that the purposes of the reserve, protecting coastal natural and cultural heritage and supporting passive recreation, are upheld.  It’s a coastal management plan, not an economic development strategy.

“Horse training and horse racing are a vital part of the economy, history and culture of Warrnambool, and we need to protect it.”

Comment: Even if this were the case, the use of the reserve for the training of large numbers of racehorses is a recent phenomenon. The industry can be protected without access to the Belfast Coastal Reserve, the purpose of which is to protect natural and cultural heritage and passive recreation.

“Horses in smaller numbers across more of the Reserve should be acceptable to most people and see less impact.”

Comment: That simply spreads the damage across the reserve.  It is not acceptable to the community.