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Dugout licences under fire

Monday, 17th December, 2018

Lindsay White and Cree Marshall’s underground home in White Cliffs. PICTURE: Supplied Lindsay White and Cree Marshall’s underground home in White Cliffs. PICTURE: Supplied

By Callum Marshall

The NSW Department of Industry’s handling of White Cliffs dugout licences has come under fire from some of the town’s residents who complain of a bureaucratic nightmare.

Their anger follows a successful Barkindji native title claim which resulted in the department cancelling about half the town’s licences in September 2016. 

Since then, residents have been able to occupy the dugouts but not buy, sell or renovate them while negotiations continued.

However, White Cliffs local Dick Wagner, who owns several dugout businesses in the town, said past determinations stated that their licences were protected. 

“In November 2000, the National Native Title Tribunal (NNTT) sent a lot of us a letter saying that our valid leases and licences were protected by law from the native title claim,” he said. 

“We all thought that once we got this letter back in 2000 from the NNTT that we were protected by law.

“But in 2016, our occupancy licences or permissive licence for the dugouts were terminated by the Department.

“As late as 2015, the Department was talking to us about how those who wanted free-hold title for their dugouts could apply for it.”

New land agreements were sent to locals last week and the Department gave residents just 40 days to sign to lose their licence.

“These licences are dated 28th of November this year and we only got them last Friday on the 7th,” said Mr Wagner.

“Until this new licence came up we’d received only one letter from the Department back in 2017.”

His comments were echoed by Lindsay White.

“There’s just been no dialogue between us and the Department, which is the biggest problem,” he said.

“The trouble is their Department, which was once Western Lands, just seems to go to different departments all the time with different people involved. 

“When you’re dealing with the same people in Western Lands you can sort of get somewhere because they understand the background. 

“But because of the rapid changes it’s very hard to communicate.”

This week, NSW Lands Minister Paul Toole said that the time limit on signing the agreement would be extended to the end of March. 

In spite of that, residents are particularly worried about Section 24 of the land agreement document, seen by the BDT, which states licence holders cannot operate businesses in dugouts.

While local MP Kevin Humphries has been trying to get changes to address this issue, residents said they’d like absolute certainty that this will not go ahead.

“There is about a dozen little cottage industries that are in White Cliffs that operate out of dugouts or sites that require a licence,” said Mr Wagner.

“These 12 little businesses have already started to close because section 24 says you cannot operate a business.

“We all didn’t know this. I have a dugout licence that’s been terminated but had a business on the site for over 70 years. 

“Now they’re telling me if I don’t sign this document that the business will be closed. 

“I’ve asked for it to be changed from an occupancy licence to a business licence and I haven’t had an answer back from them as yet. 

“I’ve already heard of three other businesses that have closed and don’t intend to open up in the New Year. 

“If all the other little businesses go, it will gut this town. It’ll kill White Cliffs.”

Lindsay White recently closed his dugout business because of this very issue. 

“We used to let people look through our house and we thought we could do something with this business-wise,” he said.

“There’s two main things people are interested by when they come to White Cliffs - the opal and visiting these dugouts.

“But seeing as the document says you cannot have a business from a dugout it would absolutely decimate White Cliffs because that’s where all the tourism is.

“The trouble that it’s caused mentally to a lot of people is not funny.

“For virtually two years these people have been under stress and it’s not good. They think they’re going to lose their house. 

“Even now they’ve given some of these people a five-year (guarantee) but with no acknowledgement that anything will happen after that.

“A lot of people have put an immense amount of money, work, time and effort into building these places.

“But what Mr Humphries did in getting onto the Minister has certainly been a great help. 

“I just hope things work out.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Industry - Lands and Water said the land agreements were a “complicated legal matter that needed to be handled carefully.”

“The Department is looking at ways to help the residents of White Cliffs, but it has to be done in line with the Federal Court’s decision which recognised the native title rights of the Barkindji people,” said the spokesperson.

“This decision recognised the continuing connection of the Barkindji people to the land that pre-dates the founding of the Colony of NSW.

“This is a complicated legal matter that needs to be handled carefully in the best interests of all parties.

She said representatives of the Department will visit the town in the New Year to meet the residents and more talks will be held with the Barkindji people to try to come to an agreement that was workable for all.

“An extension until March 29 will be applied for White Cliffs residents to consider their licences, with further extensions as appropriate, and representatives of the Department will be in touch with each resident before then.”

Minister for Lands and Forestry Paul Toole said yesterday the 40-day wait was “insufficient”, especially with the Christmas holidays approaching.

“I have directed the Department to fix this immediately and give an extension out until 29 March.

“If that’s not enough time, I will consider extending it again to look at more options to assist the people of White Cliffs.

“The Department is going to talk with the Barkandji people to discuss the concerns of licence holders.

“I want to see a solution that’s acceptable to all.”

The Barkindji Native Title Group Corporation was contacted for comment.

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