Affiliate Profile: Voice of Wallalong / Woodville (VOWW)
By Alison Rogers, EcoNetwork committee member.
This profile focuses on EcoNetwork’s affiliate, Voice of Wallalong and Woodville (VOWW). The upcoming East Meets West Port Stephens Bus Tour of Discovery would not be possible without their members. The current president, Margarete Ritchie and secretary Chris Winnett, are organising the tour and will provide participants with an opportunity to explore local sites, visit historic locations, view rural vistas and learn about natural threats as well as environmental and planning challenges. I interviewed Margarete to find out about VOWW and delve into why she is such a passionate and effective advocate for her community.
VOWW was incorporated in 2012 when it successfully prevented a development in Wallalong that would have resulted in more than 12,000 people living on farmland adjacent to a flood plain. They would have been without access to basic requirements such as sewerage and would have had problems with entrapment during regular flood events. Rallying locals, undertaking research and presenting their arguments against the development at the local and state level meant they not only stopped the contentious property development, but established strong foundations for a community association. VOWW currently has over 40 members and a committee of 6 active executives.
Margarete said ‘when individuals don’t get answers to their issues – they come to VOWW. We do get answers because we can’t be ignored.’ This explains to some extent why the group has been so effective. VOWW has successfully lobbied to retain the Nelson Plains high ground for farming instead of housing. They spent over 6 years lobbying the Department of Planning to ensure the best possible outcome for residents and the environment when a quarrying company at Brandy Hill sought approval to expand its operations. Although the expansion will proceed, advocacy efforts mean the mine has to plant 73 hectares of koala habitat, adhere to best practice quarrying principles to reduce the noise and dust and reduce their hours of operation. Most recently, VOWW supported the community of the Paterson Valley to prevent the expansion of the quarry at Martins Creek and thereby prevented more trucks from travelling along Brandy Hill Drive. Other achievements have also included lobbying to reduce speed limits and install signage about wildlife.
VOWW takes a very strategic approach to their advocacy. They listen to multiple perspectives, gather expertise, connect with alternative sources of knowledge, undertake research, write clear submissions and communicate with a wide variety of audiences. Margarete knows that VOWW does not have all the answers, but they do know where to source the assistance required. In addition to experts from the farming, agricultural, mining and government sectors, Margarete believes they have a two-way learning approach with EcoNetwork, particularly for environmental issues. Drawing upon support from EcoNetwork and other affiliates such as TRAA has resulted in mutually beneficial collaborations.
Margarete has held numerous positions in VOWW for over 10 years. When I asked her why she contributes she said, ‘I hate seeing people struggle with issues that they don’t know how to solve or when they are not getting heard. I just can’t let people flounder. I find myself listening and, if the evidence justifies the fight, I can help develop a strategic response.’ She did talk about the frustrations but said that the wins made all the hard work worthwhile. Many friendships and opportunities to learn new things are some of the satisfying elements of her work. Sharing and cooperating at the committee level also means there is a high level of camaraderie among the team; they go beyond their job titles, divide up tasks and distribute the load across all who are willing and available to contribute. For example, Chris Winnett, as secretary, has been an invaluable member of the committee and the group appreciates her level of dedication.
VOWW is currently lobbying to prevent additional quarries and local rezoning plans, while learning about the battery storage proposal near Seaham. They want to ensure that the wins they have gained on paper become a reality in practice. However, they are also proactively working towards planning a future based on the desires of local residents. At least 8 members letterbox dropped every single resident and invited them to attend a VOWW meeting with a guest speaker from Port Stephens Council to address attendees on the topic of Place Plans. Over 50 people turned up and the Woodville Hall was filled to capacity. Not only did they sign up new members, but the lively discussion generated enthusiasm, new concerns that need to be addressed by the council and some visionary ideas.
With such a strong member base, a willingness to connect with the community through face-to-face and social media channels, a desire to be strategic, evidence-based and professional and, most importantly, the listening skills to hear different perspectives and find common ground, VOWW is on course to remain an advocacy force for many years to come.
VOWW includes members from Nelsons Plains, Wallalong, Woodville, Butterwick, Hinton, Osterley, Brandy Hill, Seaham, Balickera – most localities in West Ward. Residents are passionate about this part of Port Stephens. They chose a lifestyle away from the hustle and bustle of towns, they value the environment, the tranquillity and will fight to retain it.
- East Meets West Port Stephens Bus Tour of Discovery – 19 July and 5 August 2023
- Cluster of big quarry projects rocks residents living with traffic, dust, noise – Newcastle Herald 24 June 2023 (paywall)
- Voice of Wallalong/Woodville webpage
- Listen to the Voice of Wallalong/Woodville – recent campaigns