And so the secretive shambles of the tragic desecration of the Bight Cemetery near Wingham, where approximately 65 headstones were “laid down “ ( ie trashed)  by Council workers on July19  2019, staggers on laboriously, with families unappeased and damaged heritage headstones deteriorating.

Families, hurt and angry, are despairing and disappointed that Council hasn’t lived up to its promises.

In the immediate weeks after the event, with the community up in arms demanding answers, the Council finally called a meeting at Wingham Bowling Club, chaired by Mave Richardson. It was a rare glimpse of the General Manager in action. He started to speak while still seated at the table in front of the crowd until audience member Warwick Murray shouted that he stand up to address them. 

The GM apologised about the cemetery and promised that matters would be rectified. He held notes and looked like he’d rather be anywhere else at that moment and came across as un-empathetic. 

It was left to energetic Paul deSzell, Director of Liveable Communities ( yes, I wonder what that means too) who must be council’s spin doctor, as he promised all would be rectified, done and dusted, according to all the rules regulations and obligations in co-operation with advice and guidance from the regulatory bodies concerned. 

So why has a year passed and little been done ? The sorry sight at the cemetery must be distressing for all concerned. 

On Going Heritage Assessment

Cr. Kathryn Bell, the co-chair of The Heritage Reference Group (HRG) which met in early November devoted the whole meeting to the Conservation Management Plan (CMP) by Umwelt (the consultant hired by council).

Said Cr. Bell, “In the coming days the HRG members will be provided with minutes and notes of the HRG meeting and comments about the plan with an opportunity for feedback which will be correlated and provided to Council at the November or December meeting for Council’s determination.”

Spokesman for The Blight of the Bight Group, Tim Crossley, said that, “It was an extremely big ask of members of the Heritage Reference Group to read and understand 230 plus pages of a relatively complex document in 4 days and expect them to engage and vote on whether they accept its findings. Especially when you consider neither families, the community nor the National Trust were fully consulted in developing the CMP. Why not keep it simple? Go back to the principle that the Council have to restore the cemetery to its original fabric before the storms and desecration. This principle is consistent with the Burra Charter, and is included in the CMP.  In doing this restoration work Council need to honour their commitments made at the Council meeting on the 25th March, namely that monuments greater than 50 years be assessed and restored by a heritage stone mason and those less than 50 years by an ordinary stone mason; and that Council immediately undertake the assessment of the damaged monuments by the appropriate stone mason. This was supposed to have happened parallel with the CMP but has not.  Fixing it all correctly by the 2nd anniversary of the desecration should be Councils target.” 

Who Did What?

So what went wrong?  Were the workers not supervised? A crane was used to lay down the larger monuments and some families were distressed to see muddy boot prints over the inscriptions on their headstones. But why were 65 headstones laid down when only ten were supposed to be? It must be galling for the families. 

Remember, all this is not long after the previous disaster at the Bight Cemetery in December 2018 where two trees and heavy branches fell in one corner of the cemetery during a severe storm, damaging several headstones.

 Again, an over-reaction on the part of Council had the community stunned and saddened when the entire row of magnificent historic cypress trees were decimated. Totally removed. No warning, no notification or consultation with the families or the public, just send in the chainsaws. (As the Council did at the heritage stables at the Australia Hotel in Wingham in 2016.) And despite promises we are yet to see any re-planting replacement at the Bight cemetery as was promised. 

More local cemeteries were on the Council’s list to also have headstones laid down.

Seems we’ll never really know the real story (unless it goes to court) as Council battles to keep the whole fiasco under wraps. 

Will It End in Court?

A major issue with the public is that no one is taking responsibility which is proving to be an ongoing can of worms.  While Council says they are “fixing” things, a big issue seems to be keeping the workers’ identities away from public scrutiny in fear of reprisals against those responsible. Issues of public health and safety, of stress and health of the staff concerned, not to mention Council’s legality in managing the cemetery, are proving an ongoing nightmare for council executives. 

And what about all the pain, stress and health of the families impacted?

The shambles at the cemetery is possibly one of many issues that have not been “harmonised” since amalgamation. 

As the Bight Cemetery is Heritage Listed a DA would have been required under the Local Environment Plan. 

And had the proper procedures been observed, surely a DA would have required a Heritage Impact Statement and notification to impacted families and the community before work was commenced. The issue of having an expired licence to operate in The Bight Cemetery in relation to the protected Donkey Orchid would have also come out in this process. 

Did Council notify agencies such as the National Trust, The Office of the Environment and Heritage, Cemeteries and Crematoria NSW? 

Questions go unanswered, communication from Council is stalled or redacted in GIPA documents. 

Transparency doesn’t seem to be a trait of this government, even at a Council level. Think Ruby Princess and The Hotel quarantine fiasco . . . so I suppose the Council will operate on the principle…that this too will pass…

Sigh.  Roll on September 2021.  Council elections.


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