|26 November 2017
There has been some concern expressed in recent days regarding new signage at the Queenstown Recreation Ground that indicates no overnight parking.
The move by Council to limit caravans and other RV’s parking to daytime only at this community recreation facility is one of a range of measures the West Coast Council has been forced to implement in response to an Economic Regulator finding that the Council was providing free camping services, in contravention of competitive neutrality principles.
“Council disagreed strongly with the ludicrous suggestion that just because we were emptying rubbish bins and maintaining toilet facilities at sites we were therefore providing free camping,” West Coast General Manager Dirk Dowling said. “Nonetheless, Councils do not have the luxury of ignoring such findings and are required to respond.”
The involvement of the Economic Regulator was as a result of a formal complaint by the previous owner of the Queenstown Caravan Park and was not limited to the Queenstown Recreation Ground. The complaint also highlighted Stitt Park in Rosebery as another free camping service being provided by West Coast Council.
Council argued strongly against this suggestion by pointing out it did not own Stitt Park and was merely working to maintain a facility in partnership with the owner (MMG) and the Lions Club. This argument did nothing to prevent the Economic Regulator from making the adverse finding.
In light of the findings, Council staff commenced monitoring of areas around the municipality where RVs were parking. Council also sought to engage with the Caravan Park operators involved from Queenstown, Rosebery and Zeehan (those seeking to force the changes) and other stakeholders in an attempt to find the right balance.
In October and November 2016 Council advertised for residents and businesses with key interests in RV Camping on the West Coast to attend at public session. Attendances at this workshop was poor, with barely a handful of residents, in addition to a small number of tourism operators. No other business operators attended, including those based in Queenstown.
Council also liaised with the owners of Stitt Park (MMG) and the Lions Club of Rosebery and as a result of those detailed and complex discussions, Stitt Park toilets were closed and Council’s involvement is now limited to rubbish collection (a service paid for by MMG). There is no guarantee that this arrangement will not still be in contravention of the illogical approach taken by the Economic Regulator – that is, according to the Regulator’s interpretation, where an RV parks on a verge somewhere in the West Coast that is near a bin emptied by Council with public toilets nearby, then Council is still illegally providing free camping services.
Again, Council sees this as a ludicrous outcome, but not surprising, given the limited range of actual on-ground circumstances and real world outcomes the Economic Regulator fails to factor in. It is Council’s view that the application of the competitive neutrality principles is currently flawed and in serious need of review and change.
Council also initiated a project to create a brochure to provide a listing of preferred camping areas available around our region, in an attempt to encourage campers to use appropriate sites instead of public spaces. This brochure was developed via information provided from stakeholders such as Parks and Wildlife and individual tourism operators. The brochure was finalised mid-way through this year and is now positioned at those locations our research indicated were hot spots for illegal camping activities.
Council’s Municipal Inspector was instructed to start moving people on from some sites (including the Queenstown Recreation Ground) and to provide the brochure to campers. This is a genuine attempt not to be draconian and to encourage campers to use appropriate sites.
“Over the past two years Council, in the face of an adverse finding of the Economic Regulator and the constant insistence by local caravan operators that all so-called free camping should be stopped, has tried to take a measured approach to the issue,” West Coast Mayor Phil Vickers said. “The placement of the sign at the Queenstown Recreation Ground is just another measure in a complex process. It is not designed to hurt local businesses.”
Council has always been mindful that encouraging tourist to stay in our towns is the utmost priority.
Council has resisted the wholesale signage and by-law approach for several years, which would have quickly sidelined the finding of the Economic Regulator. Instead, Council has sought to work with stakeholders, identify solutions that don’t put the tourism industry in jeopardy and which seeks to establish the right balance between appropriate use of public spaces and a strong visitor economy that supports local businesses. At this point the Recreation Ground is not suitable as a Camping Ground and is not designed to cater for the large numbers of RV’s that have used the facility in the past.
Council does not have the luxury of ignoring legal requirements when it comes to competitive neutrality law and any suggestion that the sign itself at the Recreation Ground will prevent RV’s from visiting Queenstown altogether is alarmist and misinformed.
These Council actions have been forced by the complaints and the subsequent findings of the Economic Regulator. West Coast Council has been attempting to achieve the right balance for those businesses who believe RV campers put their operations at risk, and also for those who see RV campers providing benefit to their operations.
Mayor Vickers also stated, “Council has been dealing with this matter for many years, and has been forced into these actions by the findings of the Economic Regulator. The negativity and unfair criticism being handed out by a small number of West Coast residents against West Coast Council staff is not warranted and should cease.”
In summary, Council wants to make clear to the public that:
- Council wholly supports the expansion and diversification of the tourism industry on the West Coast
- Council staff have, on a number of occasions, met with senior staff from the Caravan and Motorhome Camping Association CMCA (who manage the RV Friendly Town signage and qualifications), to look for options in light of the Economic Regulator findings
- Council is also looking at options for leasing the Queenstown Recreation Grounds in the future and is currently in discussions with the Queenstown Crows Football Club
- Moves to direct RV’s from parking overnight at the Queenstown Recreation Ground should not deter those visitors who truly want to experience the West Coast. We should not forget that our region is much larger than the Queenstown Recreation Ground, there is a multitude of areas where RV parking could occur (free or otherwise) across the region
- Whilst the original complainant no longer owns the Queenstown Caravan Park, Council is unfortunately still bound by the findings of the Economic Regulator and is still dealing with the insistence by some business operators that any free camping areas within our communities should not be permitted, as these businesses believe free camping harms their operations.
- We note the new owners of the Queenstown Caravan Park have been proactive in refreshing their business model to encourage RV campers at their site, whilst also understanding the ways in which people holiday/camp have changed over recent years
- The next step is to develop a policy that will meet competitive neutrality guidelines (which Council must legally meet) whilst not having a negative impact on the West Coast tourism industry
- In accordance with the measured and responsible approach taken by Council over several years, the intention is to continue to work with all affected stakeholders to strive to find that right balance. Council is confident that with good will and good intentions underpinning the continuing conversation with these stakeholders, that balance can be achieved.
- Council believes that criticising and attacking Council and the process from a narrow and single minded perspective is not constructive and Council calls upon those members of the community that feel strongly (one way or another) to opt into constructive dialogue and that they commit to participate in future workshops/forums to find the solutions with Council.
- Anyone wishing to lodge a complaint, or provide constructive feedback and/or information regarding RV Camping on the West Coast can do so via the Customer Feedback Form, via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or in writing to West Coast Council.