Queenslanders see red over Woolworths tactics in Far North

Image: The lights stop here: protesters are unhappy with Woolworths’ impact on their community.

A small Far North Queensland town is steeling up for a very big fight with supermarket giant Woolworths (ASX:WOW) over a new piece of urban infrastructure locals say their community neither wants nor needs.

With a population of less than 2000 people, the idyllic hamlet of Mossman nestled between the Daintree and the Great Barrier Reef has never had a set of traffic lights since its establishment in the late nineteenth century. And it doesn’t want them now either.

In the most local of disputes – which is shaping up as a public relations disaster for Woolworths, the town seems determined to fight tooth and nail keep the red lights out.

For Mossman, it’s a matter of cultural identity.

Traffic lights might be necessary in most Australian cities and towns, but for many of Queensland’s less crowded communities, the relentless march north of red lights in the name of progress is treated with the antipathy dished out to Cane Toads headed south.

Woolworths’ unwanted gift of traffic management equipment to the shoppers of Mossman is now the northernmost set of signals in a state where for many, the very absence of red lights marks the visual and cultural transition from the burbs to the bush.

With no traffic lights, no parking meters and a strongly engaged community where townfolk know each other on a first name basis, Mossman is becoming a cultural line in the sand.

The issue of traffic lights is running so hot that Douglas Shire Council and its Mayor, Julia Leu, are backing a growing campaign against their installation by Woolworths’ developer Town & Country as a cheap alternative to building a more expensive roundabout.

Woolworths is already unpopular in many Queensland farming communities and a prime target for criticism by the Member for Kennedy Bob Katter, but the retailer’s Mossman redevelopment could soon start costing the company in ways it didn’t expect.

At the state level, the dispute is shaping up as a key test for Premier Campbell Newman’s push to return greater autonomy to local governments by unwinding deeply unpopular forced council mergers that were instigated under the previous Labor government.

Douglas Shire was one of many smaller local governments re-established following referenda where locals were given the choice between keeping or dumping regional super councils that essentially failed to deliver on their promise of big improvements and cheaper costs.

The choice over what kind of local government smaller communities has was a key promise during Mr Newman’s election campaign that produced a landslide victory.

The ability of commercial development interests to influence town planning decisions and essentially sideline local opposition is also regarded as a grass roots issue that helped persuade voters to heavily punish the previous Labor government after Mr Newman campaigned strongly on giving regional areas a choice over what kind of local government they wanted.

The roots of the present dispute between Douglas Shire, Woolworths and its developer Town & Country over traffic lights largely stem from that process.

Mayor Leu said that initial development plans that were originally approved by Douglas Shire in 2007 were then subsequently changed and later approved by Cairns Regional Council on 15th January 2013 when it had absorbed Douglas Shire under the now terminated council amalgamation.

Those plans included “a requirement for the shopping centre to be set back at least six metres from the boundary and be landscaped with native species” which Mayor Leu – who was then a Councillor for Cairns Regional Council – supported.

However Mayor Leu claims that what she was not shown was “the Amended Decision Notice re-issued by Cairns Regional Council the next day which had deleted the requirement for a six-metre set back and extensive landscaping “after the developer had discussions with Cairns Regional Council Deputy Mayor and Chair of the Planning Committee Terry James and a senior council planner.”

As a result, the set back went and the traffic lights came when the issue of site access and traffic management under the amended plans was bounced over to the Department of Transport and Main Roads [DMTR].

“On January 15 [2014], the Department of Transport and Main Roads granted approval for traffic lights at the site at the request of the developer in preference to a roundabout, which would have cost the developer significantly more money,” Mayor Leu said.

“The community is opposed to traffic lights as part of this development, Douglas Shire Council is opposed to traffic lights in the Douglas Shire but it is the Department of Transport and Main Roads that ultimately decides and granted approval for traffic lights.”

Ms Leu told Government News that her council had attempted reach a compromise with the developer, builder Prime Constructions and the DMTR that could avoid the installation of traffic lights, so far to no avail.

Woolworths head office did not offer an official response or comment to questions put to the company by Government News, including whether it was prepared to reconsider the decision to install traffic lights.

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