The retirement village was built in the 1960s after the Port Hedland community held numerous fundraisers. (ABC Pilbara: Karen Michelmore)
Ten elderly residents in an outback retirement village in Western Australia will be forced to leave their homes after a controversial ruling.
- Community members in Port Hedland are outraged over a decision to evict the residents of an “unsafe” retirement home
- The building has been deemed structurally unsound, but locals say the move is being made in favour of the mining industry
- Two weeks before it was suspended, the previous council had agreed to repair the building, which has stood since the 1960s
Port Hedland Commissioner Fred Riebeling made the decision at an at-times fiery and emotional meeting in the remote Pilbara town of Port Hedland, declaring the property unsafe due to electrical, plumbing and structural issues.
Some of the residents left the meeting in tears.
“A lot of people were very emotional here — that’s all part of a public meeting,” Commissioner Riebeling said.
“But some of the comments about us not caring and stuff is just wrong.
“I do care about the elderly and I do think we should do our very best to at least give them safe housing, and that’s the bottom line for me.”
Reprieve given, then taken away
Members of the community overwhelmingly spoke out against the move, saying their democratic rights were being trampled on.
Some feared for the future of their town, saying the rights of mining companies had been prioritised over the rights of residents.
Port Hedland is home to the world’s largest bulk export port, and each year hundreds of millions of tonnes of iron ore — worth tens of billions of dollars — depart for overseas markets.
For years residents have complained about dust pollution, and in October the WA Government announced it would block any future residential development and possibly reduce the number of permanent residents in dust-affected areas.
The WA government suspended the Town of Port Hedland council two months ago following complaints, and installed Commissioner Riebeling in its place.
The council had considered relocating the Stevens Street group last year, but instead decided to cease all actions to remove the residents.
In June — two weeks before it was suspended — the council agreed to spend $4 million to make the property safe.
An audit of the Stevens Street site has found a number of buildings to be structurally unsound and the Town of Port Hedland received advice from its insurer indicating it could be denied liability coverage over the issue.
Long-time Port Hedland resident Jacko Sheltens says he doesn’t want to live anywhere but on Stevens Street. (ABC Pilbara: Karen Michelmore)
Double blow for long-time local
Stevens Street resident Jacko Scheltens said he does not want to leave.
“I got a kick in the guts the first time, I got a kick in the guts the second time,” Mr Scheltens said.
“The first time we won, we beat the council.
“I think this is a different story.
“I don’t want to go anywhere else, I want to die there.
“I’ve been in Port 30 years — I came here for three months, I’m still here.
“It’s very hard to get rid of me.”
Port Hedland resident Lauren Shannon said she was “really disappointed, but not surprised” by the decision.
“All we want to do now with this news is put our feet down and make sure that if they are going to move them out they are going to keep them in Port Hedland rather than South Hedland,” Ms Shannon said.
“I think everybody is going to be extremely upset and sad and depressed about their futures and where they are going to be living from now on.
“All we can do is rally around the residents and offer them any support and help they need going forward to relocate and everything else.”
The council will pay all costs associated with the relocation.
Mary Attwood said the residents were being ignored in favour of the mining companies.
“I think the time has come for the council to deal with the fact that this is a community town, it was never owned by the mining companies,” Ms Attwood told the meeting.
“We are the people that have been living here all our lives, [we] know what is happening and we are going to fight you.
“You are not going to get away with it.”
Some Stevens Street units overlook the ocean at Port Hedland. (ABC Pilbara: Karen Michelmore)
Community remembers push for village
The units were built in the 1960s after intense community fundraising activities, including hermit crab races.
Pam Gangell-Hardinge, a long-time resident and former councillor, authored a letter that was read at the meeting.
“Before the people of Port Hedland raised enough money for new units in a two-for-one dollar grant by the Federal Government, the elderly of Port Hedland lived in shacks,” Ms Gangell-Hardinge’s letter read.
“They had two rooms, corrugated iron, no floor coverings, cement troughs for washing, wood cooking stoves, no linings.
“It was very rough.
“We held arty-farty garden parties, hermit crab races, we walked to the pubs on Friday nights in Ned Kelly costumes and buckets.
“[Had] special dinners and raffles.
“This was not done so that someone could come along at a later date and throw the elderly out for a better offer.
“Pulling the residents out and handing the site to another operation is neither correct nor fair.
“Don’t let it happen, people of Port Hedland.”
Commissioner Riebeling said the residents would have 60 days to relocate, and that accommodation would be found for them.
“We are going to do our very, very best to house these people where they want to be housed, which is in Hedland,” he said.
“We will looking at the private sector and various other means to try and come to that.”
He also said a possible rebuild of the site at Stevens Street was still on the table, but residents would need to be housed elsewhere in the interim.
It is unclear whether this would be permitted under the state’s cap on future residential development.
“We will go into talks with the government in relation to what’s possible and hopefully get the support of local members and the like,” Commissioner Riebeling said.
“We’ve got a significant hunk of money which usually attracts other money from government to build what will be popular and safe accommodation.”
But Jim Henneberry, from the Port Hedland Community Progress Association, said under the government’s own plan for the West End, sensitive land uses like aged care would be prohibited.
“This town is being taken away from the residents and it’s being put into an industrial zone because the resource sector wants that,” he said.