The mid-north and far-north coasts of New South Wales boast some
of the most charming shorelines in the developed world. And for regions
offering so many natural attractions, they are also among the most
sparsely populated. The reasons are well known.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, coastal townships and villages like,
Forster, Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour and Byron Bay became the chosen
refuge of retirees, “alternative life-stylers”, so-called
“sea-changers” and others hoping to escape the Sydney rat-race. Byron
Bay, in particular, became a sanctuary for pot-smoking - and
cultivating - hippies, “ferals”, dole-bludgers and assorted celebrities
from the entertainment industry.
Some of these centres became famous for their laid-back,
counter-culture ambience, and, over time, for something else - a
ferocious resolve on the part of residents to stop more people joining
them. Having acquired their slice of paradise on earth, they were
determined to keep it all for themselves. Love, peace and the
brotherhood of man were fine, so long as the brothers stayed in Sydney.
A distinct type of political activism took root in these areas.
Diverse action groups sprung up with a singular focus - to block
development. Any proposal showing the slightest promise of attracting
residents and commerce would be opposed vehemently. These activists,
and their elected representatives on local city and shire councils,
became adept at dressing up instances of selfish exclusivity with the
weasle words of environmental protection. Their success is clear for
all to see. The far-north coast region covers an area of 10,293 square
kilometres but contains only 228,000 people. The mid-north coast
region, roughly double the size, only 333,400.
Just consider that these figures translate to a population density
in the far north coast of 22 people per square kilometre. By
comparison, the population densities of the UK and France are 244 and
Judging by the recently released planning “strategies” for these
regions, there is little political appetite for a challenge to the
nimbys (not in my backyard). After all, this is a difficult election
year for the state government. The Far North Coast Strategy (PDF 3.36MB) plans for a colossal - wait for it - population increase of 60,400 people over 25 years. And the Mid North Coast Strategy (PDF
1.8MB)? No less than 91,000 over 25 years. You will find more people
living in a single Shanghai neighbourhood. These numbers are pathetic.
We are talking about regions that could, if unlocked, attract some of
the brightest and most dynamic people in the country, not to mention
the world. The strategies amount to nothing less than abject
capitulation to the nimbys.
They are very odd in another respect. Both fret over the fact that
the regional populations are ageing, and yet this is simply accepted as
a fact of life. There is no sense of urgency to replenish the stock
with younger blood.
According to the far-north coast strategy, the median age is
projected to increase from 39 to 51 years, due to more than doubling of
the population aged 65 and over. Similarly, the median age on the
mid-north coast is expected to increase from 41 years in 2001 to 55 in
2031, and, again, the population aged 65 years and over will more than
double. So what should be done?
“Currently 80 per cent of all dwellings in the region(s) are
detached houses” say the strategies, “but with demographic change and
lower occupancy ratios there will need to be a greater proportion of
multi-unit dwellings in future to provide accessible and adaptable
housing choices”. Prepare for pensioners. If these strategies are
implemented, the northern coast will end up “terra nullius”. Even
nimbys die eventually.
The residential settlement pattern promoted by the strategies is
based on the underlying premise that things mustn’t change too much.
Consider this typical planning euphemism for a policy of mediocre
growth: “The Regional Strategy identifies and promotes a settlement
pattern that protects environmental values and natural resources while utilising and developing the existing network of major urban centres, reinforcing village character, and requiring efficient use of existing services and major transport routes [emphasis added]”.
In other words, we’ll keep the masses out. This paragraph also let’s
drop the voguish planning word “village”, code for “not suburban”.
Since suburbs, and detached houses on sizeable blocks, are the
preferred destination for young couples with children, this policy will
guarantee the coast’s geriatric future.
Nor do the strategies have much of interest to say about employment.
The emphasis is on tourism, a convenient industry catering to people
who don’t stay.