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Nimbys fortify their coastal strongholds

By Jeremy Gilling, John Muscat and Rolly Smallacombe - posted Monday, 12 March 2007


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.

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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 109 respectively.

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.

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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.

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First published in The New City, February 2007 edition.



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About the Authors

Jeremy Gilling is a co-editor, along with John Muscat, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

John Muscat is a co-editor, along with Jeremy Gilling, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

Rolly Smallacombe is a co-editor, along with Jeremy Gilling and John Muscat, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Jeremy Gilling
All articles by John Muscat
All articles by Rolly Smallacombe

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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