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February 25, 2021

Don Page faces grilling over local issues

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Don Page hands out leaflets at Mullumbimby during the most recent state election. Photo Jeff Dawson
Don Page hands out leaflets at Mullumbimby during the most recent state election. Photo Jeff Dawson

Hans Lovejoy

Nationals MP Don Page, who lives in Byron Bay and is the NSW local government and north coast minister, was recently asked questions by Greens and Labor MPs on just about every issue that affects his constituency.

The following summary is from the general purpose standing committee hearing held on August 12. Issues not included here are beach erosion, TAFE cuts, Tweed Heads Motor Registry job uncertainty, the region’s low vaccination rates, the local infrastructure renewal scheme [LIRS], dangerous dog laws, council amalgamation, pool registration, Mr Page’s opposition to including councils in the Constitution and council code of conduct rules.

It’s worth pointing out that some questions asked of the minister were outside his portfolio and that the material is sourced from an uncorrected transcript.

Environmental zone review delay

While a state of limbo surrounds the review of environmental zones for councils in the northern rivers, the SMH reported on August 13 that the state’s top planning bureaucrat has admitted to errors in the draft laws. Planning and Infrastructure director-general Sam Haddad said a proposed overhaul of planning laws reduced the community’s ability to fight bad decisions.

Despite this, planning minister Brad Hazzard has publicly indicated he will introduce the new laws in the next session of parliament.

When asked by Greens’ David Shoebridge what happened to the review, Mr Page first provided some background. ‘… As councils move away from the old local environment plans into the new template local environment plan, they need to reduce the number of zones that they had previously… In five councils on the north coast there was evidence that in moving from the old local environment plan to the new local environment plan, particularly in relation to E zones, there was a substantial increase in the E zones under the new local environment plan compared to the old local environment plan, and the minister for planning has indicated that he says, as a principle, it should be like for like. Taking a case like Byron Shire Council, for example, previously about 14 per cent of the total area of the local environment plan was zoned environmental zones and under their new arrangements it was 30 per cent, so there had been a substantial increase.’

While offering no timeframe for the report, Mr Page admitted that it is a ‘long process’ and is ‘quite complicated.’

At another point of the hearing, Greens MP Shoebridge asked Mr Page about Dan Murphy’s failed bid to open a mega booze outlet in Byron’s CBD earlier this year and his opposition to it.

Mr Shoebridge then asked, ‘But the ability of local communities such as those in Byron Bay, on the south coast and in western Sydney to join together and oppose a development application for a bottle shop is a fundamental democratic right, is it not?’, to which Mr Page agreed. Then Mr Shoebridge asked, ‘Are you concerned that the planning minister has put forward a proposal to take away people’s rights to have a say in those kinds of development applications?’

Planning laws

Mr Page said, ‘I think we have a little way to go before we know exactly what the final planning laws are going to look like. There are white papers and there are…’ Mr Shoebridge interrupted, ‘But the draft planning bill would have taken away the right of residents to have a say in opposition to that bottle shop in Byron Bay. That would have been a tragedy, would it not?’

Mr Page replied, ‘I think it was a good thing that the community had an opportunity to oppose that. Whether that opportunity would be taken away by the new planning laws I am not able to comment. I would be concerned if they were taken away.’

Alcohol-related violence

On the issue of alcohol-related violence on the north coast, Mr Page was asked what work he has done with local councils to reduce the incidence of violence and dangerous drinking. Mr Page replied that as a resident of Byron Bay, he ‘lives with the problem’.

‘I have been liaising with the police commander over quite a while and he has indicated that, in broad terms, it is not a police resourcing issue. He says it is more of a behavioural issue with some aspects of the life of Byron. By the way, his view is slightly different from the police on the ground who believe they need more resources, but that is another story.’

Mr Page said the minister for tourism George Souris has issued ‘show cause certificates’ to five premises in Byron Bay, ‘because they were involved in irresponsible promotion of alcohol’.

The Byron Bay Liquor Accord’s 1.30am lockout was also mentioned: ‘… the preliminary indications are that the alcohol-fuelled assault figures are down to the lowest they have been in five years’.

‘The bottom line is that we need to be proactive in Byron in a way that Newcastle was proactive…’

Holiday parks fiasco

Greens MP Jan Barham asked if Mr Page was aware of management (under the Crown) removing trees, expanding its sites and reducing public access without a plan of management in Brunswick Heads. ‘Are you aware of this and able to comment on whether the government is allowing what it never allowed local government to do when it had management – to proceed with works without an adopted plan of management?’

Mr Page replied his understanding is that the Ferry Reserve’s management plan was the only park plan not finalised so far and then deferred to mediator Mike Pearce, who had been negotiating with Byron Council, the Crown and North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP).

Ms Barham made the point that ‘There is this general principle of the Crown being able to do what previous managers were never able to do – activate redevelopment without an adopted plan of management – which means no community consultation and no adoption of a plan that everyone is able to see. Works are going on without that full accountability, so that is a concern. That is a key issue.’

Mr Pearce then claimed ‘there has been goodwill in all parties’ with negotiations whereas Ms Barham replied with, ‘It is probably not fair to say that’.

‘I think the community feels totally left out in that they are not engaged with the process when they previously had a draft plan of management put before them,’ she said. ‘They have soundly opposed it, and since then the works have just been proceeding without a plan.’

CSG mining

When asked by Labor’s Amanda Fazio if he had made representations on behalf of his constituency regarding CSG, he said, ‘… as the minister for the north coast, I have made it plain where a lot of people on the north coast are coming from on that issue… as a result of the concerns that have been raised, we have put in place in NSW the best regulatory arrangements across any state in Australia. We have in this state the toughest regulations applying to coal seam gas.’

He said he was proud his government ‘put in place a really tough regulatory regime’, and had been in the ‘forefront of discussions within the government’ on the issue. ‘It is not our role to support the mining companies,’ he said, ‘it is our role to put in place a regulatory regime that protects our land and water and provides some protection for landholders.’

Lack of public transport

Mr Page was asked what he had done to try to improve the provision of community transport in the region, and he replied that his government provided a subsidy specifically to service young people through the BatBus, which did not have ‘strong patronage’ and then mentioned private operators who run shuttle services.

‘Your point about public transport in the country generally is a fair one,’ he said. ‘It is difficult to put in place public transport if the patronage levels are low or people are wedded to their cars if that is what they want to do, and that is part of the problem.’

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