We are in a crucial time of species extinction and destruction of our natural environment.
The shock of rainforests burning and the loss of the conservation achievements of forty years, put in place by our ‘alternative’ elders and the Indigenous community, is devastating. This must be a wake-up call for the deniers.
Is it possible that Byron Shire can be at the forefront of much-needed changes by retaining a commitment to an ecologically sustainable future?
Since the 1970s, the north coast has had a proud history of environmental and social activism that defined the area we live in and enjoy today. But the fires and the loss of hundreds of thousands of hectares of biodiversity should ignite our emotions and our sense of responsibility to protect what is left and inform how we respond to future challenges.
A locally focussed way of living and decision making is the realisation of the old saying ‘Think globally, act locally’. Our future must be defined by an informed understanding of what growth and change delivers and whether it’s possible to manage their impacts in an ecologically sustainable manner within the capacity of our environment.
A little history
Recent Byron Shire planning proposals presented to the community for feedback haven’t fully considered the impacts of the projected growth or undertaken cumulative assessments. More land for development is proposed but also higher densities in our existing urban areas. Both increase impacts. It’s the role of professional planners to present this information to the community and the elected council. But perhaps they don’t know our history.
Decision making that allows growth without consideration of, planning for and investigation of impacts is irresponsible. It breaches the trust that the community places in our council and fails to inform us of the risks and consequences.
The current planning minister, Rob Stokes, in a paper he presented in 2008 said:
‘The concept of environmental planning involved “decision making for planned development and conservation to achieve economic and social growth within the tolerable limits and capacities of the physical environment”.’
The oft-repeated perspective that any ‘alternative’ views to growth and change represent a naysayer position is false. The concept of Ecological Sustainable Development (ESD) is very much a YES statement. It involves respect for the values of our environment and community and a clear commitment to the precautionary principle, inter-generational equity and climate change considerations. ESD is not a slogan, it has principles and guidelines and is recognised by the courts, unlike the term ‘sustainable’ which has no legal or planning definition, but developers love to use it; it’s marketing.
The approval of growth decisions in local planning documents must be rigorous; firstly investigating the values and constraints and if additional impacts can be managed. More development delivers more sewerage and greater demand for water. The impacts of more traffic and climate change must be thoroughly investigated prior to making decisions for growth. New planning opportunities can leave a community vulnerable to legal challenges if they try and oppose inappropriate development after the rules that allow it have been adopted.
Dealing with shit
Over twenty years ago, poor development decisions resulted in overloaded sewerage plants and polluted waterways. A development approval freeze was imposed on Byron Council by the State. It was referred to as the ‘Sewerage Moratorium’. At the same time the general manager departed and it was revealed that council was $7 million in debt, primarily due to the building of the Council Chambers. This was the reality of poor governance.
Some of the current planning changes proposed are due to statewide planning laws, but some have been initiated by Byron Council. If Council undertakes detailed investigation and has evidence that the imposed changes, many aimed at providing ‘affordable housing’ are not achievable without adverse impacts, it can make the case to the state government for exclusion or variation from general state provisions.
We know that Byron Shire is desirable and people want to live here, but it just isn’t possible, there are limits; ecological, social and geographic.
Tourism must also be considered for any planning decisions as we have very little control over the ever-increasing popularity of our location, but the impacts are escalating.
As residents, we have a right to comment on plans for growth and change. It is council’s role to present the consequences of change to ensure informed engagement and feedback.
Planning can be that experience you encounter when you want to build a home, or the one that you have when you get the council letter that says you are faced with a mini-motel in the guise of a house next door. It’s about rules, that once adopted, are near impossible to reverse.
Best practice strategic planning develops from a process of understanding where we live, what values and constraints exist and what sort of future we desire, before we adopt growth possibilities.
Byron Shire has a proud history of environmental planning. In the 1980s, three-storey town limits, environmental protection zones, heritage protection and coastal erosion management (Planned Retreat) were put in place and have all served this community well. There’s been many challenges but if the planning is rigorous, it’s defensible. Perhaps it’s time to consider if there are lessons to be learnt from the past and if they present a more cautious approach to defining our future.
A vision of ESD
The United Nations, Rio Earth Summit, in 1992 changed the focus of planning and growth. Ecologically Sustainable Development principles were adopted and a commitment to addressing climate change. The worlds’ leaders agreed that future planning must address the responsibility to protect and preserve the Earth that makes our existence possible.
Soon the principles of ESD became enshrined in law, including provisions for it to inform council decision making in the Local Government Act (S8A).
Also in 1992, local environmental organisation BEACON (Byron Environment and Conservation Organisation) held a community event about the future of Byron Shire. It created an opportunity for the community to be informed about alternatives; instead of the inevitable growth that we could see to the north where developers were destroying the landscape to build massive residential developments and high rises.
That event led to the development of the Byron Shire Vision Statement which presented guidelines for our future, based on ESD principles.
A leaflet with visuals depicting both the urban and rural future visions defined by ESD, was sent to every household. Byron Shire had a counterpoint to rampant growth and it was this Vision Statement.
Byron Council was in the middle of a pro-development council (1991–1995). It had already approved Club Med and Broken Head Quarry (Batsons) expansion and developed an anything goes draft residential strategy.
The community opposed this poor decision making and were successful in court opposing both Club Med and the quarry. As more unsustainable growth-based planning was presented, concerns were heightened. The case of ‘yes’ to ESD not just ‘no’ to growth was defined.
In the CAN
The Community Action Network (CAN) was formed and organised for the 1995 local election. Increased awareness led to the election of a majority of councillors who had committed to an ecologically sustainable future.
The Big Picture Show event highlighted options and provided further understanding of an alternative future.
The new council developed the ‘Greenprint for a Sustainable Future’, based on the Vision Statement and guided by ESD and later, embedded it in the Local Environmental Plan (LEP). It identified a program necessary to inform and progress an ecologically sustainable future, including a Biodiversity Conservation Strategy, Social Impact Assessment policy and Sustainable Agriculture Strategy and Rural, town and village growth plans. Byron Shire Council was the first council in Australia to implement a comprehensive ESD planning program.
In 1997, the poor decision making of the 1991–95 council came into effect. The pollution of our waterways was due to the overloading of sewage treatment plants. The sewage/ planning moratorium was imposed on council and an intensive program to design and build three new sewage treatment plants that would meet current and future growth commenced.
The new plants came at a cost of $95 millon and the input of many aimed to ensure the mistakes of the past weren’t repeated.
When I was elected to council in 1999, we inherited a financial and infrastructure crisis, but also a progressive framework to get on with; we had the Greenprint to deliver.
The delivery of sound ESD planning requires a commitment to the precautionary principle and a priority to protect our environment. It’s an important time to reflect on what sort of future we are creating and caution is vital. ESD may be an old idea, but a bit like democracy, it’s as good as it gets.