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Will Byron Shire achieve an ecologically sustainable future?

A bucolic vista of Byron Shire. Photo Ziggi Browning

Jan Barham

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”.’

Sustainable marketing

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.

Ecological limits?

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.


10 responses to “Will Byron Shire achieve an ecologically sustainable future?”

  1. Ken says:

    Well argued Jan !
    Of course you are absolutely right in what you advocate, of course developement should be planned and sustainable ( which has an obvious and simple meaning and so it isn’t a surprise, that it “has no legal or planning definition,”). History tells us though the Byron Council , like all local government, is just not up to the task of rational planning, Byron Bay was founded on the slaughter of whales and expanded through the destruction of the wet-lands surrounding it. In other words,environmental destruction in the pursuit of MONEY which I’m told developers have no shortage of , while councillors seem able to resist anything but temptation.
    I fear that the goal of sustainability will be an up-hill battle, situated as it is, in a country of more than thirty million with an environment that studies have concluded can sustainably support ten to
    twelve million.
    Of course we must start somewhere, I though, as one of those environment defenders of the seventies, just have doubts as to whether we can get there, from here. It may be, with climate change and sea-level rise, we have left our race too long.
    Cheers, G”)

    • Barrow says:

      Ken , happy new year
      Could you please explain where the sea level rises
      Are occurring.. ?

      • Ken says:

        Oh yes Barrow , joy and salutations !
        Of course I will explain, although I had assumed readers would be more informed by now.
        Most of the sea-level rises are occuring in the areas bordering the seas, as in the multitude of Pacific and Indian Ocean islands ,now slowly slipping beneath the waves .However ,there are effects being felt in waterways that are inland. I wonder have you heard of a little place called Venice ? Well this place is now regularly experiencing water-level rises of two to three meters and is playing hell with the tourist trade, not to mention the sewerage system.
        Please feel free to ask if there is anything else you need help with,
        Cheers, G”)

        • Barrow says:

          Thanks ken for the update !
          Multitude of Pacific islands slipping beneath the waves . Specifically which one’s ken ?
          The Maldives is certainly one of the islands thats
          Been mentioned as being under threat of rising
          Sea levels ..the ABC Q&A programme, SBS,
          The Guardian, the UN all have mentioned that those islands are going under .. so had a
          Holiday in the Maldives recently Ken , however i thought accommodation would be difficult to
          Get due to the inundation, so surprised when i arrived so many new resorts being built
          Airport , millions Invested, so asked some locals
          Why so much investment in such a emergency
          Regarding” Cilmate Change ” sea level rises
          We just live our lives here ..tide comes in tide go’s
          Out was the response ..not ONE local had concerns… !

          • Ken says:

            Well I did say feel free,
            I can’t really talk on the motivations of those investing in doomed assets, or the ignorance of locals ,after all the federal and state governments are sponsoring millionaire indians to increase our global co2 output. It is indefensible and shows complete disregard for those already paying the price of their “depraved- indifference” ( already accepted as a war crime by the Geneva Convention )
            So here are a few specific instances.
            “five reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands have been lost completely to sea-level rise and coastal erosion, and a further six islands have been severely eroded. ”
            “Nuatambu Island, home to 25 families, has lost more than half of its habitable area, with 11 houses washed into the sea since 2011.
            “the island of Boigu has 207 residents, and Saibai has 480 in the Torres Strait, both are in jeopardy.
            In Jakarta, a $40 billion project will aim to protect the city with an 80-foot-high seawall.
            In the Marshall Islands, where rising sea levels are forcing a choice between relocating or building up the land, etc,etc. I could go on but perhaps you can educate yourself via National Geographic or the Climate Council or any reputable source, (perhaps not those owned and controlled by Rupert Murdoch or the National Liberal minority government)
            Good luck in your education. G”)

  2. Barrow says:

    Hi jan , and happy new year !
    Have been a resident of the shire all my life.
    And with all due respect i cannot in living
    Memory remember one sitting council
    In local Government, that being the Byron
    Shire council that has a decent approval
    Rating.. !! For a start our roads are in disrepair
    And this has not improved overall for 4 decades .
    The decision by council to build the chambers
    In mullumbimby was absolutely disrespectful
    To the majority of ratepayers who opposed this
    But in the wisdom of the sitting council
    Approved it . The council at the time did not
    Have a surplus. And infact borrowed the funding
    Needed to build the new chambers. Over 12 million
    Iam reliably told . Appalling considering governments dont have any money including local
    The only money they have is what we give them
    Rates etc. Not to mention all the section 94
    Contribution funds collected during 30 years
    Of building approvals. Where did all those funds end up ? Well one wonders .. the mismanagement
    Of byron shire councils over the last 40 years
    Has not been ideal . Really i have not had one
    Conversation in general with anyone who could
    Honestly say that the council has been proactive
    In getting things done for the shire ..
    Anyway Onwards and upwards we can only stay
    Positive that in the near future we all put our faith
    In our local Government for the better ..!!
    And yes Jan sustainable development is the
    Answer for our shire !!

    • Matthew says:

      It appears that if you write “due respect” you don’t have to show any when aimlessly criticising our Jan or her well-performed council. A lot of words without really saying anything relevant to the article. Typical. Do you read out loud when typing so you can hear your own voice?
      As for “lived in the shire your whole life”?…except when cleaning dunnies in W.A. as claimed when attacking Byron’s unemployed – can’t both be true. How many other porkies?

      • Barrow says:

        Oxford scholar ..
        Get a mirror at the end of your sleeping
        Quarters and “wake up to yourself”
        Need need to get your facts right mate

        Probably unlike you i have been in the shire
        Since 1979 were u even born ?
        I stated that infact i would do anything
        To keep my family afloat and yes that did include
        Cleaning dunnies in WA .. FIFO did not at anytime
        Have a dig at the unemployed in the shire
        Some people with do anything to survive
        Without being a burden on the taxpayer
        Including me !! ..never been on welfare
        And stand proud that i have not …
        However i have paid my fair share of tax
        To welfare to the tune of 400k in the last
        7 years cleaning dunnies 12 hour days
        28 days straight .. i have worked my arse
        Of to achieve what i have for my family .
        Have absolute respect for people
        However do not have respect for
        Anyone not willing to have a go .

  3. Jan Barham says:

    Hi Ken, Barrow and Matthew, please don’t be rude to each other. 2020 needs to be a time to work together and be kind. As locals we need to be positive and focus on what the Byron future will be. It’s ok to mention the problems with council, thats why I mentioned the $7m debt in 1997 and the sewerage moratorium. Byron hasn’t been a paradise playground for the rich and famous forever. Its been a tough place to live in many ways and there has been some major crisis to deal with. Also, it’s what happens, council decisions often take a long time to be realised and can impact dramatically on a future councils ability to deliver for the community. The debt at that time was difficult and lots of things didn’t get done in terms of infrastructure at that time, but it was a very open discussion with the community and was a case of the past influencing the future and we had to deal with it. So a lot of the work that had been overlooked in the past didn’t get done, we couldn’t afford it and it took seven years to pay off the debt. In that time, the costs of delivery of roads and other works had escalated, so yes, near impossible to catch up. We had to do financial strategies and raise the rates, including introducing a business rate, we didn’t have one prior to that. Also with the sewerage moratorium = development approval freeze, there was no income from development but also furious court cases against council. We had no choice and we had to defend, otherwise Byron would’ve changed long ago. But what did get done was important work on defining the future, doing the plans and consultation, making sure the community knew what it involved when they were asked for input.

    Thanks for reading and responding, I’m just keen that people understand our history, which in terms of local government and community has been forward thinking, responsible and passionate and that is what’s made and kept Byron special. At the moment I’m concerned about the proposals for the future and if the mistakes of the past will be repeated.

  4. Ken says:

    Oh Jan !
    You break my heart , I don’t believe I have been “rude” !
    condesending and sarcastic Maybe?
    And although I wish for nothing more than ” forward thinking, responsible and passionate” council I have seen nothing to convince me. The answer to the sewerage dilemma is simple , a methane digester is tried and tested and would provide Byron with free gas as a benefit. Not rocket science but where is the ” forward thinking, responsible and passionate” council, narhhhh too stupid and sold to developers !
    Anyhow Who Cares ? Cheers G”)

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