Northern Rivers-based trade unionist and MBA student Asren Pugh has announced his candidature for Byron Shire Mayor in September’s local government elections on behalf of Labor.
It’s Mr Pugh’s second foray into representative politics, having run for the seat of Ballina in the 2019 state election.
Mr Pugh is the son of acclaimed environmentalist Dailan Pugh but says he was raised to be an independent thinker and doesn’t share the same views as his father on everything, including the controversial Byron Bypass project finally launched earlier this year.
‘I’m glad it’s been built,’ Asren Pugh told The Echo on Monday, ‘it’s a different job to be the mayor from being an activist’.
But he commended his father’s legacy, especially for his commitment to the fight against excessive development on wetlands in West Byron, and echoed Dailan Pugh’s passion for the environment.
‘Our natural environment is what makes our region precious and needs to be protected,’ Mr Pugh said, ‘our council should be doing more to combat climate change and prepare to adapt to its impacts’.
The Labor candidate said his vision of the shire included less reliance on cars thanks to regular, accessible public transport and paths for bikes and pedestrians within and between villages.
He said he was ‘fairly agnostic’ as to the modes of public transport he’d like to see running in the region but that a return of trains to the old railway lines ‘like they used to be’ wasn’t a ‘viable option’.
The mayoral candidate has also paid his respects to the Arawkwal people, saying he acknowledges their sovereignty and wants Council to support them ‘to live, work, practise and celebrate culture and care for the land’.
Fresh faces, but long-time residents dominate Labor Byron team
Labor haven’t yet finalised the running order of nominations on their Byron Shire ballot ticket but have announced five other candidates to join Mr Pugh’s campaign after winning two seats on the Byron Shire Council in 2016 for Jan Hackett and Paul Spooner.
Councillor Spooner has already said he won’t be running in the September elections leaving Cr Hackett as the only Labor candidate with council experience.
Joining Mr Pugh and Cr Hackett in their local government campaign are Linda Watson, Peter Doherty, Mel Franz and Kaylene Chamberlain.
Ms Watson will probably be the second name on the Labor ticket, Mr Pugh said.
The Ewingsdale resident is an early childhood educator.
Meanwhile, Mr Doherty lives in Bangalow, is known as a co-founder of prominent advocacy group Bangalow Koalas and works in disability support; Ms Franz is a nurse educator from Mullumbimby; and Ms Chamberlain is a long-time resident of Ocean Shores who volunteers in community transport services.
‘We need a mayor that will drive a positive vision that puts our community at its heart,’ Mr Pugh said in a media release this week, before addressing bureaucratic concerns.
‘Our council needs to be better at the boring stuff, at processing requests and responding to the community,’ the statement read, ‘it needs to be easier to follow the rules, but council also needs to be better at applying them fairly and consistently’.
Byron needs a housing plan, not just ‘ideas’ says mayor hopeful
Mr Pugh also addressed the shire’s worsening housing crisis in his media release, saying his family only paid about $180 per week for a three-bedroom home in Baywood Chase ‘on the income of a single mum casual teacher’ when he was growing up.
‘Of course things change but the current housing crisis is ripping the heart out of community,’ he said.
The state government last week released a new Housing 2041 strategy with provisions for public land to be used for housing but Mr Pugh said in his media release he rejected ‘endless land releases as any sort of solution’ to the housing crisis.
‘It was a good announcement,’ Mr Pugh said, ‘but there is a concern developers could again get the advantage’.
An existing Community Land Trust initiated by fellow Labor member Cr Paul Spooner was a good start, Mr Pugh said, but the key to its success was ‘more land’.
The Byron Shire Council has announced a housing emergency but Mr Pugh didn’t sound impressed at the declaration, saying if he was mayor he wouldn’t be ‘just about throwing ideas into the air’.
‘We need a comprehensive housing plan,’ Mr Pugh said, agreeing that a stakeholder group like one proposed recently for the Ballina Shire Council’s affordable housing strategy would be important.
Ballina Shire Councillor Ben Smith told Bay FM’s Community Newsroom last week the group would include representatives from local non-government organisations in hopes of sharing ideas and resources effectively with the council.
Despite having the highest rates of homelessnesss in regional NSW, the Byron Shire has no permanent emergency housing service and Mr Pugh said a proper plan would address that need, as well as means for users to transition to longer term housing.
The government’s Housing 2041 strategy includes options for councils to use abandoned publicly-owned buildings for emergency shelter but Mr Pugh says he doesn’t echo community calls for the old Byron Hospital site to be used that way.
The government sold the site to the Byron Shire Council for a dollar on condition it be used as a community hub for educational, creative and homelessness ‘wrap-around’ services.
A volunteer group has developed a plan for the site but the council has decided to put the project out for tender after the government said the partnership required extra paperwork.
Mr Pugh described the bureaucratic delay as a ‘monumental stuff-up’ by councillors but said he supported the idea of the community hub because artists needed space to create and social services also needed space.
Labor member supports food manufacturing jobs in Byron
When asked how his role as a trade unionist would influence his job as mayor, Mr Pugh mentioned ‘good, stable jobs’ and said he would be working closely with local business chambers.
‘We need to support local businesses to diversify our economy to reduce our reliance on tourism,’ Mr Pugh said in his media release, before naming ‘food manufacturing’ as a possible alternative.
This article has been updated: Asren Pugh says he is running for Labor, not Country Labor as originally written.