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January 23, 2022

More than 500 take part in regional housing taskfoce meetings

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The state’s planning minister says more than 500 people across regional NSW took part in his department’s Regional Housing Taskforce virtual roadshow earlier this month.

The taskforce announced in July was part of the NSW Housing 2041 Strategy, a document released earlier this year to a lukewarm response from housing advocates on the Northern Rivers, including members of all four local governments to have so far declared a housing crisis.

The North Coast Regional Housing Taskforce had intended to host public meetings over two days in Ballina in mid-August but downsized the event to a 90-minute online session in response to public health order restrictions.

Public meetings in the Central Coast and Hunter, North Coast, New England and North West, Central West, Orana and Far West, Riverina Murray, Illawarra Shoalhaven, and the South East and Tablelands were also shifted online.

Online meetings allowed greater participation, dep’t says

Planning and Public Spaces Minister Rob Stokes said in a media release Monday the taskforce was ‘overwhelmed by participation in the two-week virtual roadshow’, despite the statewide lockdown.

Information on the planning department’s website this week said ‘if anything, the convenience of virtual meetings enabled us to talk to more people in more parts of regional NSW than we otherwise would have been able to’.

Mr Stokes said the meetings, chaired by expert New Castle-based town planner Garry Fielding, allowed participants to share ideas as to ‘how the NSW Government can unlock much-needed housing in regional communities’.

‘We asked the taskforce to investigate the drivers of housing pressure in the regions and by the sheer level of community interest, I’m optimistic we will have a clear picture of the unique housing challenges in each region,’ Mr Stokes said.

‘The taskforce will take what they’ve heard and develop recommendations for how we can deliver innovative solutions to create more housing opportunities.’

This week’s media release said some of the ideas from the community included a partnership model between government, councils and industry to better coordinate housing infrastructure.

Planning dept focused on supply despite councils saying it isn’t the issue

Before attending meetings, participants were asked to consider what changes could be made to planning regulations to increase housing supply.

The emphasis on supply came despite representatives from the Ballina, Byron, Tweed and Lismore City local government areas repeatedly saying supply wasn’t the issue.

Developers have been land-banking for years, even decades, in the Lismore and Tweed LGAs according to the respective mayors, while Ballina Shire Councillor Ben Smith told The Echo months ago council staff had identified twenty years’ worth of supply already ‘unlocked’ to developers.

As for the Byron Shire, upper house Nationals member Ben Franklin said in April more than 50% of rental housing stock was being used for holiday letting and more than 20% of housing overall.

Byron Shire ‘ripe and ready’ with affordable housing ideas but state ‘goal posts’ keep shifting, says deputy mayor

Byron Deputy Mayor Sarah Ndiaye sat in on the North Coast Regional Housing Taskforce meeting and said she hoped the process helped the department see ‘just how desperate’ the need for housing was in the area.

The state had a new Environmental Planning policy for housing on exhibition, Cr Ndiaye said, adding it was ‘clear’ the planning department was looking at ways to address the housing crisis.

But the deputy mayor said it was ‘frustrating’ the Byron Shire Council already had five policies ‘with the department all focused around affordable housing’ and that the ‘goal posts’ kept being shifted in terms of bureaucratic demands on council staff such as an updated residential strategy and affordable housing contribution scheme.

‘We’re all ripe and ready to go,’ Cr Ndiaye said, ‘we just need some clear direction around where we can do these things’.

Calls for more medium density housing in regional towns

Meanwhile, during the North Coast Regional Housing Taskforce meeting, Mr Fielding heard the Lismore City Council had tried and failed to entice developers to build medium density housing.

The planning minister’s media release this week highlighted demand for more medium density housing in town centres without providing examples, but the taskforce was due to submit a preliminary report to Mr Stokes in September.

Greens Member for Ballina Tamara Smith also sat in on the meeting but expressed doubts about the likelihood of the process to produce the urgent changes housing advocates have said are needed.

‘I will be making sure that this isn’t just a listening exercise,’ Ms Smith said, ‘I’m quite comfortable, as soon as parliament goes back in NSW, to just keep making that point that we need the circuit breakers now: like, do something now, please’.

The Echo has repeatedly requested interviews with NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes and Housing Minister Melinda Pavey while a planned interview with Regional Housing Taskforce Chair Garry Fielding was last week postponed with a new date yet to be confirmed.

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