Organisers of a small Northern Rivers housing project aimed at supporting vulnerable older women say discussions with the Ballina Shire Council have stalled.
Wollongbar resident Marilyn Perkins says a team of local professionals have been working with frontline housing support service provider Social Futures since 2019 on plans to build four one-bedroom cottages on a block on land in Wollongbar.
The Ballina Shire Council owned the land and last year appeared to support the proposed housing project in principle.
Former Councillor Ben Smith told The Echo in late July 2021 the council was ‘putting its money where its mouth’ was by agreeing to put the development out for tender.
‘This project is specifically designed for women in the 55 + category that are either homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless,’ Cr Smith said at the time.
No sign of EOI for shovel-ready Wollongbar housing project
But nearly seven months and one newly elected council later, public calls for expressions of interest in the project were yet to appear.
‘We understand a staff report, to come to the February council meeting, will detail plans for the council to undertake its own housing project,’ Ms Perkins said via a media release sent to The Echo in late January.
Speaking to The Echo Tuesday morning, Ms Perkins expressed frustration at the delay and concern her team’s proposal wouldn’t secure the right to build on the Wollongbar block after having raised $500,000 from the community towards the project.
‘The planning has to go through a process and that can be a long process,’ Ms Perkins said, ‘let’s really work towards something that can get some action rather than continual planning’.
Ms Perkins said the project was shovel-ready and could easily start if only the council would either donate the land or sell it at a peppercorn price.
Planning delays action on declared housing crisis
Last year the council said its tender would be for a block of units as opposed to separate tiny cottages and Ms Perkins said her team wasn’t against the idea.
The housing advocate said she understood new councillors needed to be briefed on the tender and had arranged to speak with some after a scheduled ordinary council meeting on 24 February.
She was supportive of the council’s ongoing work towards updating its affordable housing policy, she said, which included working out housing needs in the shire, potential public land available for housing and subsequent project suitability.
Former Cr Smith last year said proper planning was crucial to prevent possible construction delays.
But delays with the housing project tender process were foreshadowed by another former Ballina Shire councillor.
Former Cr Sharon Parry said shortly after July’s council decision she had some concerns, including the possibility that the land didn’t meet planning and zoning regulations needed for a unit block.
It could take another year or even three before bureaucratic obstacles were overcome, Cr Parry said at the time.
Calls for pilot project to be fast-tracked
Ms Perkins said she and her team considered their project small enough to warrant approval sooner rather than later as a pilot project for the region.
‘We had the project costed right down to the wire,’ Ms Perkins said, adding that a pro bono design team had already addressed ‘all the safety requirements’.
David McGrath of Davcam Pty Ltd; Chris Lonergan and Sumarah Ramsay of Byron Bay Planning; Dona Graham of Carefusion Advocacy and Legal; and Fiona Gibson of Sanctuary Design were named as some of the experts volunteering their services.
‘We are sitting here with half a million dollars, waiting to build – it’s incredibly frustrating that we can’t progress this,’ Ms Perkins said.
State government missing in action on housing strategy
State government representatives have repeatedly blamed bureaucratic and planning obstacles for a housing supply shortage and last year asked independent town planning consultant Garry Field to lead a series of regional workshops addressing the issue.
Those meetings resulted in a report to the planning minister by end of October with several recommendations, including a review of short-term holiday letting regulation impacts.
But little has been heard from either the planning minister or housing minister about the report, part of the NSW Housing 2041 strategy, since its submission.
The strategy included calls for the public to submit ideas for housing on public land.
New Ballina mayor defends council work on housing
Recently elected Ballina Mayor Sharon Cadwallader responded via the council’s media team to Ms Perkins’ concerns.
Cr Cadwallader said action on the Wollongbar housing project was progressing.
The mayor said the open tender process was included within ‘a wider consideration of affordable housing’.
‘There are a range of different groups of people to consider along with site characteristics and planning and building elements,’ Cr Cadwallader was quoted as saying.
The mayor listed other steps the council had taken ‘with respect to affordable housing’.
They included submissions to: the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Crisis Accommodation; the NSW Minister for Planning; NSW Housing Taskforce; the NSW Minister of Housing; and the federal government.
‘Council has also met with the Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Housing in an effort to work proactively with the state government on addressing key housing issues in the shire,’ Cr Cadwallader said.
Plea for charitable landowners
Ms Perkins said given tender prospects for her group’s proposal seemed uncertain, they were still on the lookout for land to build on.
Generous landowners or philanthropists could discuss donating land or funds by emailing David McGrath: [email protected].