So, were we wrong to protect Byron Shire? This question is often asked as our efforts have created a ‘desirable’ location but delivered extreme pressure on our community and environment.
There appears to be no end to the number of people who want to come here, or invest – and how much they will pay to visit or own.
But was it wrong to try to protect our home? My answer is always ‘No’. The community intent to protect a special place, to counter overdevelopment and ensure that biodiversity, farmland, community amenity and culture are preserved was, and is always, right.
Ecologically Sustainable Development
In the early nineties, with a Coalition state government and a council granting approvals for Club Med, Broken Head quarry and inappropriate subdivisions, there was opposition and vision. The community response to the foreseeable risk of a future in the style of development to the north was to present an alternative.
In June 1992, the United Nations convened the Earth Summit which adopted the principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) and recognised the future risks of climate change. In December the same year, the Australian gGovernment produced the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development and COAG (the Council for Australian Governments) endorsed it.
ESD is a simple concept, it defines the principles of environmental protection and the ‘do no harm’, precautionary principle and prescribes decision making that considers intergenerational equity. These are the elements that should define good governance, they are embedded in legislation, but unfortunately are mostly ignored.
Locally, environment group, Byron Environment and Conservation Organisation (BEACON) developed an ESD-informed ‘Vision Statement’ in September 1992, it presented an alternative for Byron Shire’s future. Community workshops, a comprehensive planning document and a leaflet that went to every household in the shire, provided the background to encourage optimism. The leaflet featured a future vision that presented environmental protection and sustainable growth that included solar, rainwater tanks, cycleways, wildlife corridors and farmland protection.
When a new progressive council was elected in 1995, it initiated a program of reform. But in 1997 it was revealed that the council was $7m in debt. Despite state government threats of amalgamation the community instead supported a tightening of expectations and struggled on. The council and the community pursued a rigorous program of research and consultation that delivered the ‘Greenprint for a Sustainable Future’. It was a strategic planning document that defined and embedded ESD into the Local Environmental Plan (LEP), before it was in state legislation. NSW laws still include ESD but governments don’t enforce it, or perhaps they just lack the commitment.
State weakens Byron’s protections
Over time Council’s well-informed and community-supported strategies and plans were developed to guide appropriate development. All was going well, an empowered community and Council was able to determine our future and stand up to rogue developers with the force of our planning instrument recognised by the courts.
In 2014, the state government ended councils’ planning autonomy and imposed the Standard Instrument LEP, which essentially means the same rules apply here as for every other council in the state.
It’s been disturbing to witness how Byron’s efforts to protect this place and avoid destroying what is valuable and irreplaceable being eroded by government. However, it’s become a destination of choice for many politicians, celebrities and those who seek quality of life. Also, an investors’ paradise. Despite external pressures the community remains vigilant, making submissions, protesting and countering the inappropriate with informed and detailed arguments and alternatives.
It’s a reality that many of our rights and powers have been taken away.
Do we have to wait for our shire and community to be irreversibly transformed before the powers that be recognise the impact of their interventions and admit that they were wrong?
But was it wrong for the community to be forward thinking and optimistic, to expect that in a democracy we would be permitted to define our future? No, the state government betrayed local government and the community. The reasons why are unclear, however, we can speculate. Is it a case of government being less informed or is it that they cave into the commercial pressures?
What’s clear is that the Byron Shire community, despite being over-ridden and undermined, still continues to present strong opposition to short sighted, ill-informed and commercially driven oppression. We are vigilant and we are right to do everything we can to protect our home, biodiversity, neighbourhoods and our future survival.
Sadly, governments aren’t what they used to be, they’ve been dumbed down and are hostage to commercial interests. They have forgotten their role as defined in the State Constitution to ‘have power to make laws for the peace, welfare, and good government of New South Wales’.
Good government should respect our ‘welfare’, our right to be self-governing, especially when we attempt to uphold the laws as they exist and particularly when governments don’t.
Democracy is not at its best at the moment, but the Byron Shire community are on the right side of history. We try to preserve the welfare of the people and the environment. For that commitment and retaining optimism we should all be proud of our efforts and achievements. Despite the disappointments, Byron Shire is still an amazing place with a vibrant and vigilant community.