Long term independent Ballina Shire Councillor Jeff Johnson reflects on the challenges of the past year, and his priorities for 2023.
The Echo met Cr Johnson at his solar business in Ballina. He clearly walks the talk with green technology and renewable energy, having completed numerous major solar installations across the Northern Rivers.
‘Originally I was in sustainable building design and doing audits to make homes more efficient and energy efficient,’ he said. ‘I was recommending everyone get solar. Then I started learning more about solar and designing systems. About eight years ago, we established Premium Solar and Electrical. We’ve got seven employees now.
‘It certainly keeps us busy. I’m very passionate about being part of that transition.’
Reflecting on 2022, Jeff Johnson said the floods dominated the year. Water came close to inundating his showroom, flooded his business’s storage shed, and caused a ‘massive downturn’ in the region, which went beyond the economic.
While Cr Johnson emphasised his losses were nothing compared to many others, he said his community of Cumbalum was completely flooded in for five days, with no power, phones or internet, and of course no shops (as usual in Cumbalum).
He said the drowned Telstra hub at Woodburn (cutting off communications across most of the Northern Rivers) made it clear that infrastructure was not in the right places. ‘Absolutely. It was a disaster,’ he said.
‘Hopefully the powers that be can look at things like that a bit more, particularly as we’re going to get more and more floods, with sea level rise and extreme weather.’
Ballina’s investments and the climate emergency
Cr Johnson was behind numerous unsuccessful attempts in 2022 to get Ballina Council to do something practical about fossil fuel related investments. He said this highlighted the philosophical position of the majority of the council.
‘Obviously, Team Cadwallader have four councillors, and there’s another two or three that would identify as conservative that are encouraged by having that larger bloc. And one of the first things they did was to overturn the support for the fossil fuels divestment program for our investments.
‘So council has got over $100 million, sometimes $115 million in term deposits. I originally moved that we divest from all institutions that support fossil fuels, like the expansion of the Newcastle coal port, and coal seam gas, but there are state government restrictions on how much you can invest in each institution and where you can invest it, so the advice was that that wasn’t possible.’
Then the ‘absolute minimum’ 0.05% investment preference for non-fossil fuel aligned institutions was also overturned, despite having a ‘pretty significant’ impact.
Cr Johnson says the net result is that Ballina Council’s investment has gone from 71% fossil free to around 29%, which amounts to about $40 million. He says that considering local governments and universities are moving in the opposite direction, and have got ‘billions and billions of dollars invested’, Ballina is moving in the wrong direction, but the majority of councillors just ‘couldn’t see the value in it’.
Cr Johnson says it’s ultimately about supporting the community. ‘We’re obviously at risk, being a low lying coastal area, where our main town is inside the river mouth of one of the most at-risk areas, but they think council’s role should be about maximizing profits and interest, rather than helping to support the transition, which will provide long term benefit and support our community – and the views of the majority of our community.’
So far always Ballina’s poor relation in terms of facilities, despite strong population growth, Cr Johnson says he’s been pushing strongly for new shops and facilities at Cumbalum.
‘Towards the end of the last term, I made a motion that we look to rezone that area, near the sports fields – it’s currently zoned for residential properties – and convert that to a commercial space, so we can have a small shopping center there with probably 10 to 20 specialty shops.
‘It’s in the ideal location, it didn’t get flooded in that area,’ he said. ‘When they did the original subdivision for Cumbalum, the commercial area on the top of the hill was on a slope. And it’s clearly not a viable location, they can’t find anyone willing to invest or building it.’
He says the developer has now signed a voluntary planning agreement with the Catholic Church, who own the lower blocks.
‘There’s currently a zoning change in the mix, and council is applying for a gateway determination from the state government. The architects are designing and preparing a DA now, so I’m very hopeful of getting a shopping center with specialty shops in there soon, hopefully before the end of this council term.’
A small number of affordable housing options are planned for Cumbalum as part of the zone swap and voluntary planning agreement, with long term rentals planned.
Do you think that’s something that should be done elsewhere? ‘Most definitely,’ said Cr Johnson. ‘If developers are coming in and rezoning, or getting a massive benefit from up-zoning, or developing land, there should be some contribution to affordable housing or long term rentals.’
He remembers years ago when Byron Council offered developers an extra unit if they made it available to a housing provider. ‘I’m not sure how successful that was. In terms of affordable housing and increasing the rental stuff, that’s really just small fry.’
Cr Johnson said he’s been pushing for the use of the old council depot site opposite the shopping centres in Ballina for housing. ‘It’s over six hectares, and at the moment the majority of the site is just left vacant.’
He explained that Ballina Council tried to buy it a couple of times, (or be given it by the state government) for the use of the indoor sports centre, which is now co-hosted with the school on Cherry Street.
Cr Johnson remembers getting support from the previous council to re-use the site for housing. ‘Former Mayor David Wright was very much in favor of a coordinated approach of the council, state government and housing providers looking to develop a master plan in that area for long term, affordable rental accommodation for the key service workers in our community to get discounted rent.’
He says there’s also potential for light industrial areas and parklands. ‘It’s really a massive site that’s unfortunately still sitting there, vacant.’
Isn’t there some contamination there? ‘There was once a landfill area there, but it was contained,’ said Cr Johnson. ‘Council did do a study about eight years ago to assess the level of contamination and it wasn’t too bad, but more studies are needed. Obviously you’d have to work out where those areas area, and use them appropriately, but that’s not the main issue.’
He would also like to see better investment in social housing in West Ballina from the state government. ‘Unfortunately, they’re still selling off some of the houses in that estate, they’re very rundown and been neglected, there’s been no investment in the upkeep,’ he said.
‘But that could increase the density of that area, and it could be another area to get some more social housing and/or affordable housing.’
Short term letting
Jeff Johnson is also concerned about the number of long term rentals in the shire which have been converted to year-round, high premium short term letting.
‘There’s so many houses that are permanently on Airbnb and Stayz. And all those ones that were formerly long term rental combination. Obviously it’s been in the media a lot with the government backflipping on the 90 day limit with Byron.’
He said there’s an important difference between people who let their houses during holiday periods, and those who do it all year round. ‘When people let their place for two weeks at Christmas or Easter, that’s actually good for the economy in the area, because it’s bringing more visitors in, and not taking a home away from the long term rental stock.’
He’s hopeful that a change of state government might provide a different policy direction from above, because ‘a lot of popular coastal areas need help with this.’
Cr Johnson believes short term letting combined with the floods have exacerbated what was already a housing crisis across the region. ‘Now it’s just catastrophic. It really it is. Words can’t describe…’
Ross Lane and other watery issues
In the last election campaign, Cr Johnson made fixing the perennial flooding problem at Ross Lane a priority. He says it’s about more than the inconvenience. ‘That’s the main road into Lennox from the hinterland to the highway. So it has safety issues for emergency service vehicles and people going to schools.
‘So, council supported the motion I put up in January that we get designs done and seek funding and state government support for raising that road,’ he said. ‘Also, during the last term, the state government wanted to take over that road and class it as a regional road. I was able to put that on hold until we address the flooding issue, because as soon as it becomes a regional road, it would then be competing for funding with the the whole state.’
He says he thinks funding for the road-raising has now been secured, but the people of Lennox might have to wait for a state election announcement to make it official. He says he’s hopeful that the situation will be sorted this year, but acknowledges it’s a complex issue.
What is it like being part of the progressive minority on Ballina Council? Cr Johnson said this is his fourth term, and he’s seen some big changes since the ‘really hard work’ of being the sole voice pushing climate change and environmental issues, back when he was first elected.
He believes the council became steadily more progressive under Mayor David Wright, but there has now been a ‘definite shift’ to the conservative side. ‘It does feel like there’s a certain level of arrogance there – they know they dominate the council. There’s a lot of votes where it’s just me and the two Greens opposing something or trying to put forward something and losing the vote 7:3. That’s really discouraging.’
Cr Johnson suggests his opponents have behaved unethically in gaining power. ‘That needs to be called out. It’s not sour grapes or anything but the disgraceful campaign about drinking toilet water and draining the Alstonville aquifer from Sharon Cadwallader and her team when she knew both of those were false claims…
‘It was just a classic smear campaign. And it worked. She knew Rous was looking at the Clarence Morton basin, and she knew the Dunoon Dam was never going to be built. But that, unfortunately, is what a lot of people voted for.’
Cr Johnson’s own repeatedly offered suggestion to the Northern Rivers water dilemma is that Rous and its constituent councils look to the example of Warrnambool, and investigate large scale rooftop water harvesting for all new developments, particularly those on hills above the catchment.
He says he doesn’t understand the political opposition to these and other potential solutions. ‘We should be trialling all sorts of options,’ he said.
Another unsuccessful initiative of Cr Johnson in 2022 was to get Ballina Council to apply for money on offer from the state government to assist with paying for electric car charging infrastructure.
‘I actually had emails from the Treasurer Matt Kean, who said, “Yes, this is for councils to apply for. It’s for public car parking areas.”
‘We’ve got a 100 kilowatt solar system at the airport. People park there, why not? They could have had EV chargers getting charged from solar power, right in front of the airport where we get about 600,000 visitors a year, with signs promoting Ballina and saying these are cars been charged by the sun.
‘They were going to pay 75% of the infrastructure and charging costs. And I thought it was going to be a unanimous decision. It’s a no brainer. And the other part of that was council areas who took part in that program were going to be promoted as part of regional EV tourist networks. Such a win win.’
But the idea was rejected by a majority vote, in favour of a suggestion for private interests to apply for the grants instead. Cr Johnson says as far as he knows, that hasn’t happened.
‘It does wear you down when you do you do the research, and put up good ideas that are supported by other levels of government, that would be great for our town and for the businesses… and then it gets slapped down,’ he said.
‘Yeah, it’s happened quite a few times where good motions have been brought forward. sound arguments, not much expense involved. But they’ve been defeated due to a different outlook on what role council should have. It’s definitely been a change since the last council.’
Praise for mayor under pressure
Despite his disappointments over their political tussles in 2022, Cr Johnson is full of praise for Ballina Mayor Sharon Cadwallader’s handling of the flood crisis. ‘Yes, to Sharon’s credit, she has been working extremely hard.
‘She has been doing all she can to support people and get government funding and action in response to what happened, and she certainly deserves credit for the way that she has responded, post flood.
‘We may have different views, different philosophical positions on many issues, but she definitely deserves credit and acknowledgement for the hard work and the way that she did stepped up in that time. I think many in our community would recognize and appreciate the hard work that she’s put in.’
After the long break, councillors of all stripes will be stepping back into the bullring at Ballina Shire Council on Thursday 23 February.
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