Do we need to hit the pause button to rethink where our local future is headed?

Sometimes we see splashy local newspaper articles about new developments to “enhance our area, attract new families” to move here. 

And if you look more carefully you may find in the classified section or back pages, or buried on the council website, announcements of planned new developments. 

At various stages comments and submissions are asked for from the public. If you know about it.  

Some developments are eventually granted approval by council under “delegated authority” which means certain staff or the General Manager can approve a development.

Of course there is a massive amount of development applications going to council. We don’t expect councillors to debate about a fence, a shed or a driveway on a property. But vigilance and caution should be exercised when DA’s for developments are pushed through or go through under delegated authority which allegedly could have a conflict of interest which is not declared.

A friend noted a DA published in December giving two weeks for the public to make submissions or comments on a proposed developed of 133 rural residential blocks in Tinonee. By the time many others became aware of it, the two week  window to make a submission had closed. 

Never mind the  pros and cons of such a development being suitable, needed, or appropriate in the Tinonee village area, the bigger question for the Mid North Coast area has to be . . . where is the water going to come from??? 

Recent rain might have erased last years fears over lack of water, the fiasco of the desalination plant and council’s wet dreams over water supply  and “she’ll be right” assurances the dam is adequate. But water security here, and indeed within all Australia, is a major concern.

A New Dam?

MidCoast Water used to have a comprehensive program aimed at providing reticulated water and sewer for small communities and plans to grow and expand water supply : a second dam; expanding the supply from the Nabiac aquifer, so we can only hope this will be adequate for the long term.

Many see construction, building, development as a means of keeping the area alive.

But there are instances of land being developed in areas well known for flooding where the shovelling in of tons of fill is starting to affect the natural drainage and the flow of stormwater into our rivers.

One example from a local is that since the “Bullocks Run” estate went in, Bungwahl Creek now backs up much more with rain than it ever used to.  And with housing estates multiplying like fleas throughout our region someone needs to look at the big picture.

What are the arrangements for water and sewer for all these developments? Some areas are very low lying so sewers could be a real issue. It doesn’t appear that infrastructure is keeping pace.

Twenty five years ago MidCoast Water (then MidCoast County Council) was formed because the general purpose councils were using water and sewer as a cash cow … taking the rates but not maintaining the infrastructure. Now that we’re amalgamated and responsibility for water and sewer has been handed back to the general purpose Council we see history repeating itself. 

We have a cash-strapped council desperate for money and we have a bucket of money in the form of water and sewer rates.  Guess who pays! All the infrastructure built up by MidCoast Water over a quarter of a century will fall into decay because the rates will be diverted to other things … and twenty years from now the state government will be forced to strip responsibility from the council and form a separate water authority. And what have we lost or gained in interim?

We are all acutely aware of what happened in the drought. The supply could not meet demand. Then it rained and any measures toward future supply security seemed to be forgotten. Desalination was a part of the strategy during the drought. Apparently some of the infrastructure was left in place for possible future use but will it be left to decay now it’s no longer a priority?

Meanwhile the billing model falls on ratepayers’ shoulders. It was originally supposed to be a “user pays” system but the charges for actual usage have been overwhelmed by the charges for “access”. Of course, such a model is very attractive to councils … they get a substantial and consistent income which is largely independent of having to supply the product. 

Electricity supply has gone the same way.

Charge for Usage

The bulk of our bills are the access charge and only a tiny proportion is our actual usage. This charging model makes a mockery of trying to encourage water conservation. It doesn’t really matter how frugal consumers are with their water … any change in our bills will be imperceptible.  Some people have noticed that if they go away and turn off the water at the meter while away, their bill for the period is almost exactly the same as usual.

The argument for the access charge is that it goes toward paying for the provision of infrastructure;  new pipes, reservoirs, and all these new developments. However, developers already pay a “headworks levy” to cover any needed additional infrastructure.

Council are no doubt loathe to turn off the tap of such a revenue stream.

As one resident commented, “To be honest I find the whole thing depressing. The quiet coastal town we moved to years ago is now choked with traffic. High rise everywhere. Rates are through the roof but services are declining and we have an intransigent council who believe their role is to rule rather than to serve. It’s all about more, more, more! The concept of “enough” doesn’t exist. Sustainability isn’t part of the equation.”

But should development, especially of crammed small metre blocks, be the major priority? Surely the focus should be on ’sustainable development’. The other problem that we have is our LEP and what is actually permitted to change within the LEP.

Councillor Peter Epov has been advocating subdivision to smaller acreage lots of 1, 5, 10, 25 acre lots, but apparently the NSW planning department is opposed to this in principle.

Council is finalising its Rural Strategy which will be included into a new draft LEP, but possibly they will not be proposing any change to small acreage lots.

Quality of Life

Surely it’s quality of life, preservation of nature,  strategic planning of green tourism,  homes in peaceful spaces, smart business plans for renewables and resources yet retaining what drew us here in the first place. Progress and innovation must come but not impose, nor dominate and remove the visual  history of what made this place so appealing.

We should tread lightly, unobtrusively, on the landscape of the coast and sea, the forests, the river flats,  the mountains,  the lushness of old dairy farms, the peace of the mountains. A place that looks forward but treasures its past, where nature and old trees thrive, where one can sit quietly, pleased at the future we’re building for our kids, and reflect how lucky to be where we are. 

But our future is not in our hands alone. It takes wise heads and good and honest people to protect and move us safely forward. We need such people standing for Council. 

Vote wisely September 4.  

(As this paper went to print Council announced it intended to upgrade Gloucester’s water infrastructure by establishing two new reservoirs. Ed.)

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