Locking up the town and charging visitors for the privilege of
visiting the place was no solution. What was needed to cope with the
increasing cost of tourism and new residents was innovative thinking.
If the Sydney Morning Herald writer who penned those
sentiments was a little peeved that Byron Council had raised the idea of
a tax on visitors to fund council works, then so too would a great many
visitors who come to this town at Australia's most easterly point.
Whether the mooted tax would be raised by parking charges or by a 'bed
tax' on tourist accommodation was unexplored; it was the idea of taxing
visitors that was the issue. A visitor tax is an idea that has the
potential to split coastal communities faced with the need to fund
additional public works from a limited rate-base. It is a question of
who pays for a town's improvements - locals or visitors? The issue is
certain to add to the resentment felt by many long-term locals as they
see commercial development reshape their town and costs increase, as
have residents of Byron Bay.
Visitors to Byron in the late 1980s would see a changed town centre
today, thanks to commercial, especially retail, and backpacker
accommodation development. At the same time the town's sewage treatment
system has gone from adequate to ailing as more people have settled in
town and as high visitor numbers overload the system in summer.
With Australia headed for a boom in beachside living, contentious
ideas to raise funds for coastal councils will be heard more frequently.
The coastal boom is already underway and, according to demographer
Bernard Salt, will lead to the development of a vocal 'beachside
culture'. The trend to the coasts is at basis a search for 'lifestyle'
fuelled by both real and imaginary notions of the benefits of life by
the sea. At present, it is led by retirees who are swelling the
populations of coastal cities like Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie in
NSW and the Sunshine Coast and Hervey Bay in Queensland. Within a
generation they will be joined by more working-age people seeking escape
from what is expected to become an increasingly frantic pace of city
In reality, the drift of younger people seeking a beach lifestyle and
middle aged people seeking a life change has been underway since the
1970s. Initially, in the case of Byron Bay, it was led by surfers, some
of whom set up surfboard manufacturing businesses and retail shops
catering to the lifestyle and important to the local economy.
For local government, coastal population growth is both an exciting
and fearful prospect. Exciting because the expected influx of people
will boost local economies, employment prospects and the number of
ratepayers; fearful because the new residents will increase pressure on
local infrastructure such as roads, sewage systems, waste disposal,
sporting and recreational facilities and public amenity already burdened
by the demands of seasonal tourism. The resolution, even were a tourist
tax to be introduced, will see increasing rates for residents.
The Herald was audacious enough to suggest that higher charges be
levied on those who directly benefit from tourism - local businesses.
Such a move would no doubt quickly become a local government election
issue and would be resisted, some tourism proprietors claiming that
tourism is a seasonal phenomenon and that their summer income has to
cover their expenses through the whole year.
Whatever the source, it is clear that extra revenue will have to come
from someone unwilling to pay it.
When the Herald called for innovative thinking instead of visitor
taxes, it identified the only process that can accommodate the coastal
population boom to come. As yet, innovative thinking has been submerged
by off-the-cuff reaction as people all along the eastern coastal strip
react to growing population numbers. It also comes up against existing
development regulation. But there is hope. In a rare bout of innovative
thinking, Byron Council in February 2001 adopted legislation that may
contribute to a solution - but not completely solve - the issue of
accommodating more people on less land.
The process started when Byron Council's environmental and planning
services director, David Kanaley, travelled to Europe on a Local
Government and Shire Association Albert Mainerd Scholarship to
investigate 'ecovillage' development. Ecovillages are settlements
designed according to high environmental standards to provide cheaper
access to land and a sense of community.
The outcome of David's study was the adoption by council of provision
for the development of 'ecohamlets' - essentially, small ecovillages -
within the local government area as a means of accommodating more people
on a given area without the sprawl of conventional subdivision. The
initiative validated and mainstreamed what had started as a 'social
fringe' idea. The hamlets would take the form of clusters of freehold
dwellings on shared common land. Council called for landscaping with a
percentage of native plants to expand the local biodiversity and will
apply conditions such as the onsite treatment of wastewater, energy
efficient dwellings to reduce energy consumption and, especially, the
prospect of economic activity to create local livelihoods, an important
point in a region boasting the state's highest rate of unemployment.
But ecohamlets will not appeal to everyone; there will have to be a
certain amount of conventional detached dwelling development. Well
designed town houses and low-rise apartments could relieve some of the
population pressure on civic infrastructure and natural systems.
There is another innovative option that has not attracted the
interest of coastal government. Co-housing has been a fact in
Scandanavian countries for over 25 years and the 1990s saw its spread to
the USA. In that same decade, Australia's first co-housing project was
built at Cascades, in Hobart.
Cohousing, in its Scandanavian and North American iterations,
consists of medium density settlements of up to three levels of detached
or contiguous housing with shared facilities such as laundrette and
dining room where residents might gather for a shared meal on a weekly
basis. Importantly, co-housing offers the prospect of the mix of privacy
and community seemingly favoured by Australians and also offers reduced
land and housing costs.
The potential for co-housing in Australia's metropolitan cities is
high, but it is the solution it offers as our coastal population grows
over the coming quarter century that makes its adoption by local