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Booming coastal population calls for housing innovation

By Russ Grayson - posted Thursday, 15 August 2002

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 life.

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 government pertinent.

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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