A NSW shire council roughly the size of Tasmania and with a population of only 2,000 has had its councillors suspended by local government minister and Byron Bay resident Don Page.
Councillors in the Central Darling Shire, located in the state’s far west, were suspended just before Christmas.
It’s the first use of new ‘early intervention’ legislation which was introduced in NSW parliament earlier in 2013.
The suspension only affects elected councillors, not staff, and comes after NSW Treasury claimed the council was in a ‘very weak and deteriorating’ financial position.
Mr Page says he ‘bypassed the option of giving the council an order to improve because of the dire state of the council’s finances.’
But mayor of Central Darling, Ray Longfellow, told The Echo that despite clear and early warnings of financial difficulty to Mr Page’s department, support was not forthcoming.
‘Nothing came out of the meetings we had with the department of local government,’ he said, ‘despite all meetings being instigated by us.
‘Our suggestion was instead of getting in an administrator, we needed advisers. With an administrator, you sit on the outside rather than being involved,’ he said.
But Mr Page told The Echo that the Central Darling councillors told him in June this year, ‘they were budgeting for a surplus of over $1m for 2013/14.’ In September they told me they would break even. In late November they told me they wouldn’t be able to pay their wages prior to Christmas.
‘They had no plan to manage their finances, despite employing very highly paid external consultants, other than for some other tier of government to bail them out.
‘Their bank would not extend further credit so we had no option but to appoint an administrator.’
However, the issue is about state and federal funding, says Mr Longfellow.
‘Over a period of time, the funding by both the federal and state governments have become insufficient. We have a huge network of roads to maintain. The money has being drying up over the last ten years. We can’t increase our rate base; we rely heavily on grant money to operate.’
Mr Page added that Central Darling Shire Council’s case was unique, ‘and the government is not currently considering the use of the temporary suspension powers on any other council at this time’.
According to www.governmentnews.com.au, a number of other local governments are also understood to be ‘skirting close intervention on the ministerial watch list.’
The NSW government has failed to include the northern rivers in a recent state-wide press release spruiking its commitment to regional transport.
The western, central west, Murray and Murrumbidgee, New England and north west and central coast regions of NSW were all promoted as areas worthwhile of infrastructure investment.
But not us.
However, a document was released by the coalition on December 19, entitled Northern Rivers Regional Transport Plan.
Fastest growing region in NSW
It was among eight other NSW transport studies released just before the holiday break, and is available at www.transport.nsw.gov.au.
Surprisingly, the omission of our region in government promotions comes despite the report admitting that the northern rivers is the fastest-growing region in NSW, ‘at about 0.9 per cent per year.’
Additionally, the 52-page document lifts material from the previous Casino to Murwillumbah Transport Study, released early in 2013.
As for statistics, the report says approximately 48 per cent of the northern rivers population is concentrated within the four centres of Tweed Heads, Ballina, Lismore and Casino. And we are an ageing bunch, as ‘the proportion of the population aged 65 or over is expected to increase from 19 per cent in 2011 to 28 per cent in 2031.’
Not only that, but our region ‘has an above average level of social disadvantage compared to the NSW median.’
And while the report points to the Lismore and Byron Bay road corridor as continuing ‘to see the most demand for travel,’ there were no plans to improve that road except ‘Road safety works relating to decommissioning of fixed speed cameras at Bangalow Road, Clunes.’ The report claims that cost is $381,900.
The disused railway line that runs from Casino to Murwillumbah – and which also runs between Lismore and Byron – was barely touched upon, but mention was made of developing ‘service plans to encourage public transport use to connect to festivals in the northern rivers region.’
A future high-speed rail corridor was also vaguely referred to, but no plans as yet: currently the government only wants to ‘identify and protect a future high-speed rail corridor between Brisbane, the northern rivers region and Sydney.’
Wow, gripping stuff huh?
Statements such as ‘We will work’ were repeated 17 times. There are endless unspecific costings, time-frames, locations and commitments. I wonder how much this report cost?
For example, there is, ‘ongoing investment in maintenance to improve safety and reliability on the rail network.’
But where and how much?
There was the introduction of NSW TrainLink, however, which ‘operates services to the northern rivers region, and for the first time provides a dedicated organisation focused on improving services for our rail customers in regional NSW.’ The report claims $389 million will go to ‘support and improve rural and regional bus services.’
As for the Byron Shire, the report claims a total of $1,721,136 was spent improving our roads, yet our Shire did not benefit from grants that were awarded to other shires for boating, transit centres, interchanges and cycleways. In contrast, Ballina received $3,136,645 in funding for all that.
However, we should probably be thankful we have a huge highway that we can soon barrel down.
Call me cynical, but reading such repetitive guff reminds me of BBC’s Yes Minister.
Roads are used because the railways have long been abandoned by governments who are beholden to fossil fuel and transport corporations. So the focus is of the report is, you guessed it, roads.
The two people that are presently responsible for this are minister for transport, Gladys Berejiklian, and minister for roads and ports, Duncan Gay.
Plans for the development of the 108-hectare West Byron Project are now with NSW Planning & Infrastructure at http://bit.ly/westbyronplans and public submissions can be made until January 31, 2014.
The proposal aims to rezone the West Byron site, located opposite the industrial estate, and allow for low/medium density residential, industrial and a neighbourhood centre, as well as environmental zones.
Estimates have put the number of houses upwards of 800. There are also plans to establish planning controls including building heights, minimum lot sizes, flood planning requirements, coastal protection and management of acid sulphate soils.
While the aim to add more housing to west of Byron is contentious, the landowners argue, ‘We believe that adding to the supply of residential land and housing will bring prices down and give more people the opportunity to live in Byron Bay rather than commute from out of town.’
So far only 15 public submissions have been received on the proposal – five of them objecting, seven in support and three offering comments only. One objector remarked, ‘I am concerned of the impact on the Belongil Estuary and do not think developer “guarantees” of low/nil impact should be regarded as acceptable safeguards.’
Byron Shire Council in November 2011 called on NSW Planning & Infrastructure to not proceed with rezoning the land until transport issues could be adequately addressed. Council’s submission also advised that ‘the residential density of 17 dwellings per hectare is well in excess of other subdivisions in the Shire’ and called for no flood-liable lands to be filled.
The Echo asked a spokesperson for the West Byron landowners when they expected to have the project up and running, if it is approved. ‘We’ve been in the approvals process for the West Byron Project since late 2008 and although it’s difficult to put an exact timeframe on any construction, it probably wouldn’t be much less than three to five years,’ the spokesperson said. The business/commercial hub is proposed to be about one hectare in size, ‘located at the centre of the site for ease of walking access from within the release area.’ She added that the business centre would occupy 13ha at the western end of the site, ‘conceptually in a style similar to the Arts and Industry Estate.’
Dual carriageway recommended to address traffic
In regards to traffic issues, the West Byron Project website recommends a dual carriageway on Ewingsdale Road and bike paths that would lead into town from the estate.
A detailed traffic study completed two years ago forms part of the material on public exhibition, says the spokesperson. ‘RMS agreed on the scope of that study before it was commenced and accepted the findings after it was completed and Council is in receipt of the computer simulation for traffic on Ewingsdale Road.’
So who are the developers?
They are long-term residents of the Byron area, according to the spokesperson, ‘…absolutely committed to delivering a quality outcome for the community’ over the next 20 years.
The landowners are Tony Smith, Byron Shire local who has owned his holding for 22 years, Alan Heathcote of Suffolk Park, Peter Croke, long-time Byron Bay resident and business owner, Crighton Properties (under receivership and management), David O’Connor, long-term Byron resident who has owned his holding for 25 years, Garry McDonald, long-term Byron Shire resident and business owner, Warren Simmons, long-term Byron Shire resident and business owner, and Kevin Rogers, long-term investor in Byron.
For more information, visit the landowners’ site at www.westbyronproject.com.au.