Melaleuca Media
Are we ready for a million more?

An abundance of plans and a poor record in implementing any, is no way to control growth in SE Qld. This article was a bit ahead of events for the Courier-Mail, which commenced its own series on controlling growth and preserving open space around 18 months later.

The spectre of Los Angeles came up continually as the Environment Institute of Australia and assorted councillors and council officers from around south east Queensland pondered our immediate future. Not much in evidence was a mob known colloquially as the "State government cheer squad" whose message generally is one of it's all under control. Down the corridors of power comes a faint echo from times past - "Don't you worry about that".

However, this group was clearly worried. It is not just about the million more. It is about the current trends which show that they will seek to occupy more space, prefer their cars more and drive more kilometres in them, create more waste, use more electricity and want more water. Some of our systems and ecosystems are clearly groaning under the strain of the existing populations and their demands.

Chair of the 1996 State of the Environment Report and conference keynote speaker Professor Ian Lowe advised the State government to "look at the trade off between number of people and quality of life, rather than find out, as they did in Los Angeles, that the future crept up on them and they didn't like it".

"People come to South East Queensland for its relatively open spaces, its relatively clean air, its relatively clean water," Professor Lowe said. "It makes no sense to muck that up".

It is not as though none of this growth and the necessity to prepare for it is anything new. After the disgraceful and frequently corrupt laissez fare approach of the Bjelke-Petersen era, the Goss government rolled up its sleeves and started to roll out an impressive list of Regional Frameworks for Growth Management, Integrated Regional Transport Plans and so on.

A noted planner, Professor John Brannock gave the planning effort a commendable 8/10. But when it got to implementation it was a different story with Professor Brannock giving the State 5/10 and most delegates being critical of his generosity, with some sort of consensus appearing at about 2/10. Douglas Shire Mayor Mike Berwick said he would have given "minus five - it is only progress if we are going forwards, not backwards.

Professor Lowe said there had been a plethora of strategies, plans, committees and working groups on managing growth in south east Queensland and referred to "the summary on the screen of what we have done to implement the strategies". The screen was blank and the quip drew wide applause.

Over the course of a full and frank day the Queensland State Government received some praise for certain policies, but a pasting for poorly resourcing them, or for the conflicting behaviour of some departments and other policies. Issues of concern to conference speakers and delegates included:

drastic underfunding of sustainable transport infrastructure
underfunding of protection of open space and bushland in the face of the fastest development in Australia
wide ranging urban sprawl with some of the lowest densities in Australia
nderfunding of sustainable water infrastructure
lack of policies to address water pollution in sensitive urban areas
promotion of unsustainable development
whole of government resources used to railroad highly polluting or environmentally questionable projects through government and
how state and federal policies are making sustainability a near impossibility for local government.

Said Noosa mayor Bob Abbott, "The State and Federal Governments are handing down lots of responsibilities on the environment without the funding".

Of particular concern is the lack of protection for open space. The Goss government's Regional Open Space Scheme collapsed in the face of opposition from farmers wanting to preserve their rights to subdivide every paddock regardless of social benefit or detriment and the State Planning Policy on preserving GQAL (Good Quality Agricultural Land, if you were wondering) has never been much applied for the same reason. An excess of land has been designated future urban, and there is a long tradition of State government timidity about winding back overgenerous provisions for any "downzoning". Down towards the Gold Coast, the notorious property marketing industry has thrown up isolated paddocks of townhouses unconnected to any urban amenities - a future nightmare for planners and councils as well as the unfortunate purchasers.

Only 16 percent of SEQ land is publicly owned - mostly existing State forest and National Parks - compared to say 44 per cent of the land around Sydney. According to Professor Brannock, 3000 hectares of good quality agricultural land and 30,000 hectares of woody vegetation have been lost over the last six years.

And although much has been made of the influx back into the inner cities, the overall trend is in the direction of more suburbanisation rather than re-urbanisation. Our extra million, left to their own devices, will tend to fewer people in more households and often bigger houses. This is good news for the development industry, not so good for the rest of us.

Accepting these trends for what they are and trying to cater for them - the general tenor of the response so far - is already hitting the limits in terms of water and air quality, open space availability and transport capacity. Down this road lie significant drops in regional amenity and quality of life - the Californian experience. At some point the population inflows turn to outflows.

The alternative is to face some hard political decisions head on, take note of the rhetoric all around and take a stab at sustainability. Douglas Shire in north Queensland has done this, using its planning scheme to impose implicit and explicit limits to growth, including growth in population.

Ostensibly Douglas Shire would appear to be in the white shoe tourist entrepreneur and red neck rural constituency. But mayor Mike Berwick, former journalist, political adviser and demonstrator is deep green, now in his fourth term, and with the support of his community is achieving one sustainability milestone after another.

"Applying limits to growth is about assessing growth capacity instead of saying we will accommodate whatever comes along," he told the conference. Applying limits to growth immediately made the area a much better investment opportunity. Cr Berwick admitted there were issues with "rising land prices and a perception of elitism", but said the problem was "we are doing it in isolation".

Noosa mayor Cr Bob Abbott, whose council is heading down the same track, said the area had a similar experience with rising valuations for good quality agricultural land protected from residential subdivision. Cr Abbott said the restrictions on subdivision had stopped a cycle where land was being taken out of production following complaints by newly arrived residents about agricultural practices.

Protected agricultural land now had valuations of about 13 percent higher than similar parcels of unprotected land, he said. Cr Abbott told EM that a Gold Coast style freeway between northern Brisbane and Noosa was a real future possibility with the Department of State Development moving to sell off "large slabs of pine forests" to urban developers.

"To a great degree the State are trying to work around their own plan. We don't seem to be getting too far with major issues with relation to sustainability and environment. We aren't getting the responses we should out of what should be an enlightened government in enlightened times. Noosa has considered a long term population level to keep quality of life and environment. Maybe we have to start to consider the holding capacity of our land and the way we do business altogether."

If we are serious about Ecologically Sustainable Development, we would review all legislative instruments for their compatibility with ESD principles and objectives, Cr Mike Berwick told the EIA conference.

"It is not too big a job - we did it with national competition policy where councils had to check everything down to our dog policies and by-laws," Cr Berwick said. He also called for a coalition of local government, rural industries and conservation groups to lobby for a national environment levy modelled on the Medicare levy, which would increase environment and sustainability spending by a factor of 15 - "still not enough, but a huge improvement". And there was an urgent need to find a national reporting alternative to the GDP. As well as funding shortfalls, Cr Berwick said institutional disfunction was a major impediment to moving to sustainable development, giving as an example continued Queensland Department of Primary Industry attempts to promote weeds of national significance as improved pastures in sensitive river catchments. Cr Berwick said when the community was made aware of issues, they often chose and were prepared to pay for more expensive environmentally sensitive options - as 60 percent of Douglas Shire residents did when choosing a chemical free water treatment option.

Professor Lowe popped up with a list of objectives which he said were achievable given the political will at the State and local levels. Energy use, he said, could be cut by 20-30 percent by 2010, through a combination of conservation - going for negawatts not megawatts - and aiming to best the Japanese in putting solar generation capacity on suburban roofs. Large buildings could be water, wastewater and energy neutral at about the same time. More immediately, we should aim to concentrate development - grow up not out - and put a no net loss of biodiversity or habitat requirement on all new development. By 2025, he says, we could have "zero waste" communities. And last, but not least, we need to dispense with all road traffic subsidies and aim for a target of 25 percent of urban journeys being conducted by walkers and pedallers.

All this is rather radically in advance of most of the targets in the glossy strategy documents being indifferently implemented. But this, says Professor Lowe, is what it will take to take in more people without threatening the regional attributes attracting them here in the first place.