A two-day forum in Bellingen that began on Thursday saw about 100 people come together to talk, listen, learn and share ideas and experiences about the complex subject of housing affordability.
Organisers estimated that about 40 per cent of attendees were from the general community, with the rest having a work-related interest in the housing sector.
The general managers of Bellingen and Nambucca shire councils were there, and some of the councillors and staff, along with housing providers, town planners, architects, housing co-operative members, non-government organisations and people from intentional communities like Bundagen.
They heard that although housing affordability is a national problem, potential solutions can be particular and local and might embrace tiny houses, secondary dwellings, new models of land ownership, multiple occupancies and housing co-operatives.
Prominent speakers at the forum included the Chief Planner of NSW, Gary White; CEO NSW Shelter, Karen Walsh; and CEO Common Equity, James Brown.
Chief Planner Gary White said simply increasing supply was not the answer, given that housing also functions as an investment vehicle and is subject to a complicated array of influences.
He spoke about needing to understand the broader context within which regional and local planning decisions would be made, referring to megatrends – major shifts in environmental, social and economic conditions that will substantially change the way Australia lives.
For example, our ageing population, climate change, the rise of the South East Asian middle class, advances in technology and the pressure being placed on finite environmental resources.
A major thrust of his argument was that local government should take a strategic approach to town planning rather than a regulatory one, consulting with their communities and developing a story that captures the character of their particular place and its desired future.
“What unfortunately we tend to do is pay very little attention to strategic planning,” he said. “We have our battles on a DA by DA basis. Put the effort into the top-level storytelling. Put in place the systems so we can deliver the right stuff quickly and pump the bad stuff out quickly. Let’s be planners rather than regulators.”
Much of his talk resonated with an earlier speech given by senior strategic planner Rebecca Jardim from Bellingen Shire Council, who presented the local picture based on her discussion paper Homes for our future.
It’s being released next week and is designed to get the community involved in formulating a new Growth Management Strategy for the shire, a critical document for setting priorities and guiding future choices.
One of the issues Rebecca mentioned was that Bellingen Shire has experienced the slowest population growth of all coastal local government areas in NSW over the last decade.
From 2011 to 2016, the net increase was only 151 people, a growth rate of 1.2 per cent, less than half that of neighbouring Nambucca, which grew by 3 per cent (568 people).
Population growth depends on the net effects of fertility, mortality and migration inwards and outwards.
In both shires, fewer babies are being born and the median age has slid up towards 50.
In Bellingen, the main arrivals have been aged 55+ and most of the other age cohorts have posted losses, with the largest groups leaving being the 18–24 year olds and people on lower incomes.
While it’s not surprising that young adults would leave for study, travel or work, it’s also possible that that people from both these groups “just can’t afford housing and are having to move away”, Rebecca said.
Bellingen’s house prices are more expensive than Coffs and Nambucca, and the rate of increase in the cost of renting here is among the top ten highest in the state.
As well as being priced out of reach of many, the housing stock doesn’t match our changing demographics.
Three and four-bedroom freestanding homes are the most common, but we have fewer families now and more people living alone.
However, a potentially bright note on the procreation front is that there’s been a small uptick in the number of people aged 25–34 years coming to live in the Bellinger Valley – a net gain of 113 millenials since 2011.
Rebecca herself is part of that migration, moving here from Wollongong a year ago to take up her position at council.
“I’m one of those, I’m in that age group. I moved to Bellingen, I think it’s got a real buzz about it, and it’s attracting that group in again. And that’s interesting in the context of fewer children. What does that mean into the future, if those people are coming in?”