Planning for food or coal?

Sydney Morning Herald
February 10, 2011

What makes a town or city?

Surely not just a sparkling harbour or a beautiful river – nor a power plant or a quarry – it surely requires depth of character. A culture perhaps not just skin deep but one that goes beyond the urban and includes its food production.

Just as the Napa Valley is to San Francisco or the Yarra Valley is to Melbourne – isn’t productive farmland essential to a city’s character?

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Even beyond the outskirts of our cities, as a looming global food crisis becomes more evident, is it not madness that Governments don’t look beyond miners and developers and take food security more seriously?

Agriculture Always Comes Last

In any government development assessment, agriculture always comes last. Whether it be from the relentless call to expand urban sprawl to the inexorable march of tree changers to the miners of brown coal– the reality is that food production is under threat by all quarters.

This surely, is simply not good enough for a forward looking progressive society.

Eating Away at the Food Bowl

This week, pandering to the development lobby, the NSW opposition (these days called the incoming Government) has announced their intention to ramp up the supply of land on the outskirts of Sydney’s fringes and wind back the urban-consolidation – that is building in urban areas alongside existing infrastructure.

It is disturbing that few seem to take seriously how inappropriate planning chips away at our farming sector and also damages the character and resilience of our towns and cities.

Easter Island?

Take Cessnock in the NSW Hunter Valley, the sign welcomes you by saying “Cessnock – Mines, Wines and People”.  Sadly, the local government’s priorities lie in that order as well.

Upper Hunter local government areas such as Maitland are amongst the most intensely mined local government areas in the country. I am not anti-mining but I don’t fancy a repeat of Easter Island either.

Tragedy Beyond Measure

The Wollondilly, that takes in towns like Picton and Tahmoor on Sydney’s south fringe, is replete with market gardeners and, unfortunately-long wall miners also.

Heartbreakingly, the Thirlmere Lakes are a chain of lakes within the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and is/was well known for possessing some of the last pristine fresh-water lakes and wetlands in the country.

The locals thought these ancient lakes were drying out because of drought and would one day be replenished when the drought broke. That is – until it starting raining and the lakes kept draining away.

The current theory expounded by locals is that long-wall mining has fractured the sandstone layer which keeps the water in higher aquifers that feed ground-water systems. The crack in the upper level of the sandstone works like the plug hole in the bath, allowing the water to drain away into the deeper aquifers.

When this water disappears below, creeks and dams run dry. Of course, the Department of Environment and operator of the Tahmoor mine Xstrata (whose long wall mine incredibly extends to within a kilometre of the lakes) both maintain that there’s no evidence that long-wall mining is affecting the lake levels. Humph!

That they were ever allowed to operate this close to a world heritage listed National Park is scandalous by any measure. Once we stop shaking our heads the real implications for farming viability in the area begin to dawn on us.

From an environmental and food security perspective – the Department of Environment for NSW gets a big “F” for Fail on this one.

Want an Open Cut Coal Mine Next Door?

Places like Mudgee, are filled with colonial character and have a strong gourmet following with wines, cheeses and berries, all being grown or processed in and around the township.

One lady I spoke to yesterday, who had bought her block of land there and is half-way through building, has just found out that the adjoining property has been sold to a miner intending to establish an open-cut coal mine.

Before you go off blaming local government don’t forget that NSW, under the highly controversial Part 3A of the development act, allows for the Minister to exercise ultimate discretion on all parts of the approval process for any state significant project.

In this process, an environmental impact statement need only to be carried out if the Minister agrees. Astonishingly, the Minister has executive power to circumvent breaches of environmental and heritage laws and worst of all there is no legal recourse.

As they say in the classics – no further correspondence will be entered into. If you don’t like the coal mine in your back yard well tough!

Is this really the best way to prepare our towns and cities for the future?

Food Security Not a Planning Priority

Let’s face it, the NSW Government has thumbed its nose at the farming sector for years. The Brumby led Victorian government threw over $200M to the future farming initiative educating and providing assistance with start-up capital to young farmers.

By contrast the NSW Government offered young farmers AgStart – which offered a paltry total of $3M of grants over the term of their excruciatingly long tenure. It is now scrapped and NSW is now just about the only state Government totally uninterested in young farmers.

The upshot is that aspiring-farmers are often pushed further out, to the most marginal of farming land allowing tree-changers, developers and miners to skim the cream.

Clearly, we are currently lumped with state Governments, like NSW Labor, that have very little understanding of the benefits that a thriving farming sector provides and little comprehension of the massive risks in eroding our capability to preserve water and produce food.

Farmers versus Miners

A perfect example where the mining versus food issue is the source of heated debate is in the Liverpool Plains Government area, in and around towns like Gunnedah, Tamworth and Narrabri.

There is no doubt that the Liverpool plains is one of the jewels in the crown of Australia’s agricultural sector, producing a vast range and volume of crop, sheep and cattle.

However agriculture in the Liverpool Plains is now diminishing by the day as miners, more devastating than locusts, start eating up some of our country’s best arable land. BHP Billiton, China Shenhua Energy and Santos are all active in this area writing irresistibly large cheques to farmers to leave their lands.

Even if on the surface, pastures and paddocks appear undisturbed the fact is that both miners and a reliable clean water supply are unhappy dance partners.

Haven’t we learnt our lessons from Thirlmere and others. There will come a day when coal will be seen as the fuel of bygone era and what will be left with? Waste lands of over-burden aren’t worth much!

The Pitt St Farmer

Right up there with miners on their affect on reducing the amount of available arable land is the wealthy (mostly baby boomer) tree-changers.

Let’s take the Southern Highlands of NSW just an hour south of Sydney for example. Once saturated with dairy and potato farmers, Robertson and Kangaloon with their temperate climate, rich basalt soils and very high rainfall contain some of the finest grazing land in the country.

Lamentably, there are only a couple of die-hard dairy farmers left and only two large scale potato growers.

What was once highly productive farm land is now home to some corporate refugees – directors of failed investment schemes, owners of collapsed development companies, claimants in high profile but dubious compensation cases (I could go on but I have probably offended enough people for one paragraph).

These guys clearly fancy a block of land with a nice view to go with their sports cars (all in their wife’s name of course). Most of these Pitt St Farmers intend to post hideous losses to avoid tax.

At least some pretend to farm – one wealthy landowner I spoke to recently doesn’t even see the point of running cattle anymore. Maintaining his pastures every year is a burden and now he seems to be using his 100 acres to grow a fine crop of scotch thistle, bracken and fire-weed much to the chagrin of his neighbours.

The reality is that when 50 acres in Kangaloon might set you back the best part of $3.5M, it is hardly surprising that not too many genuine farmers can afford this area. It makes it no less regrettable though.

Dairy Farms or McMansions?

Down the escarpment into the Illawarra, places like Albion Park extending out to Jamberoo are being closed in upon. Already, right next to dairy farms are cookie cutter housing estates crammed in, barely a tree between them.

Recently, in this area, despite Shellharbour Councils opposition, a new estate comprising over 700 hectares and 4800 new homes just to the north west of Albion Park called Calderwood Estate was approved by the State Planning Minister Tony Kelly.

The council said that the new development was “economically, environmentally and socially unsustainable”. When developers have the power to over-ride democratically elected local representatives there is surely something wrong with the world.

What is happening here is that we have a NSW state Government that won’t listen to anyone save for miners and developers. Not residents, not councillors and least of all farmers.

What happens if we don’t remedy this myopia soon? What sort of legacy do we leave future generations?

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