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Saving the South Coast – Progress is Not Always a Good Thing

It was actually something of a happy fluke that I ended up living in South Coast NSW. My parents decided to up-sticks from leafy Hertfordshire in England to retire on the east coast of Australia and discovered the region on their travels a good six years before I even visited Australia for the first time. And when my family (my wife and son and I) came out for three weeks one Christmas 16 years ago – we fell in love with the place too.

Because what’s not to love?

The South Coast has everything except snow fields. It has amongst the finest beaches on the entire planet. It has unexplored wilderness the size of some European countries. It has up-market coastal towns and sleepy tucked-away beachside villages. It has waterfalls, massive lazy rivers, cute creeks, hills, flood plains, lakes, lagoons, bays, escarpments, gorges and plateaus. It has teeming amazing wildlife on land, sea and air. Above all, it has charm in abundance and a laid-back feeling that cannot be manufactured.

Seacliff Bridge

I was lucky enough to be able to explore a fair bit of Australia since I got here. I had a job with a non-profit organisation as a techie and that job took me all over the country. I kept waiting to discover somewhere better than South Coast NSW and when, after eight years, I quit that job – nowhere had eclipsed this region. As a landscape photographer I was always keeping an eye out for somewhere that outshone my new home and I never found it.

The problem is that our region is under increasing pressure to change and to grow. As the road infrastructure (the only kind of transport infrastructure that Australian politicians seem to care about) has slowly but surely improved on the roads south of Sydney, so more and more of the sleepy little coastal villages have been transformed.

Gentrification at all Costs

When I first arrived here, Gerringong and Gerroa were most of the way through their evolution into up-market retreats and retirement locations for former city dwellers. As the old shacks were detonated or renovated, the price of property slowly crept up, the shops and cafes went up-market and inevitably the whole feel of the towns changed. It was a weird kind of gentrification in which people moved to a coastal town because they liked its sleepy and laidback atmosphere and in doing so they hastened the very demise of that vibe. I guess it’s a similar story in rapidly change suburbs all over the world.

Property in Gerringong is such that young locals are now priced out of the market and nearly all homes in Gerroa command million-plus price tags. Gerroa in particular suffers badly from the disease of the weekender. As lovely as it is, it has no village feel because an extremely high percentage of its properties are either holiday accommodation or weekend retreats owned by wealthy Sydney-siders. I spend a lot of time in Gerroa and out-of-season and mid-week it feels like a ghost-town. Well, it did pre-covid – weird how all those weekenders suddenly became main residences during lockdown. One rule for the one percenters, one rule for everyone else.

As we travel further south down the Princes Highway, the town of Berry has long since completed its middle-class transformation. 40 years ago they were practically giving away homes here, but these days you have to be pretty wealthy to afford a house in town. As a result of the population pressure on Berry, a large housing estate has sprung up to the south-west of the country town and developments there and on the periphery are slowly but surely eating up more of the old pastures and farm-land in between the towns and villages of the Shoalhaven. Yes, most of Berry was built on what was once farmland and that farmland was once natural landscape, but surely there comes a point when we say that enough-is-enough.

The Problem with Tourism

And so the story repeats down the coast. Thanks to the improved road network and the lane multiplication of the Princes Highway, parts of the south coast that would previously have been considered weekend destinations are now within easy striking distance of the day-tripper. People who would previously have stopped at Kiama now carry on down the coast and visit places like Jervis Bay in ever-increasing numbers. This is great news for the tourism industry here (pretty much the only real business in town) but it is starting to have a negative affect on the coastal amenity and, unless we take stock and endeavour to protect all the good things about the south coast, it will be lost forever. The two biggest pressures on the south coast are 1) the increasing numbers of tourists and 2) the number of people who want to move here.

Of course I don’t blame anyone for wanting to relocate to South Coast NSW. After all I did exactly the same and it would be a bit hypocritical of me to criticise others doing the same thing. But unfortunately many of the towns and villages have reached a housing saturation point in which the available housing stock is non-existent and developers push to open up new tracts of land to meet the demand. Or else they take advantage of lax planning regulations to cram one or more new properties onto existing blocks. Viewing towns like Berry from above is an eye-opening experience – it’s incredible just how many of the old large blocks have been subdivided and one or more other houses have been squeezed into ‘battle-axe’ blocks.

The ever-diminishing strip of pasture land between Gerroa and Gerringong is a perfect example of the pressure that the landscape is under here in the south coast. Planning proposals have been submitted which push the Elambra estate right to the official southern boundary of Gerringong. And it’s not just large estates that are the problem – greenfield sites on the coastal land are being built on by wealthy landowners and in doing so they set a precedent for further development.

Rape the Land

In Manyana, a sleep little coastal village near Bendalong, one particular development has drawn strong resistance from the local population. Like all of the Shoalhaven, that particular area was badly hit by the disastrous bushfires of the 2019/2020 season. Yet incredibly property developers thought that this was the ideal time to push ahead with a large housing estate on the only parcel of bush that didn’t go up in smoke and in which a high volume of displaced wildlife found sanctuary. The developers had been sitting on the council’s permission to build there for nearly 20 years and they decided that 2020 was the time to finally build? It’s madness.

The tourism industry is crucial to the south coast and it employs either directly or indirectly a high proportion of the population. Therefore the pressure to increase that tourist volume manifests itself in new tourism-related property developments. New developments in places like Burril Lake and Vincentia have drawn strong criticism from locals who perhaps feel like I do, that have reached the point where enough is enough.

 

Yes, people needs houses to live in and tourism accommodation has to move with the times in order to attract visitors to the area. But there comes a point where the very thing that the tourists are coming to see, is destroyed. We are told that it is ‘progress’. And yet in this context, ‘progress’ seems to simply be the slow march towards the destruction of the natural landscape. “It’s just one development,” they often say. And they say it again and again until we realise that it’s gone too far. It’s the insidious nature of these developments and the fact that they count on people have short memories.

Not all progress is good. And justifying progress by saying that jobs will be created is a common tool of the voracious property development market. They fail to mention that most of those jobs are menial minimum-wage zero-hour jobs. Much more meaningful jobs can be created with the right leadership from our politicians, jobs that turn into actual careers. Instead of building massive apartment complexes on pristine undeveloped land on the edge of national parks, why don’t we build science parks in existing urban areas and encourage start-ups to set-up by offering them reduced rent, enterprise-grade Internet and good transport infrastructure? Could it be because property developers are traditionally big financial supporters of the large political parties and are more than happy to grease the squeaky wheels of regional politics too? Almost certainly yes, but it’s also because these bargain-basement politicians are utterly lacking in imagination. When politicians consider the creation of yet another out-of-town big-box retail outlet to be a win for the community and its workforce then you know something is seriously wrong.

Right is not Right

I do feel that the system favours development ahead of protection in Australia, in New South Wales and in South Coast NSW. In 2020 in Australia those people who stand in defence of the natural environment are, bizarrely, constantly ridiculed by the majority right-wing and far right-wing voters as ‘Greenies’. They ridicule the efforts of environmentalists to protect environments, the landscapes and the wildlife as if they are somehow mentally deficient for doing so. It’s as if these people are enthusiastic participants in a competition to see who can fuck the planet up quickest. The over-development of many coastal towns and villages that took place to the north of Sydney is well under way in the south now too and it is unfortunately unlikely that the environment will be the winner in the south coast.

As a photographer I feel that I can continue to help highlight the beauty of the natural environment and remind people pushing ahead with the increasing urban sprawl and with the destruction of native bushland that they’ll miss it when it’s gone. The photographs that I and other landscape photographers take will unfortunately stand as testament to the short-sighted and self-centred attitudes of many Australians who place a greater value on the economy than the world they live in.

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