David Holmgren’s View On Rural Land Use

Warwick Rowell

David Holmgren, cofounder of Permaculture, has been involved in land use policy matters in Victoria, NSW and Queensland for over twenty years. At the first Focus On The Future workshop, sponsored by us, in Busselton in early September 1999, he outlined some thoughts on better structures for rural land use. For more information on David’s work, try his website at holmgren.com.au.

The increasing population of the Busselton and Dunsborough area is typical of many coastal areas around Australia. They are part of the third great resettlement of people from the cities into the rural areas of Australia. The first was just over one hundred years ago, under the impetus of gold discoveries in Victoria and Western Australia. The second was the soldier resettlement programs after the Second World War. This slower wave has been building momentum for many years.

The shift of city people to the coastal areas is driven by the realisation that location has a major impact on lifestyle; people are deliberately choosing to move to more pristine environments. Another interesting aspect of this wave is that it was and is unpredicted, and unplanned, and so governments are reacting and trying to catch up with increasing coastal populations, and all the pressures they bring to regulators and service providers. Not the least of the pressure they bring is higher expectations and higher levels of political activity, as well as increasing numbers.

While the concern for how land-use is designed and managed is important, a third crucial dimension is how it is owned. In reality, design and day to day management will not adequately address the issues of how to get the balance right between farming and rural residential use, about how to best institute bushfire controls, about managing the increasing demand for all services. Ownership can go some way to addressing these issues.

A framework that is being used increasingly is common ownership. In a variety of forms, it is seen as an alternative to public or private ownership of infrastructure. In Victoria for instance, the creation of common land automatically brings into play a section of the Land Act similar to our Strata Title Act. People there are finding that it is more appropriate. Common ownership doesn’t surrender control to a distant government, nor does common ownership leave control with just one person. Common ownership can provide a fourth tier of government, which is local and appropriate for the size of the land system being managed. This fourth tier makes sense when local governments, due to increasing pressures, are leaving land they are responsible for to revert to a wilderness.

The creation of a legal entity for managing common land takes a lot of load off local government; they can deal with one body that has a perpetual association with that area of land, and that body can pool resources to manage larger areas than is practical for one landowner on one lot, where the size of the private lot and the workload cannot justify professional management and larger equipment.

The long-term incentive for developers is the slowly changing demand for real estate; people are increasingly seeing the even spread of houses over the rural landscape as just another suburb; they see there is no real amenity for them in large visual spaces that are unusable. In the short term, the carrot that can be offered by local government is smaller minimum sizes on lots with the same overall density, reducing the cost of providing services. The stick would take the form of tighter controls on the commonly owned broader acres. These might include details of where rural production can and must be maintained, and how it is to be managed; for example, organic or minimal chemicals on pasture, or perhaps a clear focus on managing forests for sustainable yields.

Robert Pirsig said “If you are caught on the horns of a dilemma, throw sand in the bull’s eyes.” One horn is that larger government must by definition fail to meet many people’s diverse needs. The second horn is the unacceptability of the tax levels needed to achieve real control of public land; limited resources are increasingly going into trying to minimise the impacts of dysfunction. But common ownership of land is a formal process which allows self-regulation. As well, common ownership could provide a basis for increasing local food production as well as a major rebuilding of community; people need to need each other to manage common property.

A planning framework which encourages community building is not so alien as we might think; every association can own land for the benefit of all the members, and many do. What David is suggesting is merely a legal association, but one with the specific purpose of managing land well, and moving towards sustainability.