Local government responsibilities

Council functions in planning, development control, drainage and land management are vital parts of coastal management around the settled Australian coastline. Most councils face difficult and chronic problems in managing coastal resources, and most non-metropolitan councils lack the expertise and financial base to properly address these problems. Councils are also usually the first points of contact for complaint.

While council decisions are usually made in cognisance of state policies and priorities, and council decisions may be overridden by state governments, councils make the majority of planning and development decisions at the coast. Councils make decisions on developments at the coast in two ways:

• Through the evolution and promulgation of strategic and local plans. In all states, councils are required to set out their development plans with planning zones and objectives and principles for those zones. Setback or zoning may reflect residential, industrial areas, sensitive natural and heritage places, areas subject to coastal erosion or flooding, or areas with the potential for these hazards as a result of accelerated sea level rise

• Through individual decisions in response to development applications involving the interpretation of development plans.

However, there are great pressures on councils when decisions are being made about valuable coastal land. For example, it may be difficult financially for a small council to defend its decisions in the courts if there is a legal challenge over the interpretation of council plans or conflict over the merits of development applications.

State-wide consistency between plans of different councils and between council plans and state strategies and plans is achieved in different ways. For example, in New South Wales the state issues guidelines and develops regional strategies, but in South Australia councils must revise their plans every three years, each time securing the agreement of the Minister for Planning.

Council's development control role has strong links with the treatment, use and disposal of wastewater. The planning, construction and maintenance of stormwater and of sewage systems are either carried out by Councils, or closely involve councils. Decisions to avoid marine or estuarine disposal or to mitigate the impact of such disposal (see page 39) are often, in the first instance, a council matter.

Local government is responsible for the day-to-day maintenance of the beaches and coastal facilities, and it shares with state governments the task of shore protection. Councils are also involved in such decisions as location of access paths, roads and carparks, the keeping of public coastal land in public use, the development and maintenance of coastal reserve facilities, and the maintenance of many boat ramps and jetties. During the 19th century surveys of the Crown lands of the colonies of Australia, a narrow strip of coastal reserve was often left above high water mark, usually 30-60 metres wide. While many of these reserves have been lost through coastal erosion, most remain, and today they are of great importance in coastal management. Along the settled parts of the Australian coast these Crown coastal reserves are usually under the care and control of the local council, but community groups frequently play a vital part in their management. In the development of coastal management in Australia, these coastal reserves have created the expectation of a narrow buffer zone and the right of access along the shore. The expectation that there will be a coastal reserve, and that access to and along the shore will be assured, is a key part of the Australian attitude to the coast. In Australia the perception is that coast is a public place. This part of the coastal 'commons' is vigorously defended and incursions into it have been the cause of conflict around the continent. These narrow coastal reserves are a key part of the responsibility of maritime councils.

Councils are the housekeepers of the coastal zone. Cleaning, maintaining, improving, and regulating many activities and keeping them safe – all these functions fall to the local council or shire. Because coastal areas are so heavily used by residents and visitors and because catchment wastes end up at the coast, the costs of being the housekeeper are high. Nor are these costs likely to fall, since resident and visitor expectations with regard to facilities and pollution have risen sharply in recent years. Also, in an age of litigation, councils must be aware of a wide range of liabilities.

Thus councils are faced with rising recurrent coastal expenses with limited scope to raise revenue in ways that directly relate to use. For example, of the many carparks along the coast, it only appears feasible to charge for parking for some well-used urban parks, usually through a pay-and-display system. It is rare for a rural council to make money by charging for the use of facilities.

In these circumstances it appears that, with regard to the coast, councils must look to:

• ensure that development decisions today do not pass on high costs to the future, or compromise opportunities for public coastal use in the future; policies on coastal hazard and projected sea level rise, for example, are relevant to this consideration

• work with community groups to maximise the most efficient use of resources

• work with other councils to ensure the equitable distribution of any state funds that may be available

• work with other councils to ensure that opportunities to access state and Commonwealth grants for infrastructure and environmental improvement are maximised; e.g. working within a regional structure in accessing National Heritage Trust grants

• ensure that council has an environmental management system which is able to demonstrate agreed aims and to show how well they are being met; e.g. a Local Agenda 21 process, including monitoring of outcomes.

The key position of local government involves both strength and weakness: the concentration on local issues may bring with it the 'tyranny of small decisions', but the local focus allows the possibility of strong and productive cooperation with the community to ensure the development of capable local management.


Within the Australian federal system, each of the three spheres of government plays an important role in coastal management. National and state reviews over the past decades have noted a sectoral approach to management within all three spheres. The 1990s saw the Commonwealth draw back from an opportunity to establish national legislation on the coast but increase its involvement in other ways. Meanwhile, the states have begun to integrate their coastal management through policy development: putting together existing and revised policies and practices from a variety of agencies to make a more coordinated approach. Yet their commitment of resources to implement policies is subject to increasing limitations, given priorities for the use of state funds. At the same time, an increase in pressure from rising numbers of residents, tourists and recreationists is placing great stress on the activities of all governments, but especially local government, in maintaining the coast as a safe and healthy place.

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