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In my backyard: The role of local government in diversifying rural communities

· Catriona McNaughton,Agritourism,Local Government,Analysis

The agricultural sector is facing new and ongoing challenges that continue to put pressure on incomes and farm viability. In particular, competing land uses, limitations on resources such as water, changing areas of agricultural production driven by climate variations and increasingly unpredictable growing seasons are shifting the way farms operate. Strategies to manage this uncertainty and pressure tend to focus on high-level broad policy or strategy at a state or Federal level and are often reactive to emotive issues rather than ongoing community needs.

This creates a complex policy space, segregated by portfolio areas that try to solve the ‘whole’ problem rather than specific local issues and do not necessarily translate to sustainable profits at the farm level. This is largely as a result of different areas facing different combinations of challenges. City fringe farms may have better access to water, infrastructure and other services but comparatively higher land costs and competition coupled with greater restrictions on diversification. These areas need different resources and support than remote farms which instead are more susceptible to infrastructure and supply challenges, particularly in extreme events such as the drought we are currently seeing in central and northern NSW and Victoria. Greater emphasis in addressing these specific combinations of challenges in the agricultural sector should be considered at the local government level, where local needs and requirements can be better understood, leveraged or supported.

For example, councils covering peri-urban areas around major cities could look at ways to encourage diversification such as through agritourism that can mitigate many of the income stresses common to the sector and maximise the benefits of being close to urban areas. While there is growing interest in Australia in agritourism opportunities and ongoing regional and agricultural support activity at a state level industry, advocates have tended to focus on the development of a Federal strategy aligned with brand Australia which will take time and political will that may not be available. Broadly promoting Australia’s wine, food and produce, rural landscapes and historical communities will help in attracting international tourists here, but the opportunities for domestic tourism and particularly for dispersing metropolitan dollars into the regions regularly may be missed. Local governments have a role to play in both the promotion needed to draw domestic markets and in reducing barriers to farm diversification such as through planning regulation change in appropriate areas.

Councils able to take an innovative approach to planning will see benefits as their regional communities diversify and become collectively stronger through their adaptability. The current general approach of zoning to allow a single specific use, with some additional alternatives allowed by exception, dampers the ability of business savvy entrepreneurs in regional communities to quickly adapt to growing opportunities. In many cases, activities that would be appropriate in these areas are not permitted largely because they didn’t exist when the planning overlays were developed. For instance, small scale quasi-commercial battery-supported solar farming which can both support a farmer to protect themselves against grid instability in regional areas and to provide back to the market presents a new opportunity that has only become viable at such as small scale in recent years as the technology has advanced.

Planning for technology advancements that have not yet even been conceptualised is a big ask. However, a new approach of flexibility with boundaries around the desired outcomes for a community rather than a focus on activities may present new scope to encourage growth, sustainability and vitality of regional and rural communities.

Catriona McNaughton is a Communications Analyst at FPL Advisory.

FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change.