They lobby local councillors as well as state and federal governments on issues as planning, the environment, neighborhood character, transport and traffic problems, housing sustainability and the protection of the Green Wedge.
We know there’s many local groups like Friends of Nillumbik and Citizen Voice in Wyong, NSW scattered all over Australia so if you’re part of one, tell us about it!
FoN began as a response to the 2001 Nillumbik Council Election result when only one winning councillor had genuinely stood on a platform of environmental and social concern. The other eight were, to a greater or lesser degree, very pro-development although some paid lip service to concern about the unique environmental character of Nillumbik.
A meeting of those who had supported the losing candidates was called and about 30 people turned up to a gathering in Hurstbridge. A committee was formed and a name chosen. A driving force behind the Friends of Nillumbik concept was present Councillor, Bill Penrose and the current Nillumbik Shire Council mayor, Warwick Leeson was its first chairperson.
It was decided that general policy direction would be determined from open meetings of supporters and these have been held at least annually since then. In the meantime the elected Secretariat of around ten people dealt with issues as they arose.
In the next Council election year (2004) a concerted effort was made to find and support those candidates who stood on a platform of environmental, social and neighborhood character concerns pertinent to Nillumbik. We were highly successful having 7 out of 9 Councillors elected. Once elected, Councillors are deemed to be completely independent of Friends of Nillumbik and we maintain our distance from them whilst being on cordial terms. Our agenda is set by our membership, not by sitting Councillors.
We keep ourselves informed by regularly attending Council meetings and accessing the Council website about upcoming developments, and maintaining a ‘council watch’. We decide which proposed developments will have considerable adverse impact on Nillumbik or set a dangerous precedent and we make submissions to the Council expressing our concerns and objections. Sometimes these concerns may not be shared by those councillors whom we helped to elect, thus we can be seen to be holding them to account.
We also have a plan based on our mission and vision statements and review our progress regularly to keep on track. We seek community feedback, liaise with other like-minded groups and tap into their knowledge of local Planning issues. We have found that use of an emailing list with constant updates is essential to help people feel connected and feel they have a voice along with elected Councillors and Council Officers. We also use the email to have supporters contact the Secretariat on specific issues and we try to accommodate all opinions.
Of course, there are times when we, as a group, have to bite the bullet and take an ‘in principle’ position that may not be to the liking of all supporters – or councillors. At times like this we just hope that everyone feels that at least they have been listened to.
We try to keep to our principles which emphasize environmental sustainability, neighborhood character and the preservation of the Green Wedge within the context of a caring community. We also try to counter the pro-development forces of those in our community who are also organized.
Although we are active in between times, there is an awareness by the community and Councillors that election time is the prime action time by the Secretariat and FoN supporters generally. Well before the election is announced we will be gathering evidence and asking questions of our Councillors and the community.
Our profile and the general awareness of our existence in the community is ever increasing, as are our supporters. As issues arise in the community, and local residents and FoN work together, more and more people are supporting the group. Every year we organize information displays at the various town fairs, which generate much face-to-face communication with and interest from the community. This ever increasing supporter base gives us great confidence in what we are doing.
We are not aware of other groups who are ‘shire-specific’ like us. Groups such as the Save our Suburbs and the Green Wedge Coalition have some aims in common with ours but they endeavor to be across all of Melbourne. The local Green Wedge Protection Group have done an excellent job over many years in protecting Nillumbik’s Green Wedge but, as a rule, do not deal with issues outside of the Green Wedge.
The current Council is genuinely trying, although the increasing development of the area (consistent with State government policy in Melbourne 2030) means loss of native remnant vegetation and this is of great concern in terms of environmental sustainability.
A great deal more could be done in encouraging sustainable home design in terms of retention of native vegetation, siting of houses, size of houses, solar power and water tanks.
However, Councils do not control building standards. There are times when compromises are made which we believe are not in the best interests of the area. Sometimes VCAT’s overturning of Council’s decisions is a problem. We would like this to be addressed, but it needs to be done at the state government level.
Edendale Farm is run by the Council and provides Nillumbik residents with models of sustainability in housing. The proposal to move the Shire Offices is, in part, based on Council’s desire to work out of offices that are more environmentally friendly.
Council has adopted a Greenhouse Action Plan which is currently being reviewed and updated. It has been estimated that local Govt. can influence approximately 50% of greenhouse emissions within their communities. The Council Plan adopts a 20% reduction goal for both community and council sectors based on 1996/97 emission levels.
Greenhouse Action in Nillumbik (GAIN) is a new community group set up to look at initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases. This group was set up on the initiative of the Nillumbik Shire Council and turned over to the community.
The Council is genuinely trying to do the right thing; however, we believe that given the magnitude of the problem, none of the levels of government are doing enough and nor is industry. Nillumbik is leading the way in terms of household rubbish recycling. We are proud to report that 93% of green waste goes to compost. Nillumbik Shire is a comparatively poor municipality in terms of having relatively small commercial and residential areas and a large Green Wedge area which means there is a low rate base.
Local groups such as those you mention and Friends of Nillumbik have a role in keeping people informed and keeping the pressure on councils (and other levels of Government) to take up the initiative. We believe that there are a huge range of actions that can be taken at the individual level to improve sustainability and that there is a leadership role for each of us.
To have a community-wide effect we need some level of government to reinforce our positive action. We then have a role in supporting this action as there are always those ready to knock such initiatives for their own political or financial reasons. Many of the environmental problems are global but change at the governmental and industry levels seems to be only achieved when driven at the grassroots and local levels.
Local government can help change the entire culture of an area. Nillumbik’s decision to purchase Green Power (renewable energy) is a great example. We have an affluent population and our Shire is rich in natural and heritage assets; we have great opportunities and are in a most fortunate position to lead the way as we are doing in rubbish recycling and green waste composting as mentioned above.
A recent motion passed in Council attempted to make it mandatory for all new homes to have either water tanks or some form of solar energy included in their plans. When Banyule Council tried to do this State Government vetoed it. We will investigate the status of this Council motion. However, so much more needs to be done in terms of water and energy usage, public transport, sustainable housing, town planning and land management issues.
Community groups such as ours are totally volunteer-based and not just issue specific. It is a challenge to maintain interest and enthusiasm in between elections both for office bearers and for supporters. As in any volunteer-based, community organization, it’s often the case that a few take on the majority of the work. Another challenge, then, is how to maintain the rage!
It is an ongoing process, trying to involve as many people as possible, recruit new and energetic members to the Secretariat and trying to maintain a public profile through our email list as well as the local papers. Of course we will now also refer to your blog site! We really need more people on the ground to share the workload.