5 February 2014 — According to City of Cessnock, in NSW’s Hunter Valley, its successes with sustainability initiatives show there can be a strong future for a region transitioning out of coal mining, when the right support and sense of shared endeavour exists at the grassroots level.
The region’s economic base is today predominantly tourism and wine growing, with only two active coal mines left in the 2000 square kilometre local government area.
The major town, Cessnock, still acts as a dormitory town for some mining workers commuting to coal operations at Muswellbrook and Singleton. However, with the upgrade of the F3 which connects the New England Highway to the Pacific Highway, employment hubs on the Central Coast have become more accessible.
In contradiction to the oft-cited idea that when the mines leave the people do too, Cessnock’s population has been growing at the rate of about 1.5 per cent a year and this is set to increase dramatically. Council is currently assessing proposals for a new township, Huntley, and plans for a number of substantial subdivisions; in combination these developments will double the population in the area.
Life after coal and the climate change threat
Cessnock’s LGA includes substantial areas of national park, Crown land and state forest, in addition to towns, villages and farmland. In terms of climate change, this equates to high levels of vulnerability.
“Our biggest concerns with climate change are weather changes and storms, increased heat and bushfires,” says Cessnock City Council’s manager of environment and waste, Michael Alexander.
“Wine growers are farmers, and they have the same concerns around heat, rainfall and storm damage as all farmers. They started harvesting grapes early this year in an attempt to beat the deterioration caused by heatwave conditions.”
Tourism in the region is also an industry that can be adversely affected by severe weather events.
As part of a regional organisation of councils with Lake Macquarie, Maitland, Port Stephens and Newcastle, Cessnock council has contributed to the development of region-wide policies around coastal sea level rises and climate changes.
Setting a sustainable example
Given the context of population growth and climate-vulnerable industries, the sustainability initiatives the council has underway are an important part of ensuring that the region’s future energy, water and waste management needs can be effectively met.
Mr Alexander says council has been looking at making changes in its own operational activity to decrease waste going to landfill, decrease energy use and increase the use of alternative power sources.
“We’ve got to make smart decisions at the front end, otherwise our practices are unsustainable and unaffordable,” he says.
“We have also taken an innovative approach to renewing some of our supply contracts, a different format which is a reverse auction format.”
As an example of the sustainability policies in practice, council has installed solar panels at the council works depots, which offsets operational costs.
The waste management service and strategy is being reviewed, to find ways of increasing recycling rates. The diversion of organic material from landfill is a key priority, with council considering introducing a kerbside organics collection to supplement the existing fortnightly kerbside recycling and weekly general waste collections.
In a joint venture with three other councils, Cessnock is now part-owner of a duly formed company, Hunter Resource Recovery, which puts the tender for kerbside collections out on behalf of all four LGAs and achieves economies of scale, as the tendered services cover 130,000 services, rather than just the 20,000 required for Cessnock.
Council is also developing a strategy for the roll-out of energy efficient street lighting, which was challenging from a cost point of view initially given the council has a ratepayer base of only 24,000 rateable properties and a population of approximately 50,000.
Having such a relatively small ratepayer base means council has to be extremely cost-effective in implementing any initiative. It also means they are answerable on a personal and daily basis to the ratepayers they service.
Education of the community is a vital part of improving sustainability
The council’s approach is a broad one, with numerous projects being managed out of a small but active environment department. In the council’s recent Australia Day awards, a new Environment Award category was introduced. The recipient was LJ Hooker Cessnock, which has been contributing assistance and information to local investors, tenants and home owners on how to achieve their own sustainability objectives.
“I think everybody has a green tinge to some extent,” Mr Alexander says.
“The challenge comes when they are faced with the cost, and that’s an education challenge. A major part of the new sustainability officer role [council recently advertised] is to communicate with residents. It’s a matter of understanding, so people can see the outcome [of a sustainability initiative] is better – if all they see is the cost it’s an uphill battle.”