The Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (ALRA) acknowledges the strong relationship between Aboriginal people and the land. The Act provides a system through which Local Aboriginal Land Councils (LALC) can be vested freehold title to land or obtain it through land claims, purchase or bequest. ALRA establishes LALCs as autonomous bodies tasked with the responsibility of economic, social, cultural and environmental land management, and it is fundamental in achieving Aboriginal autonomy and self-determination.
The planning and development of land is a source of potential income for LALCs, making residential and commercial development key aspirations of these bodies. It is important that local government works with LALCs to understand their future land use aspirations, and help fulfil their ALRA responsibility to encourage economic and social independence of the local Aboriginal community.
Residential developments can be important for the social well-being of an Aboriginal community. Commercial enterprises, such as childcare centres, medical centres and education and training facilities service both local Aboriginal people and the broader community and contribute to the local economy. They provide opportunities for Aboriginal employment and can result in a steady stream of income for Aboriginal people, as well as a reliable source of revenue for LALCs that enables investment in social and cultural community benefit schemes.
Local government land use and planning decisions can raise large barriers to a LALC successfully completing the residential and commercial developments it seeks to achieve.
Councils should be aware of planning and development issues facing LALCS, including:
- mistaken belief that LALC land-use interests lie solely in conservation and environmental purposes, and failure to recognise LALCS are also stakeholders in a region’s economic development
- land-ownership based zoning, which ties up council resources in processing land re-zoning requests, while subjecting LALCs to delays in development applications, along with additional expenses on consultancies, assessments – even legal cases
- increased critical examination of development applications by council and the general public, causing further approval delays and requests for additional paperwork as a condition of consent. As a result, LALCs incur a higher cost of investment and higher risk than other developers.
Case study – Local Aboriginal Land Council’s experience lodging a development application
To aid the on-going delivery of services such as affordable housing, education campuses, employment schemes, and funeral funds, a coastal LALC lodged a development application for a caravan park, proposing 250 dwellings.
The local council received in excess of 2,000 submissions regarding this proposal. Many of the submissions were of a racial nature, objecting to the development on the grounds it would increase Aboriginal relocation to the area and increase public nuisance. A number of submissions also questioned the LALC’s ability to manage the site. A similar development in the same area as the proposed caravan park received less than 50 submissions. The number of submissions regarding the LALC application is evidence of increased public scrutiny of LALC developments due to public perception of Aboriginal people and communities.
In order for the Council to consider the application, the LALC was required to amend the proposal to include 20% less dwellings all of which had to be revised to cater for an over-50s population. This amended proposal prompted council to receive over 1,000 additional submissions.
Despite the amendments, the Council refused the proposal citing that it was not in the public interest. The LALC has sought to appeal this finding. Public perception has caused lengthy delays and increased costs to the LALC – an estimated $500,000 and one year more just to address the conditions of approval. If approved, the amendments to the proposal will result in decreased economic and social return for the Aboriginal community.
LALCs are often the largest landholders within a local government area, which means a proactive council approach to LALC consultation is beneficial for both parties. LALC developments, subdivisions and/or rezonings can have important implications in future planning and land use in the local government area. Effective consultation and collaboration between councils and LALCs at an early stage minimises misunderstandings and helps remove barriers to sustainable land management.
Collaboration with the Aboriginal community in the development of land use plans and rezoning requests can maximise effective service delivery for the whole community, and promote positive change on the path to the economic and social independence of an Aboriginal community. Local governments should work with LALCs to develop a communication strategy for early engagement on future developments and land-use planning. The opportunity for LALCs to present at public meetings or local government events fosters positive change in the perception of Aboriginal communities amongst the broader local community.
The Illawarra/Shoalhaven Regional Plan (2015) in the case study demonstrates a best practice method of proactive LALC consultation, which is helping to achieve strong, healthy and well-connected communities.
Case study – proactive approach to Aboriginal community consultation
The Illawarra Shoalhaven Regional Plan (ISRP) applies to the Kiama, Shellharbour, Shoalhaven and Wollongong Local Government Areas. It presents a framework for strategic policy, planning and decision-making to guide the sustainable growth and development of the region over the next 20 years, thanks to a proactive consultative approach and collaborative relationships with local Aboriginal communities.
Direction 1.5 of the ISRP seeks to “strengthen the economic self-determination of Aboriginal communities”. This direction appreciates the role of the effective use of Aboriginal land assets in revitalising Aboriginal languages and culture, generating opportunities and increasing the Aboriginal community’s capacity. The ISRP presents an effective model for local government consultation with Aboriginal communities, involving:
- an assessment of land held by the region’s LALC to identify priority sites that may present economic opportunities
- Investigation of how LALC land assets can best be planned, managed and developed for the benefit of the Aboriginal community
- Identification of commercial land use, Aboriginal housing and employment opportunities.
Local government in this area will work with the LALC to create a pipeline of potential projects, facilitating future economic returns LALCs can reinvest in assistance programs for the Aboriginal community.
Direction 3.4 of the ISRP aims to “protect the region’s cultural heritage”, important to the communities’ identity, and a crucial contribution the visitor economy. It acknowledges that Aboriginal communities in the region have retained strong cultural connections to the landscape, and requires Council’s growth management strategies to conform to heritage legislative processes including:
- directions given under planning legislation,
- the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974, and
- guidelines and principles for heritage protection, issued by NSW Heritage Council.
This proactive approach will yield a region with strong, healthy and well-connected communities.