Thursday, April 21, 2016

… and about those Empty Houses and Towns



Empty but not free

At first glance it seems ridiculous that we have empty houses and dying towns here, when there are refugees both here and abroad who could desperately use them. Indeed, one mayor, notably the Mayor of Brighton, recently proposed that to the Federal Government, since an influx of people would help to boost the town’s businesses. However, this has been rejected on the grounds that Tasmania is already regarded as  the ‘beggar ‘  state, having to rely on taxes generated  on the mainland to survive. The provision of additional services such as education and health required by the new population, would simply be another cash drain on an already impoverished public purse.

There are many reasons why these houses are empty and have been allowed to fall into disrepair and they are most certainly not free for the taking. Many of them would date from the great farm amalgamations which took place in the 1950’s when mechanised farming became necessary due to low margins, the absence of rural labour or to its rising costs. Others may have been abandoned in subsequent periods when drought, rural recession,  and changes in global markets  such as the removal of tariffs, or increased competition in the wake of free market agreements, or the end  of Commonwealth preferred imports  when the UK joined the EU in the 1970s, all of which contributed to making small farms unviable.

With rare exceptions - the story is the same all around rural Australia
Initially such buildings may have been used to house farm workers, but when they found them undesirable, farmers often replaced them with cheap but modern transportable houses left over from the construction of our hydroelectric schemes. In a rare good year, the farmer may have built himself- or more likely his long suffering wife, a new home elsewhere, leaving the older one to become a hay barn. In the case of the houses on the fringes of forestry reserves, like the one shown previously, the land may well have been bought by timber concerns for the purpose of converting it to plantations in future, once access to native forests was no longer possible. In the meantime, they are quite happy for nature to take its course and let the houses rot.

Even if a house was truly vacant, it would be almost impossible to buy because of the difficulty (and undesirability) of subdividing farm land. One  derelict house which we did manage to buy some decades ago, had been condemned  by the health authorities and the cost of renovating it and bringing it up to modern standards (indoor bathroom and kitchen for example)  was more than if we had built a large new house.

The next problem concerns the lack of infrastructure. Not only do many of our rural areas still have substandard water and sanitation, but what little there was in the way of services such as hospitals, shops, schools, buses, police and so on has gradually been withdrawn, due to the high cost of servicing small scattered communities with a low rate base. In one small community, Lorinna, some 19 Kilometres from Devonport, residents were offered housing in one of the intervening towns, because it was considered the cheaper option.

The biggest problem is that there is now very little work in Tasmania, especially not the kind of unskilled work  which used to be available when previous waves of migrants came to Australia.– the building of the enormous Hydro schemes, for example, the factories, or the railways, which employed a lot of manual labour  and did not rely on people having good English skills.
Now we have the highest unemployment rate in the country (around 6-7%) and hence a very high level of outmigration especially by the young and the educated. This is one of the main reasons for both the empty towns and the low tax base. It also leaves behind a lot of elderly folk, the unemployed and others dependent on welfare, none of whom can spend very much on other goods and services. The days of high employment of this type will not return.  It is part of the huge global restructuring taking place which sees cheap goods from countries with huge pools of cheap labour such as China and India out -competing anything which can be produced here, especially given our distance from markets.  Even administrative and call centre work has now been outsourced. Yet more poor people competing for the few available jobs would probably only lead to resentment.
Rationalised, outsourced or automated  out of existence - Abandoned processing plant, Victoria
 The only way  resettling refugees here could work at present would be as a temporary place of refuge, to learn the language perhaps, and to have their children educated rather than languishing in makeshift  camps until things return to normal at home.  Even then, the last thing Tasmania needs is more dependents. The only way it could work financially would be if the money for it came from outside Australia or was at least considered Foreign Aid – e.g.  Perhaps it could be funded by the UN or Oxfam or, as was tried in Greece, with the EU paying for their upkeep, thereby helping both the local economy as well as the refugees.

Lastly, would refugees want to live in this remote corner of the world, isolated not only from their country, but from major cities and each other? Along with the loss of services in many towns, has gone the loss of the clubs, pubs and churches which held the social fabric together. Those who are used to close urban living would find country living very isolated - worse than a crowded refugee camp, where at least they could communicate with each other. They would most likely want to head for the bright lights of Sydney or Melbourne at the first opportunity, as not only migrants but Australians have already done. ( Almost 70% of Australians lived in capital cities at the last census in 2011)

So what hope is there for our declining country towns? Why don’t we put our own poor and homeless people in, who don’t stand a chance of ever being able to afford housing in the cities, not even rent?  Under the Darwinesque policies of economic rationalism, public policy no longer allows unemployed people to move from places with potentially more employment i.e. the cities, to those with less, on pain of losing what little income support they receive.

Five years ago an experiment was begun at Trundle, a small rural community out the back of New South Wales where empty farm houses were offered to families  at one dollar per week, provided that they renovated them.   The story aired on television and five people took up the offer. Although only one of the original people remained, others eventually took their place, resulting in a new lease of life for the town.  Its main street has been renovated, it also has a popular ABBA Festival every year and now has a football team again. However, a similar experiment in Tasmania at Levendale in 2008, which attempted to attract families in order to save its historic school, was not so successful and the school closed in 2013.  At least three other remote communities have had $1 blocks for sale, but the prerequisite has been that purchasers had to have the funds to build houses, which not only precludes those who need it most, but limits the uptake to a few rare individuals.



I will say that those communities such as Sheffield, Deloraine or Cygnet in the south, which welcomed 'back - to - the -landers' in the 70's, have generally fared better with their nicely restored homes, the murals in the case of Sheffield, the Annual Arts Fair in Deloraine or the Folk Festival in Cygnet, than those which did not. I also liked the approach by Ariah Park in New South Wales, where local people bought the cafe and leased it out cheaply to newcomers, thereby creating a livelihood as well as a place to live. 

Lessons in keeping country towns alive- Ariah Park, N.S.W.


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