Noosa Mayor Bob Abbot is given a heroe's reception at the anti-amalgamation rally in Brisbane on August 3, 2007.
Noosa Mayor Bob Abbot is given a heroe's reception at the anti-amalgamation rally in Brisbane on August 3, 2007. Geoff Potter

Amalgamation would have de-railed Noosa's progress

NOOSA could have ended up a concrete jungle like the Gold Coast and the merging of Noosa Shire with Maroochy and Caloundra in 2008 threatened to undo this.

Former Noosa mayor Noel Playford says de-amalgamation had to happen, to protect the grassroots democracy that had grown in Noosa.

Maroochy Council and Caloundra Council had a completely different focus, Mr Playford said, and under the amalgamated council, Noosa had just two votes out of 12.

"They just wanted development, they couldn't get enough," he said.

"They think that's the way to (make sure) everybody lives happily ever after. But they don't.

"Plenty of studies have shown...that certain classes of people that are involved in the development industry win out, overall, not just money-wise but in all the social parameters you look at. The rest of the community suffers.

"The whole of south-east Queensland is suffering now in my opinion, from short-sighted state and federal government attempts to increase the population.

"We're just suffering more and more from congestion, and they're destroying the natural environment."

The successful vote for de-amalgamation as one of his happiest moments.

"It was euphoria," he said. "We had people dancing in the streets."

To understand why the independent local government was so important to Noosa's residents, you need to look at its unique approach to planning.

Noosa Shire Council had shaped an identity as a council for the people since a changing of the guard in the 1980s, which saw the restriction of development in favour of low-rise dwellings and protection of natural assets.

Mr Playford's local government career spanned 15 years, starting in 1982 when he was elected councillor.

He was mayor for four terms from 1988-1997 (pre-amalgamation) and 2013-2015 (immediately after de-amalgamation).

"In the late '70s I became concerned that nobody seemed to be in control of the huge development push that the Noosa area was being subjected to," he said.

"I knew most of the councillors, many of them I'd grown up in the same rural community as.

"They were salt-of-the-earth types of people, mostly older than me - but they had no experience or knowledge of town planning and things seemed to be getting out of control.

"So I thought, there's no point in just talking about it, if you're not prepared to put your hand up and do something about it. So I did."

His council spent three years developing a strategic plan that was informed by hundreds of meetings with Noosa citizens.

Councils typically have their staff work out a document of that magnitude and go to the community for comment, but Noosa went to the community "with a blank slate", he said.

"We want you to tell us what you want to see, and what you don't want to see, in 20, 30 years time", Mr Playford said, summarising the message to residents.

It was because of this ground-up approach that a genuinely democratic outcome was achieved - and the process to restrict the height of buildings and protect Noosa's natural assets was set in train.

"People used to talk about it 20 years later - about how good those meetings were, where they decided," he said.

By 1997, planning controls and a strategic plan were in place that limited the number of dwellings that could be built and population density into the future.

"What we produced is what they agreed with. Hardly anybody made any formal objection, which people are entitled to do, to what became known as the 'population cap'," Mr Playford said.

"People agreed with it because it came from them. It was what they wanted to see.

"They didn't want to be overrun by high-rise, you know? They wanted to keep the natural environment."

Early green push shapes how Noosa is built

COMMUNITY activism to protect Noosa's spectacular natural values was crucial to the development of Noosa's unique built environment.

Former Noosa mayor Bob Abbot recalls a small group of people who led what he terms the "Noosa Renaissance" - a cultural movement in the 1980s and '90s that resisted a development push that would have destroyed much of the natural beauty of the area.

Among the earliest and most influential members of the community was local GP and conservationist Arthur Harrold whose Noosa Parks Association fought for the permanent protection of areas now known as the Noosa and Great Sandy National Parks.

"They established a bit of a push to protect Noosa environmentally," Mr Abbot said.

"I think that was a basis of the changes that we had.

"They fought long enough and hard enough, even before the council was involved, to actually set the scene for a new way of looking at things."

Other organisations whose members were influential include Noosa Biosphere Association, Friends of Noosa and the Eumundi Doonan Verrierdale (EDV) Action Group.