By Siobhan Latham
WIDESCALE theft is occurring in our community, and it needs to stop.
As land prices skyrocket, some among us look to expand their own holdings. There is land just outside their boundary that seems to be unused. Perhaps they decide to plant some flowers. I am brightening up the area, they think to themselves.
They put in some stakes, to stop people parking on the flowers, they will say if asked. Nobody asks. So, one quiet day in the middle of the week, they build a little fence. I’ll take it down if anybody says anything, they think. But nobody says anything. They sell their house, and the new owners remove the little fence and put in a substantial boundary fence. And nobody says anything.
I am not being melodramatic. That scene is playing out before our eyes.
Across the Mornington Peninsula boundaries of properties have been extended into shared public space – space that belongs to all of us.
There are two factors making it easier for these landgrabbers: unmade roads and the undefined road reserves that adjoin them.
There are 1083 unmade roads in the shire with a combined length of 373 kilometres. Most have some sort of “green” edge along their sides and, if a cul-de-sac, at the end – these are the road reserves.
With land prices reaching thousands of dollars a square metre, the attraction of a surreptitious, sneaky shifting of boundaries is clear.
Many of these unmade roads were created before the passing of the 1958 Local Government Act, after which developers were required to construct roads and provide services within their subdivisions.
Nowadays, unmade roads come under the remit of the local council and are a shared community asset. The road reserves adjoining them have important functions as habitats for flora and fauna (especially relevant given the land clearing taking place due to sea and tree changes); areas for stormwater dispersal; buffers between roads and properties; access for emergency and community vehicles, as well as pedestrians; and, of course, they enhance neighbourhood character.
For a council like Mornington Peninsula, whose purview covers a vast rural, coastal and urban area, unmade roads and the undefined nature of the accompanying road reserves are an ongoing headache.
These roads have a negative environmental, economic and social impact. The environmental concerns are manifold. In extreme weather conditions such as heavy rain unmade roads are carved up by the water. This results in land degradation and contamination of stormwater, which flows into neighbouring properties and waterways. Conversely, in dry weather, the dust creates air pollution. The economic and social costs are also high as unmade roads require regular regrading; vehicles can incur damage; and pedestrian access is impeded by the unstable surface.
Maintaining the road reserves around these unmade roads is onerous and costly for councils. Wet weather results in grasses and weeds growing rapidly. When it warms up, residents then complain about snakes and fire danger.
Perhaps it would be easier for cash-strapped councils to sell off these small parcels of land to those neighbours who might acquire them by stealth anyway.
But that is missing the point. Road reserves have a vital purpose and, most importantly, they belong to all of us. We must not allow our shared spaces to be siphoned off for private use.
Councils have surveys and access to mapping software; they are well aware of where the boundaries are. They simply don’t have the time, money or staff to enforce them.
I am not suggesting that we cover our wonderful coastal and rural areas with bitumen, signposts and even more bollards; instead, we need to change our mindset. While I acknowledge that many people spend time, effort and money improving these road reserves in a legitimate and thoughtful manner – we must reject the impulse to fence off “unoccupied” common land to prevent others having access. By working together with our local councils, to help maintain these spaces, we can preserve shared community assets, such as road reserves, for future generations.
We also need to become activists: be aware of what is happening in your local environment so you can help prevent land theft. Many councils, including Mornington Peninsula Shire, have links on their websites to report local issues – or you can pick up the phone.
Councils should define common areas more clearly and ensure consistency and transparency in the application of local laws. By taking the lead in this way, they will increase the community’s sense of wellbeing and preserve our neighbourhood character.
When it comes to keeping public land out of private hands we need to work together.