In the last few months we’ve seen the knotty problem of freedom camping in areas like Warrington raised by the community. Having spent the last three years on the Otago Peninsula Community Board dealing with this issue its become clear that we must act far more decisively than we have done to date. That means investment, dialogue and looking at innovative ways to control the effects of the activity on local people and local areas.
In the Peninsula example the Dunedin City Council undertook a trial of using the main street of Macandrew Bay. The result was an influx of campers in non self-contained vehicles stretching local resources to the limit. With it came significant unrest among the community and others that supported the trial. After consulting with the community the Board sought a change in the bylaw and a removal of the trial area from Macandrew Bay and this changed the problem dramatically. The bylaw also removed non self-contained vehicles off public areas onto designated areas or private motor camps. Unfortunately, in the Warrington example that change has brought about even greater pressure on the site as it becomes more popular for visitors. In my view, its time we moved away from ad hoc schemes and took a more planned approach to the issue city wide. A more comprehensive approach to the issue should:
Undertake proper research into visitor accommodation and expenditure through the University of Otago Tourism Department to have real data for decision-making and planning.
Invest in appropriate infrastructure so that we no longer have to “make do.”
Develop in partnership with the Department of Conservation or private enterprise for DoC style campsites with water, toilets and rubbish collection that can be used by campers for a nightly fee.
Have limits on the numbers at certain sites to reduce the stress on communities.
Close sites during the off-season to give the community a break from visitors.
Create jobs or contracts for the management of sites within the community for local people. No one is a better ambassador than a local person.
Resource enforcement, signage, and information properly so that everyone understands the rules.
Ensure non self-contained campers are in a designated freedom camping area or private camping ground only.
Look more deeply at the availability of land suitable for the activity.
I don’t have a golden bullet or a magic wand to solve the problem, but we must take a far more pragmatic approach to the issue.
I’m just not convinced that city councillors fully understand the freedom camping issue on the Peninsula (ODT). Undertaking “Bylaw by trial” is not what’s required here and its a poor alternative to appropriate policy based on real evidence and research. The other issue is the fallacy that “there must be a demand” because of the people using Macandrew Bay as a camping site. That’s like saying all students are drunks because of the broken glass in the street. By creating the site at Macandrew Bay the Bylaw has artificially created the demand because the Council have offered something that is free and available. If you’re a traveller why would you pay when you can have something for free? In the 20 years I’ve lived on the Peninsula, freedom camping has never been so bad since the liberalisation of the new bylaw. I also don’t buy into the notion that these types of visitors won’t use a campground anyway. There’s no freedom camping allowed by Lakes District Council in Queenstown unless you’re in a self contained vehicle, and even then sites are restricted. So where do they go? You can’t tell me that many of the visitors that turn up in Dunedin don’t visit the Queenstown area. So they must use accommodation providers when they’re there, surely.
The other big “myth” about freedom camping is its contribution to the local economy. I say it’s a myth because even tourism authorities can’t actually place a value on what it contributes to the economy. Which leads me back to my first comment that policy decisions need empirical evidence and with the bylaw trial we’re not seeing that research being done. I’m not talking about a basic count of numbers, I’m talking about actual rates of camper’s consumption of services and attractions vs. cost, understanding choice selection of services and service demand. Without that economic information the bylaw is largely a hopeful punt, which in its present form isn’t doing our community any great service.
As to the notion of a “DoC” style camping ground I’m quite dubious about this option as a real solution. Should the Council be competing with the private sector in the accommodation market? Does it actually have the funds to create such an option? Looking at the present Annual Plan I’d have to say it probably doesn’t have the capital to do so. Which leads you back to the private sector option. If the demand for a “DoC” style freedom camping site is so high as we’re led to believe, why hasn’t an investor in the private sector taken up the challenge? Quite simply I’d say because the returns on such an investment are not that economic. Which means that if the Council were to create such an area they would be creating a ratepayer subsidised camping ground. So not only would it be in direct competition with the private sector, but it would actually need to subsidise the service with ratepayers money to make it work. That’s not good economics for either the private sector or the ratepayer, especially when we have no idea what freedom camping actually contributes to the local economy. The alternative and fairer approach would be to work with private sector accommodation providers to look at a commercial option to solve the problem. The other issue though is that freedom camping is not just a problem for the Peninsula community. It’s actually an issue for the whole city, so any type of campground option needs to meet the needs of the city at a strategic level.
I don’t have all the answers, but I would say that resourcing staff in the enforcement aspect of this issue is in need of a review and that would certainly be a good start. We’ve seen that the signage and patrols at Macandrew Bay have made a difference, but is it too late? None of that enforcement action came early enough and now we’re into Autumn the visitor season is waning. One of the other issues with the Bylaw for visitors and residents is that it’s too complicated. The whole notion of “contained” and “non contained” vehicles is very misleading. You have limits on numbers and length of stay for certain sites based on vehicle type, but no ability to actually police that over the entire city. This complicated formula and lack of enforcement resources largely makes the rule redundant. The other point is that even “contained” camper vans still create problems. It’s well-known in the accommodation sector that hirers of camper vans with toilets pay a $500 bond for cleaning, but if you don’t use the toilet in the van you get part of your bond back! Figure that one out!
One of the things I am certain of, is that many Peninsula residents welcome visitors, but they’ve grown weary of people taking advantage of their region. It’s time we took control here and managed this in a better and more consistent way. We need less cheerleading and more empirical information on how to make visitors stay here, a pleasant one without damaging the lifestyles and businesses of our community and region. Below is a picture of the Okia Reserve car-park on the Peninsula, the toilet paper is a reminder that we have visitors who show little respect for our landscape and environment. Most wouldn’t do that at home so why do it in ours? Its time for change.
People are using the Peninsula countryside for toileting and this devalues our community and our environment
I’ve been a little tardy at utilising my blog to discuss the issues that I meet in a weekly basis in my role as Deputy Chairman of the Otago Peninsula Community Board. I could blame distractions like family or work but largely its been a lapse in literary concentration. So with new resolve I’m going to make a better effort to write more about my observations of life on the Otago Peninsula.
Freedom camping has been the hot topic in the Macandrew Bay community and the Peninsula with the initiation of a two-year trial accompanying the change in the Dunedin City Council’s Bylaw. The trial site at Macandrew Bay with its limitation of 5 vehicles has clearly been oversubscribed and placed considerable pressure on parking, toilet facilities, accessibility and community use of the playground. Other deeper issues have arisen including anxiety about the safety of children, the consultation process for the Bylaw, public health, inappropriate behaviour and negative effects on lifestyle including the alienation of the community in their own neighbourhood. Those feelings were evident at the public meeting I attended on March 2nd at the Macandrew Bay Hall where 42 people out of an audience of around 100 residents spoke eloquently and passionately about the issue.
My own collection of data from Macandrew Bay over the last 21 days has revealed 274 vehicles have used the site and only on 3 occasions has the limit of 5 vehicles contained within the Bylaw been achieved. If you consider that most camping vehicles have at least 2 people aboard that’s 548 people who have used this area and clearly that places a strain on existing facilities and infrastructure.
In general people on the Peninsula welcome visitors, but there is a growing frustration in the community that the effects of freedom camping may actually outweigh the benefits. Importantly too, the community must feel that there is the support of the City Council to enforce and educate visitors on the bylaw to ensure that residents are able to retain their lifestyle and values in a community that they love, but are willing to share.
I took the time to summarise the views of all of the speakers at the public meeting into some key categories and this is presented in the graph below. The meeting gave me a very clear direction from the community as to the problems and issues the community were facing. One of the lower ranking issues, but one of considerable concern was the facilitating of the illegal trade in flora and fauna through opening up of the Peninsula through freedom camping. In 2011-2012 wildlife smugglers used campervans as bases for the poaching of Jewelled Gecko’s from sites on Otago and Bank’s Peninsula.
I was pleased to see a number of speakers and residents also attend the Board’s last meeting and speak at the public forum. The Board resolved to ask the Council to abandon the trial by Easter this year and seek alternative sites. However, its my personal view that the entire Bylaw and the current legislation the Freedom Camping Act 2011 needs significant review and change. I’d like to see the Dunedin City Council and other local authorities lobby the government to improve the legislation around regulation and management for the benefit of communities. While its been suggested that “DoC” style freedom camping area be developed on the Otago Peninsula, I think a more strategic view is required here that deals with the effects of freedom camping on a city-wide basis within all of the community’s affected by this activity. That also requires a greater level of research and information that can be used to determine better regulatory and economic outcomes for the community. I look forward to hearing from the community on this issue so that those outcomes can be achieved.