Disturbing news from the Sunshine Coast (via @Pollytics):

A group of semi-retired Coast men has been left hurt and angry after their plans for a social club at Palmwoods were thwarted by claims they could present a danger to children living nearby.

The men started the Sunshine Valley Men’s Shed group as part of the national initiative to improve the health of older men by giving them a chance to socialise and work together.

But the dream has been crushed after a nearby resident made an official complaint to council, saying a large gathering of elderly men could be a danger to local children.

This comes after recent news that the Byron Bay Council is trying to effectively prohibit large festivals (like Splendour in the Grass or Blues and Roots) from taking place within its boundaries by imposing strict new restrictions.

What do these stories have in common? They show the way that local councils can be used to prevent change and to promote the self-interest of small cliques of local residents.

We accord too much power to lone NIMBYs, in my view. Why should one man, with a preposterous and frankly offensive objection in the case of the men’s shed, be able to stand in the way of a initiative that could benefit a whole community? Now, this particular shed may well be approved; an objection isn’t necessarily fatal to the group’s plans. Nevertheless, there are many instances in which local councils have proven particularly susceptible to capture by minority interests.

A few years ago, the once-great Grosvenor Hotel in Perth was forced to close its back room and cease hosting live bands because of noise complaints from one resident. One. This resident moved to the Perth CBD, near a pub that had been operating for decades, and proceeded to have it shut down because he didn’t like the noise. Why was his objection given so much weight? Why wasn’t there some recognition given to the fact that the pub was there first, and that he knew (or should have known) that it hosted live bands before he bought a flat nearby?

The case of the Grosvenor was one in which a NIMBY was able to shut down an existing institution. Far more common is the scenario in which people are able to prevent new developments (of whatever kind) from being approved in the first place. Be it a new apartment block; a small bar; a sports ground; a public housing facility; a drug and alcohol clinic; or a music festival, a couple of noisy, well-organised residents are often enough to swing the meagre apparatus of their local government against change and in favour of the status quo.

Sometimes the objections might be genuine. Sometimes they might be well-founded. Often they’re not. Residents who object to a new apartment block might just be trying to restrict new development to maintain growth in house prices, or to prop up rents. They are perfectly entitled to defend their investments, but their interests should be weighed against broader interests. There should be no automatic presumption in favour of noisy objectors, as it sometimes seems there is.

This isn’t a left-right issue, either. It seems to me that people with a wide range of political views should recognise and resist the seemingly structural problem we have at the local government level. [fn1] Progressives who are worried about housing affordability should take a generally sceptical view of opposition to new apartment developments, as should environmentalists who are worried about urban sprawl. Libertarians should recognise that much of the most pernicious, liberty-impeding regulation occurs at the local government level.

We should all be aware that some of the most important political battles are the small ones, fought at the local level, that rarely make it into the national papers. It’s our collective inattention that allows local government to be captured and swayed in this way.

[fn1] Now, of course, sometimes the status quo is worth preserving. I like the fact that Melbourne (unlike Perth) has kept much of its old architectural character; the juxtaposition of RMIT’s bold, seemingly Mario 64-inspired campus and the State Library’s grand old pillars on opposite sides of La Trobe St sums up a lot of what I like about Melbourne. I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t have the right to lobby against new developments, be it on aesthetic grounds or otherwise. I’m just arguing against the automatic presumption in favour of the status quo.

As always, this post represents my own personal views alone.