Australia has opportunities to deliver more housing and communities around mines, a leader in mining and engineering says.
During a recent interview, Jan Kwak, Managing Director of Australia and Asia at Hatch – a multidisciplinary leader in engineering, operational and development projects in metals, energy and infrastructure – told Sourceable that Australia has opportunities to deliver additional housing and sustainable communities around mines rather than relying on fly-in-fly-out workforces.
According to Kwak, this will deliver several benefits.
First, building communities around mines can help to diversify regional economies and to generate greater social and economic value from mining projects.
This is especially the case as mines have infrastructure (electricity, roads, water management facilities etc.) that can be leveraged to deliver housing, services and other industries.
Next, there are benefits for workers and families.
As is well documented, FIFO arrangements can have detrimental effects for workers and their loved ones.
By contrast, towns near mines can enable families to live in local communities where both parents are present to raise children.
Third, having workers live in mining communities helps to free up housing in metropolitan areas and thus helps to address housing shortages in cities and larger towns.
Finally, having workers live nearby helps to create trust between communities and mines. This is particularly the case as employees who live locally often treat the surrounding environment with greater care.
Kwak’s comments come as Australia remains in the grip of a housing supply crisis which has seen national vacancy rates for rental properties plummet to less than one percent.
Over the five years to 2027, data from the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation suggests that new housing demand will outstrip supply additions by around 106,700 homes.
Meanwhile, a report released last year by the Australian Resource and Energy Employers Association indicated that 107 significant resource and energy projects are expected to enter production between the latter part of 2022 and the end of 2027. This may create opportunities for housing and communities around these developments.
When planning communities around mines, Kwak cautions that geography and conditions will vary among locations.
For this reason, it is important to identify natural assets within localities that can be leveraged to maximum advantage.
Asked about suitable locations, Kwak says these have four features.
First, there are essential elements which are needed by any community irrespective of location. These include electricity, water, food, healthcare and education.
Next, sustainable communities require the potential to develop multiple industries that can run parallel to but not be dependent upon the mine.
This is important as mining activity is subject to cyclical variation and mines have finite lives. Accordingly, industries and commercial activities are needed that remain viable after mine closures or during downturns.
Whilst tourism, museums and agriculture can be a good start, Kwak encourages planners to look further than this.
In particular, many locations which can do well enjoy proximity to ports and transport infrastructure. These include Townsville, Gladstone, Mackay, Brisbane, Newcastle, inland from Wollongong, Karratha and Port Headland.
Another feature is proximity to water for use in commercial or industrial operations. This can enable operations such as furniture manufacturing or data farming.
There may even be opportunities to leverage the minerals in mine tailings for other purposes.
Third, sustainable communities need the ability to develop a skilled workforce which can support enterprise outside of mining.
Fourth, sustainable communities need to be well designed and attractive for living.
On this score, features should include:
- a discernible centre with a defined boundary that creates a sense of community
- seed infrastructure such as shopping facilities that makes a place where people want to live
- an adequate supply of affordable housing; and
- facilities such as schools which ensure that multiple generations are catered for.
Often, the seed infrastructure will need to be kick-started by government or another party who will construct the first few schools and restaurants. These can form the spine around which the community can develop.
Finally, the mine operator needs to be responsible in their community interaction.
This includes using technology and strategies to minimise both environmental footprint and local impacts such as noise, dust and pollution.
It also involves mines being transparent and sharing information. In Scandinavia, some mines offer real-time online disclosure of key operating data. This enables community members to view concentrations of CO2 or other chemicals which are being released.
To demonstrate how communities can be developed, Kwak points to several examples on which the urban planning team within Hatch has worked.
In one example, the company developed a place-led project vision which guided the Mulataga masterplan which will help to reposition the Western Australian town of Karratha away from reliance away from a reliance upon FIFO workers to a model of sustainability and self-sufficiency based upon best-practice urban design.
Set over a 168-hectare area, the project will deliver 1,400 dwellings, a four-hectare community node and significant areas of public open space.
When preparing this vision, Hatch worked closely with the Ngarluma and Murujaga elders and communities.
Other examples of the firm’s projects include:
- Repurposing of the former Point Henry industrial site near Geelong into a thriving mixed-use urban community with good transit to Geelong.
- Repurposing of an old Boral cement site in Warun Ponds near Geelong for a mixed-use urban community.
- A project in Gove in Northern Queensland, where Hatch is working with the local community to explore options for a sustainable and vibrant community after the closure of an alumina mine operated by Rio Tinto (the mine closure is currently in progress).
- Another project in Gympie north of Brisbane, where Hatch is working with the community to leverage the skilled workforce and access to ports as well as to Brisbane to create a thriving community in addition to its gold mining and historical museum.
Outside of Hatch’s own projects, Kwak says there are other examples.
In the Victorian seaside town of Anglesea, for instance, UK based charity Eden Project is proposing the transformation of a disused open cut coal mine which is situated in prime native bushland into an ecotourism facility. This will include a 100-hectare lake and an education facility which includes natural exhibitions and virtual reality to teach visitors about the natural world.
Going forward, Kwak says the clean energy transition will create significant opportunity and challenge to position coal mining districts to enjoy a viable future as coal plants close down.
In particular, there are opportunities for the coal to be used as part of a chemical manufacturing industry.
Asked about the role of government, Kwak says governments are not responsible for making things happen but should seek to be an enabler of what needs to be done.
“I don’t like to put a lot of this on the government and say that this is all up to government,” Kwak said.
“I think if you get these business cases thought through right, it is self-igniting.
“Government needs to enable. They need to provide a platform where enterprise can happen.
“I am firmly convinced that where there is a business case, things happen. It needs to be regulated absolutely. It needs to be done through consultation absolutely.
“But it will happen (with the right business case). All we need is an enabling platform to move.”