There has been recent interest in the role councils play in supporting free camping.
This is a longstanding issue, where attempts to navigate a solution that meets the need and wants of all is proving difficult.
It is important to understand why this is the case.
Tourism is a significant sector within Tasmania’s economy and evidence suggests that recreational vehicle (RV) tourists make an important contribution to the economy, particularly in regional and remote areas.
It is not well known that councils supplying caravan and camping services in this space must do so in accordance with competitive neutrality principles as set out under the Australian Government’s National Competition Policy (NCP).
The goal of NCP is to ensure that all government bodies, including councils, who are involved in significant business activities compete on fair and equal terms with private sector businesses, where it is in the public benefit to do so.
However, while all states must abide by NCP the way significant business activity is defined varies between States.
In Tasmania, councils are required to consider the impact of the activity they are undertaking on both the actual and potential market in their broad area.
Following investigations, the Economic Regulator determined that councils should apply principles of ‘full cost attribution’ or take appropriate steps to stop access to free council facilities (such as erecting no camping signs).
In some other States, where there is a defined value which must be reached before a business activity is considered significant, councils offering free camping is simply not an issue of concern.
Stakeholders need to recognise that most RV users want something different from the traditional caravan park experience.
Even if councils do not provide free camping, these travellers are not unlikely to take up the caravan park option.
If councils are put in the position where they can no longer viably provide designated free camping sites, they are then left to deal with the environmental and amenity impacts of camping away from designated sites (such as rubbish, noise and land degradation).
Ultimately, then, the community wears the cost.
Local Government recognises the importance of competitive neutrality – we don’t want to compete with local businesses that provide jobs and services in our community.
But many councils are under pressure to meet a demand and fill gaps in this space.
Councils are ‘damned if they do’ by caravan park operators and ‘damned if they don’t’ by RV users and the local community.
Prior to the State election LGAT received commitment from the State Government to establish a joint working group to explore the issues surrounding free camping and compliance with national competition policy. That group is due to meet this month.
Balancing the differing wants, needs and impacts of caravanners vs freedom campers means we will need multiple and joined up solutions that consider the different natures of local communities, encourage tourism and growth, and fill gaps where needs are not being met.
The Working Group has no small challenge ahead.
Dr Katrena Stephenson is the chief executive officer of the Local Government Association of Tasmania