HUNDREDS of people are being hired for construction and operational roles at major projects as part of the New England Renewable Energy Zone, and while it's great for the economy, it's putting further strain on accommodation availability.
Many jobs will be fulfilled by locals, but plenty more will go to people not from the region, which will require people to gain temporary accommodation for themselves, and in some situations even their family.
Between the New England Solar Farm (NESF), and proposed Bendemeer Renewable Energy Hub and Thunderbolt Energy Hub, roughly 1800 people are set to be employed.
Mark Vile, project manager for the solar proponent of the Bendemeer Renewable Energy Hub - a proposal by Athena Holdings - said it wasn't an issue with an easy solution.
He also said it could become problematic if companies are only looking at their personal circumstance, and not taking into account the demands of other projects in the region.
"It's a good question because the answer to it is how these projects have an accumulative affect, so if you've got a number of projects going at the same time then it puts more pressure on," he said.
"We'll have to asses that as part of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), that'll be part of that EIS as it has been for projects which are currently in construction around Armidale."
He said surrounding projects should be considered when developing an EIS, and accommodation such as motels and caravan parks should also be looked into.
Innovative approaches, such as setting up worker camps at Bendemeer if the project is approved, have been looked at, said Mr Vile, but he said it wasn't a straight forward matter.
"That's been a matter of contention in the community, so the answer to it is talking to the community about what might be acceptable," he said.
"So hypothetically speaking, if there was a need for more accommodation to forward the construction of these projects, and the community was on board in Bendemeer about putting in some temporary accommodation or opening up that area, then that's all on the table."
The hope, according to Mr Vile, would be that some of the people who come to work in the area, particularly for a long period of time, decide to stay permanently. That could involve buying a house, which would mean they weren't adding to the strain on the rental market.
Tamworth Regional Council (TRC) is one of the organisations that companies are working with to find solutions.
A spokesperson for TRC said it had short and medium term plans, which it believes will help with the impending boom in demand for accommodation.
"TRC is aware of current and future demand for affordable housing. Last year council facilitated an initial housing forum to seek collective support and insight," a spokesperson said.
"Council is working with the building and development industries, government agencies and the business sector in relation to finding appropriate solutions to the current housing shortage affecting the region and more widely the state.
"The Arcadia Estate was identified in Council's Blueprint 100 strategy as a major site of residential accommodation for the growing population of the Tamworth region."
In the immediate future, it suggested the Pilot Training accommodation facility near the airport could be used, as it has been for workers from the protein and infrastructure sector in recent times.
"To date, nearly 150 workers have stayed at the site over the past ten months," the spokesperson said.
"Although only short term, this solution continues to assist infrastructure workers, alleviating demand in the residential sector."
According to the New England Solar Farm's Social Impact Assessment, completed in November 2018, there were 250 properties offering long-term rental, available across Uralla, Tamworth, Armidale and Walcha, ranging from one to four or more bedrooms.
NESF also stated the rental properties are more suited to groups or families, as opposed to people looking to live on their own.
"These options are mainly for family-based, larger household configurations," the report state.
"There are limited opportunities for one bedroom units in close proximity of the project.
"Given that the construction period is estimated to take approximately 36 months, it has been assumed that some of the workers are likely to relocate their families to the local area."
The closest town to the NESF, Uralla, has been inundated in recent times with people trying to find accommodation, but as per the EIS it only had a total of 10 properties available.
Uralla Shire Council deputy mayor Robert Crouch said it was a problem local government was aware of, but could do precious little about.
"Council recognises there's a major issue at the moment right through the Northern Tablelands with a shortage of rental accommodation ... and it's not just being driven by the renewable energy sector," he said.
"Council has been leaving it to the private sector to fill the gap, Uralla itself has never put itself forward as being able to accommodate everyone who is coming in on a fly-in, fly-out basis.
"We've been encouraging the renewable energy sector developers to look further afield for accommodation."
Uralla mayor Robert Bell said lots of local businesses were benefiting from the increased demand in workers.
"It's soaked up the unemployment issue, so anybody who wants work there's plenty about at every level, from builders, tradespeople and on the solar farm right through to traffic control people to skilled technicians," he said.
"A lot of the projects are too big for locals ... but they've picked up work on the side with the smaller parts of it.
"On balance it's been really good, but how the community manages it to make sure it's not a boom and bust cycle is something council is seriously trying to work it's way through."
As for the housing issue, he said more accommodation was made available at Uralla over the past couple of years.
The amount of university students working remotely and no longer living on campus or in the city has opened up space that would not have been there before COVID-19, he said. "It is stressing the housing market and we're probably seeing increases in rent of 40 per cent at some places which puts pressure on everybody," he said.
"At Armidale with the university issues it had a lot of capacity to take up a lot of people looking for housing."
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