Ellen Bradford calls the tidy, two room, former hospital cottage in the Tingha township her “little patch of paradise”.
From her new, broad back veranda, commons cattle graze and the rugged Tingha rocky outcrops offer a lovely outlook. She has a new washing machine, dividing walls create a bedroom and spacious en suite bathroom.
There is a row of native plants and an enthusiastic strawberry plant overflows with runners on the veranda, lined up against the cottage wall.
“I can’t wait to get the fence up, and be able to plant them.” she said wistfully. The trouble is, Ellen can’t live on her little patch.
Until she pays off a bill of over $8086 to Armidale Shire Council (ARC), a bill the ARC inherited from former Guyra Shire, Ellen said she will continue to live, shower, sleep and cook at her brother’s house.
The bill is the balance in fees and charges Ellen has been told she owes for her pressure sewer pump station she did not buy from Guyra, but instead, though identical in specifications, and like other Tingha residents, she purchased herself.
Until she pays up, ARC will not connect her to the sewer system, which brings another $1583-$2693 fee, and without that connection, she cannot get an occupancy license.
So if it goes up in smoke, I’ve lost everything at the moment.
Without the license, Ellen, a pensioner who has rented all her life, cannot even take out homeowner's insurance to protect all her belongings and she cannot afford to store all her belongings and furniture.
“So if it goes up in smoke, I’ve lost everything at the moment. This process has to wait for that process,” she said.
It started 13 months ago, when the Gold Coast transplant decided to finally buy a home of her own in Tingha, down the road from her brother and several cousins.
She bought a block of land with the single room cottage on stumps, without power or water for $25,000, but learnt soon afterwards it would cost her $14,186 to purchase a pressure sewer pump station, or ‘pod’ and pay the connection fees to tie her property to the Tingha sewerage system. In total, she said she was facing a bill of about $18-20,000.
Ellen told the Guyra Shire inspector who quoted her the cost was quite steep, and then sought advice from other residents and builders.
She was told a pod, meeting the shire’s specifications, could be purchased independently, and many Tingha residents had successfully followed that process.
She found a Queensland supplier with the same product for $6500 delivered and made the purchase. Once the plumber had installed her pod, about 1.5 metres tall and the circumference of a small wheelie bin, she contacted council to hook up to the main line, and that is when Ellen’s troubles began.
A letter from Guyra Shire informed Ellen she could keep the pod, and installation could commence, but only after she paid the difference of her pod purchase and Guyra’s charge for their pod.
“There’s no way in the world I could afford to pay that $14,186,” Ellen said. “It was just too expensive, and I thought it was a rip-off anyway, I really did.”
A complicated history of Tingha water
Tingha’s water supply and sewerage system has a brief history in the scale of district infrastructure. The 2001 case study on the condition of water and sanitation services in disadvantaged communities included Tingha.
The review stated in 1994, “Tingha was the largest town in NSW without a water supply”.
Until the 27 kilometre pipeline was established from Copeton Dam in Inverell Shire to Tingha, town residents had developed a “well-defined water strategy although the quality was sometimes in question,” the report stated.
“Water was recycled, and was used for washing people, clothes and then to flush the toilet. Washing and personal hygiene was said to be inhibited by lack of water. Children could shower at school.”
Tingha was the largest town in NSW without a water supply.
Tingha resident Colleen Graham said when the Copeton supply was turned on, septic systems were soon deluged merely due to the modern accessibility to fresh water.
A new sewerage infrastructure was needed, and with funding from the Tingha Sewerage Scheme, three years in the making, residents were given 18 months to put their hands up for the system, and it was installed free of charge in 2005 over 11 months.
After that, residents had to pay.
Margaret Parker was born in Tingha and has lived in the community all her life.
“The deal was, when they put the pods in, you were to take your original septic tanks out.,” Margaret said.
“Well, Len, my husband point-blank refused, because, he said, ‘When this thing falls apart, guess what, I’ll be just reconnecting to the system we’ve used for 40 years without any problems whatsoever’.”
The pods operate with a grinder pump churns the watery waste into a slurry which is fed to the the treatment plant about 2 kilometres from town. It processes all household water waste, from the toilet to the dishwasher, showers and sinks.
Margaret said they can get along well now as a two-person household with the one pod, but other homes with extended families in Tingha were not so fortunate.
“Homes that have 10 people possibly in the house at any given time. It is unrealistic, and they knew that,” Margaret said.
“We explained that to (Guyra Shire) we had the meeting to discuss what type of sewerage system would work for Tingha, and we tried to explain to them, that this wasn’t an appropriate system for Tingha.”
A similar system without the costs
Bega Valley Council in south east New South Wales has 990 pod systems in operation as part of their sewerage system.
The council charges all residents with new-build homes a flat fee of $1147 for the pod. Bega Valley owns the equipment, and assumes responsibility for all maintenance and repairs.
Colleen phoned Bega Valley to learn more about how the council arranged the fees for the pod system. A staff member told her payment was not required before a resident could live in the home.
“She said, ‘Look, here we don’t hold them to ransom to pay that. They pay that off yearly’,” Colleen said.
The Inverell Times contacted Bega Valley. A staff member confirmed the fees were billed as yearly installments.
Meanwhile, Ellen is waiting to learn what the fate of her patch of paradise will be. She said she has already had to tap into her superannuation to make her small home liveable, but her finances can’t stretch much further.
The other option was selling, but Ellen nobody would want to take on her situation.
“Unless it’s somebody coming in from the city who want it as investment who’ve got that money to pay – they’ll have to pay that,” she said.
The Inverell Times contacted Armidale Regional Council for comment but they did not return comment before deadline.