Planning, Reserves and EPBC February 2010

Will new funding for Parks and Wildlife Service help reserves?

While much more funding is undoubtedly still needed, the TCT has congratulated the State Government for its December 2009 decision to allocate additional funding for the Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS). For many years the government has cut back PWS’s ability to manage natural and cultural values in our reserve system while boosting visitor services. This recent decision might just start to correct this imbalance.

While some media reports suggested to up to 30 extra rangers the TCT was concerned that Minister Michelle O’Byrne’s media release referred mainly to new staff to provide services for visitors to reserves, rather than delivering the much-needed land management and enforcement functions. Minister O’Byrne’s adviser assures us the additional staff will be rangers with an on-ground role, but we are yet to see this in writing. We have written to the minister requesting more details regarding the amount of new funding, what it will be used for and whether new positions will be permanent.

Minister Garrett caves in to forest industry over EPBC review

The TCT was deeply disappointed that the Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, rejected recommendations in relation to the forest management and regional forest agreements made by the independent reviewer Dr Allan Hawke in the October 2009 ‘Report of the Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999’ (EPBC). Dr Hawke’s recommendations were not radical or highly restrictive on the forest industry and Minister Garrett should not have dismissed them so conclusively and hastily.

 Under the system proposed by Dr Hawkes, the EPBC Act would only apply to forestry operations if the forestry industry failed to demonstrate rigorous independent auditing and reporting and failed to meet basic levels of environmental performance. If applied, the recommendations would simply ensure the forest industry actually demonstrated to the Australian Government and general public the veracity of its claims of sustainability and environmental protection.

Minister Garrett’s rejection of Dr Hawkes’ recommendations confirms our suspicion that the forest industry is afraid of independent reviews of its performance and Minister Garrett is afraid to take the industry on. Previous RFA reviews have identified numerous breaches of the RFA and made numerous recommendations for improvements to forest management; all have been ignored. Without the threat of sanctions for non-compliance, we will continue to see bad forest management get the stamp of approval by the federal and state governments.

Reservation of Crown land

The TCT has asked Minister O’Byrne whether the additional funding for the PWS will enable the State Government to proceed with the declaration of the remaining 77,513ha of reserves proposed by the Crown Land Assessment and Classification Project (CLAC) in 2006. On 13 October 2008 Minister O’Byrne stated in a letter to the TCT that the State Government supported declaration of the CLAC reserves conditional upon provision of additional resources for management. The TCT believes the recently announced additional resources would be ample to allow the PWS to manage the new reserves and there is now no obstacle to their declaration. We have urged the minister to commit to declaring the remaining CLAC reserves at the earliest possible date. However, indications from her office are that she does not believe the new resources are sufficient.

The Government’s Regional Planning Agenda

The government is undertaking a major reform of the Tasmanian Planning System. A significant feature is the creation of three regional land-use frameworks for the state, which will produce:

·         a comprehensive regional land-use strategy for each region

·         an infrastructure investment strategy for each region

·         the development of coordinated, consistent and contemporary planning schemes for all councils within the regions

·         the development of coordinated, consistent and contemporary planning schemes for all councils involved, based on the common strategy 1.

What does all of this mean for the environment and the conservation and wise management of our natural resources?

On the face of it, not very much.

As part of the regional planning project currently being undertaken, in Southern Tasmania, 16 principles have been developed. The only reference to the environment in those principles is a general one:

Settlement will be planned in a manner that meets the sustainable development objectives of the Resource Management & Planning System and State Policies. Planning will therefore integrate input from all levels of government and will aim to achieve sustainable environmental, social and economic outcomes. (Principle 2)

The other 15 principles focus on a range of matters, with no specific reference to the environmental outcomes of urban and rural development and change in Tasmania. The primary aim of the regional strategy is to achieve ‘coordinated, consistent and contemporary planning schemes.’

The intent of the urban land use strategy is, among other things, to

•             define urban growth boundaries

•             set preconditions for conversion to future urban land (these preconditions to include infrastructure efficiency, cross-regional interaction and land costs)

•             achieve a hierarchy of activity centres.

The rural land use strategy has a similar intent. It is essentially an attempt to define a spatial framework for future development.

To embark on this exercise of defining things spatially, without first specifying in detail what the intended environmental, economic or social outcomes are, is unlikely to change the current situation. To expect that the adoption of a particular spatial form will produce better environment (or any other) outcomes, and that any one form is better than others, is naive at best. Urban form results from myriad decisions by governments, councils, commerce, industry and individuals interacting in response to a vast array of needs and capabilities within an existing, evolving framework. Those decisions will be influenced by and will influence the resultant form. In other words, urban form is a social product, not a static map and certainly not something that can be imposed by governments.

But at least the government must get full marks for trying to convince itself:

‘The social, environmental and economic value of providing a regional land use planning framework is increasingly recognised and studies have shown that an increase in Gross State Product (GSP) of between 1% - 5% can be achieved through sustainable metropolitan urban forms’ 2 .

Will this agenda produce better environmental, social and economic outcomes?

Sadly, experience tells us no.

Planning schemes are the primary means of managing development outcomes in Tasmania; to develop regional land use frameworks for them is a sensible approach to resolving the ad hoc approach to land use zoning that currently exists. If that is all that is intended, then fine. A single planning scheme for each region will also help.

However, the program ostensibly promises much more. The government even indicates a more coordinated and whole-of-government approach to planning, infrastructure provision and land-use management. There are, however, three underlying concerns about all of this activity.

1) Failure to commit to effective planning

Firstly, in their day-to day-actions, the government and many councils do not seem to be taking the coordinated and regionally based approach seriously. A few examples:

·           The recent changes to vegetation clearing controls have shifted responsibility for managing vegetation clearance for building construction on private land from the Forest Practices Authority to councils. The only means to control broadscale clearance for this purpose is through planning schemes but most planning schemes do not have effective mechanisms for this and few councils have the resources to enforce controls. The changes were made without any support for local government and without clear direction regarding the type of controls to be included in planning schemes. So an existing consistent state-wide approach is replaced by one that is ad hoc, under-resourced and ultimately ineffective.

A number of state agencies still refuse to operate in accordance with the Land Use Planning and Approvals Act. In the Arthur Pieman Conservation Area, track works to be undertaken by the Parks and Wildlife Service do not have approval under the Act, despite a clear requirement for such approval. The local council also maintains that such approval is not necessary.

The government has still not completed the Crown land allocation process, as a result of which many non-allocated areas of Crown land remain without proper management or development control. Of greatest concern are the large number of small coastal reserves that are home to shorebird and wader populations and are likely to suffer significant impacts as a result of climate change. Development and use of these fragile and important areas occurs without reference to any planning controls, and the responsible agency (Crown Lands) appears to have no interest in being part of the broader land use planning and management system.

There is no obvious link between Natural Resource Management programs and the planning reform agenda. The NRM agenda should be an integral part of the regional planning process. It does not rate a mention.

Planning Directive No. 1, which required use of the common template for planning schemes has never been effectively implemented. Why revise the template if there is little or no commitment to its implementation?

2) Regional plans will not help

Regional planning and attempts to set ‘urban growth boundaries’ have never worked in the past and are unlikely to work in the future 3. Tasmania has had regional plans and planning authorities before (as far back as the 1960s with the Southern Metropolitan Master Planning Authority). These have come to nought and the authorities have been ineffective because:

-        they had no statutory power to support and achieve their objectives

-        the plans were little more than an amalgamation of the existing zonings of councils (this will also form the basis of the new regional land use frameworks)

-        it was not recognised that urban growth is driven by powerful market forces, which can generate significant returns from incremental land conversion and urban subdivision, not from any broad commitment to ‘sustainable urban forms’

-        local councils compete against one another for growth and investment. (Which council in

-        Tasmania is likely to stand up to a major supermarket chain if it wants to develop a new shopping centre in a location that does not fit the existing framework?)

-        local decision making will always undermine broader regional goals and strategies (the recent statement by the Mayor of Clarence in reference to a subdivision at South Arm, that if the land is not good for farming it should be allowed to be subdivided, is a case in point).

Most of the major infrastructure that will determine urban growth patterns in Tasmania is already planned or in place. For example, major road projects in Southern Tasmania – the Brighton bypass, the Kingston bypass, upgrading of the Lyell Highway north of Granton and the Tasman Highway east of Hobart Airport – will mean that there will be growth and expansion at Sorell and the eastern beaches, Margate, Snug, Kettering, New Norfolk, Bagdad and undeveloped land in between.

Urban residential growth in these fringe areas poses some of the greatest threats to non-forest vegetation, threatened species habitats, water quality and visual amenity in Tasmania. The urban form of metropolitan Hobart has been determined for at least the next two decades. Only minor changes are possible. . There is no way, for example, to curb the costly and unsustainable growth of the eastern beaches. Instead of drawing up another strategy and defining artificial and meaningless boundaries, it would be better to put resources into managing this growth to achieve better environmental and social outcomes.

In every state of Australia there have been many attempts since the 1940s to place limits on urban growth and to achieve some preconceived ‘best urban form’. All have failed. Meanwhile the urban growth juggernaut has proceeded apace, with the loss of many significant environmental resources (in south-western Sydney for example, urban growth has eliminated all but 1 percent of non-reserved natural bushland since the late 1950s), and environmental degradation as a result of urban development is widespread (massive declines in water quality in the Logan and Albert Rivers in south-east Queensland, the Hawkesbury River in north-western Sydney, loss of coastal wetlands and dune systems in Perth and loss of native grasslands south-east and south-west of Melbourne).

It would be preferable for the resources currently going into regional strategies and plans ($730,000 for Southern Tasmania alone) to be dedicated to defining the critical environmental values to be protected and ensuring that they are protected when growth occurs. This has been the approach adopted, for example, in Noosa in Queensland. It has paid off handsomely through significantly reduced environmental degradation, increased tourist visitation, higher quality environments, reduced infrastructure costs and international recognition.

3) Make the existing system more efficient and effective

The planning system in Tasmania needs to be able to operate more efficiently and to deliver more effective outcomes. Over 70 percent of all council approvals are for residential and small business developments. The housing industry has for years been trying to get a system in place that can deliver decisions on these developments in shorter time frames and with more certainty. This could this can save money, reduce housing costs and deliver better environmental outcomes.

It could be done quite easily, but there is little interest from government in delivering these benefits. We are still waiting for a standard planning scheme template for the state, 13 years after the first draft was produced; there are no effective state policies in place; and the resources to enforce planning decisions remain miniscule.

A number of simple things can be done:

-        We need a standard residential development code for the whole state and all councils must be made to adopt it – Tasmania has had a Residential Code since the mid 1990s but it has never been refined or implemented 4.

-        There needs to be a mandatory code similar to BASIX in NSW, in which a residential development has to meet predetermined environmental outcomes (energy efficiency, water use, etc.).

-        Many existing residential controls need to be scrapped and moved to subdivision approval stage, particularly those relating to vegetation management, water-sensitive urban design, design and siting for bushfires, water quality, infrastructure provision, etc.

-        Controls over residential development, particularly those relating to vegetation clearance, waste-water management, harvesting of rainwater and alternative engineering standards (reduced road widths, alternative materials etc.) need to be significantly improved.

-        There needs to be an effective approvals system in which people who wish to build, renovate or add to a dwelling or small commercial building know exactly what has to be done to get approval and can receive that approval within days of submitting their plans to a council.

All of these things can deliver better environmental outcomes than the present system. More regional strategies and plans will achieve very little.

These measures will also reduce the resources required for planning approval of dwellings and small commercial developments. Those resources can then be put to better use, in planning for and implementing measures to achieve sustainable outcomes from larger developments.

Concluding comment

The Tasmanian planning system is not seriously flawed. The real problem is the failure to allocate resources to make it work, and allowing it to be hijacked by sectional interests. The goals and objectives of the system are on the mark – commitment to meeting them is not.

Those problems that do exist will not be fixed by more policies and strategies, but by taking action to make the system work better. If it worked as intended it could become a major player in better management and conservation of our irreplaceable natural and human resources.

Bob Graham


1. See ‘Southern Tasmania – Regional Planning project”, Southern Tasmania Regional Councils, February 2009.

2. Southern Tasmania Regional Planning Project – Project Plan, June 2009, Page 3.

3. The best recent example of this is the attempt by the Victorian Government to set urban growth boundaries for Melbourne – they have been ditched and replaced by ever larger ones three times in two years, despite the Minister for Planning saying, two weeks before the last one, that he ‘would not live to see the day of another extension’.

4. NSW, Victoria and South Australia all have standard residential codes. The problems facing the development and implementation of standard codes is much greater in these states than in Tasmania. We could do worse than learn from their experience.