State of the State Coastal Policy

In July 2013, the Tasmanian government released for public comment a draft State Coastal Policy Statement. This is the first product in the development of the anticipated ‘Coastal Protection and Planning Framework’ intended to replace the State Coastal Policy 1996. Significantly, the draft statement aims to settle overarching principles of coastal management, rather than provide any detail regarding implementation or on-ground work – such detail has been deferred to ‘Phase 2’.

Acknowledging its limited scope, there are things to commend about the draft statement. In particular, the recognition of the breadth of issues affected by coastal management, and establishment of a cross-department committee to develop a coastal management framework to address these, are a positive move towards better integration and more sustainable management strategies. However, without a clear implementation strategy or an explicit hierarchy in which protection of natural values receives the highest priority, the draft statement fails to provide adequate direction to achieve sustainable outcomes.

This article briefly outlines some of the issues raised by the draft statement, and some of the ways in which it must be improved if Tasmania is to have a contemporary and appropriate strategy for managing our coastal resources.

Elements of the draft Coastal Policy Statement

The draft Coastal Policy Statement outlines Visions, Guiding Principles, Goals and Policy Directions, and attempts to set out the roles and responsibilities of various coastal management stakeholders. The consultation paper states that the policy statement is ‘Phase 1’, with implementation strategies and a final Coastal Protection and Planning Framework to be delivered in Phase 2. No timeframes are set for Phase 2, although it is likely that implementation strategies will be outlined prior to the 2014 election.

The draft Coastal Policy Statement also proposes a coastal typology, differentiating between:

·    Developed Coast – cities, towns, industrial estates and port areas

·    Modified Coast – agricultural and forestry land, low intensity developments and small settlements

·    Natural Coast – significant natural landscapes and areas with natural and cultural values.

The draft statement flags that different development restrictions and management responses will apply in the different areas.

What is good about the draft Policy Statement?

The draft Statement includes a number of positive elements, including these:

·    Return to a catchment-focused definition of the coastal zone, intended to encompass the broad range of activities that potentially impact on the coast. The draft statement indicates that the definition will be supported by regional and localised mapping, but it remains unclear how the new definition will avoid the legal issues associated with a geographic/ecological basis for applying the original policy. Greater emphasis on the catchment–coast–marine continuum is also warranted.

·    A prohibition on canal estates, in recognition of the ecological impacts of such development.

·    Clearer statements regarding the importance of Aboriginal cultural access and public recreational access to coastal areas.

·    Provisions for differential management responses for different types of coastline which could provide for better outcomes and direct assessment and management efforts to areas with greater needs. However, much will depend on how the areas are classified and what management responses apply.

·    Oversight by an inter-departmental committee, which might improve adoption of the policy goals across sectors of government.

What is not so good about the draft Policy Statement?

The draft statement can be subjected to similar criticisms to the existing State Coastal Policy, a position reflected in the variety of submissions received during the public comment period. In particular, the draft statement does not provide sufficiently strong references to coastal hazards and climate-change impacts, to reflect the seriousness of the impacts likely to face coastal communities in the coming decades. Key criticisms include the following:

·      No priority for conservation

The draft statement refers to sustainable use and development of Tasmania’s coast, but the emphasis appears to be on economic and social values rather than underlying environmental values. Given that the maintenance of healthy, diverse and resilient coastal areas effectively underpins economic and social benefits (a fact recognised in elsewhere in the draft statement), the vision should prioritise protection of the environment.

Similarly, the draft statement explicitly states that there is ‘no hierarchy implied by the goals and policy directions’. This approach ignores the inevitably of conflict between values. Without explicit direction to guide how conflicts are resolved, the principle of balanced decision-making lacks meaning and will not necessarily achieve sustainable outcomes. A hierarchy of principles similar to the Victorian Coastal Strategy1 should be adopted, recognising the priority to be given to conservation of natural values.

·      Implementation

Under the current State Coastal Policy 1996, it has been left to local governments to identify priorities and criteria for assessing development and to develop responses to coastal hazards and the implications of climate change. Experience demonstrates that lack of guidance can also result in considerable resources being spent on ad hoc information-gathering and legal action.2

While the draft statement is not intended to be enforceable in its own right, it is critical that the document is sufficiently unambiguous to guide decision-making, including the design of laws and policies to give effect to its vision. Without effective, enforceable implementation mechanisms, the draft statement will fail to produce any tangible benefits for coastal management in Tasmania.

One of the guiding principles in the draft statement is that regulation will be limited to ‘that which is necessary’. EDO Tasmania considers that the following minimum standards are ‘necessary’ in order for the Coastal Protection and Planning Framework to effectively and efficiently achieve the objectives of the draft statement:

·      Statutory force – without legislative backing, the Framework cannot provide any certainty or consistency.

·      A central authority to provide information, advice and guidance in relation to the implementation of the Framework. This could be a separately constituted organisation, or a dedicated unit within an existing government agency.

·      Rights of public participation in relation to coastal planning decisions.

·      Clear offence provisions in relation to unauthorised coastal works, and a range of enforcement tools.

Given the significance of implementation measures, the government must ensure that further opportunities are provided for public comment on any implementation strategy developed under the Coastal Protection and Planning Framework.

·    Precautionary approach

The draft statement adopts a precautionary, risk-based approach to decision-making – sensible in a highly dynamic coastal environment. However, the definition of the precautionary principle fails to require action to be taken to minimise future risks. A definition should be adopted which places the onus on proponents (whether developers or government agencies) to demonstrate that a proposal will either not pose a serious threat, or that such a threat can be managed.3 Precaution must also be exercised in relation to a development that may not itself ‘pose’ a threat, but may be increasingly subject to threat from coastal hazards resulting from climate changes.

·    Roles and responsibilities

To some extent, investigating and collating this information and developing implementation tools should be shared between all spheres of government and the community. However, it is essential that the state government remain primarily responsible for setting clear direction for planning and management. The state government also needs to provide support to local governments, including adequate resources for information-gathering and mapping exercises and monitoring the implementation of the Framework

Tasmania’s coasts are exposed to increasing pressures, including development pressure, coastal hazards exacerbated by climate change and general loss of ecosystem integrity. The current State Coastal Policy has failed to adequately manage these pressures and, without significant improvement, the draft Coastal Statement provides little encouragement that the Coastal Protection and Planning Framework will do any better. Here’s hoping for a comprehensive implementation strategy that proves us wrong!

Jess Feehely
Principal Lawyer
Environmental Defenders Office