Usual suspects line up for new attacks on EDO NSW


Friends, supporters and observers of EDO NSW may have noticed a new round of attacks on our public interest environmental law office in recent days and weeks, via the usual suspects of the NSW Minerals Council and The Australian newspaper.

While these reports are short on ‘news’ and run long on rehashing earlier attacks on EDO NSW, they are clearly aimed at trying to politicise our role as an independent community legal centre that specialises in public interest environmental law.

Our EDO NSW team takes the sometimes hysterical tone of The Australian’s reporting about our office with a large grain of salt, however, we do find headlines like ‘Public-funded EDO circus must end’ quite offensive. We think many of our supporters will feel the same way.

Last Friday The Australia’s legal correspondent sought to seize on written comments by our outgoing Chair Murray Wilcox AO QC, the distinguished retired Federal Court judge, who reflected on over 6 years at the helm of our Board in his final contribution to EDO NSW, published last month in the 2012/13 annual report.

Readers of this post can assess the content of the most recent stories for themselves here:

As Mr Wilcox noted, the EDO NSW is a law office not a campaign one. Our team is made up of lawyers, scientists and other professionals and support staff, who provide professional, expert and independent legal advice to individuals and community groups. We have clear and robust standards in place to determine when we will take on a case, and indeed when we will provide written advice – namely, that the matter needs to satisfy our public interest guidelines.

We receive funds from a range of sources, including a sizeable proportion which is not taxpayer funds, and we are always scrupulous in ensuring that we meet the obligations set out in funding and grant agreements.

It is also worth noting that when EDO NSW is acting for any client in a litigation matter, such cases are public hearings, and our clients are disclosed on our website and via our annual reports.

Where legal cases we work on end up before a court, which is only a small fraction of the work we do, we act on behalf of community-based clients who have satisfied us – and a senior barrister – that they have rights to be heard under law. Which of course is why our system has courts in the first place, and why due legal process is a core component of our healthy democracy.

*Jeff Smith is the Executive Director of EDO NSW.

FOOTNOTE: Also for the record, the following was sent to The Australian last Friday as a Letter to the Editor.

In rehashing mining industry-led criticisms of EDO NSW, your legal correspondent Chris Merritt (Taxpayers still fund anti-coal disputes, 1/11/2013) continues to muddy the waters about the source of grant monies from the Public Purpose Fund of the Law Society of NSW, or PPF. While the NSW Government of the day has always had a consent control over grants made by the PPF Trustees, the actual monies are not taxpayer funds, but rather the accumulated interest earnings on client funds held in solicitors’ trust accounts in NSW. It is a longstanding tradition that the PPF makes regular grants to community legal centres providing public interest services, including EDO NSW, among other recipients. The PPF is fully informed about the work undertaken by EDO NSW as an independent, not-for-profit, specialist public interest environmental law office that has served the community of NSW since 1985.

Jeff Smith
Executive Director


EDO NSW case “epitomises” public interest litigation


The Land and Environment Court has found that a case brought by EDO NSW on behalf of the Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group to protect the environment “epitomises the very concept of litigation properly brought in the public interest.” 

The Court ordered that, even though they lost the case, the residents should not have to pay the legal costs of the Department of Trade & Investment. The Court also ordered the Department to pay the legal costs of the residents group in disputing the costs of the court case.

What was the case about?
The residents group had challenged an approval of a CSG pilot project located on a floodplain, adjacent to an internationally-listed wetland, with wells that will continuously extract gas and water from depths of 800-900 meters for at least 12 months.

The residents went to Court because they were concerned that there had been no groundwater assessment, and a full Environmental Impact Statement should have been prepared to assess impacts on biodiversity and groundwater.

In March this year, the Court dismissed the residents group’s case, finding that the groundwater and biodiversity assessments met the standards set by our planning laws. After judgment, the Department pursued the residents for its legal costs. The CSG company, Dart Energy, did not.

What did the Court say about costs?
The Court ordered that because the residents group’s case was genuine public interest litigation, it should not have to pay the legal costs of the Department in responding to its appeal.

During the hearing on costs, the Department argued that the residents weren’t really concerned about the environment, they just wanted to stop the development at Fullerton Cove.

The Department extensively cross-examined both the residents group and EDO NSW about the residents’ motivations in bringing the case. However, according to the judge, the cross-examination “only served to reinforce the genuineness of Fullerton’s contention that it had commenced the litigation in the public interest in order to protect Fullerton Cove from what it perceived to be an inadequate assessment of the potential adverse consequences of coal seam gas exploration in that environmentally sensitive area.”

The Court also rejected the Department’s arguments that the case didn’t raise any new points of law and had little merit. Instead, the judge found that “not only did the litigation raise one or more novel issues of general importance, but that the litigation has contributed in a material way to the proper understanding, development and administration of the law.”

The Court also ordered that the Department pay the residents group’s own legal costs of having to dispute the costs of the litigation.

EDO NSW had written to the Department on a number of occasions, urging it to accept that the resident group’s case was public interest litigation. On each occasion, the Department declined the group’s offers.  The judge described the Department’s responses as, “for a model litigant, less than fulsome and unhelpful in the circumstances.”  The Department must now pay the residents group’s costs of arguing the point.

Why do we have special rules for public interest cases?
The Land and Environment Court has special rules in place which are designed to facilitate access to justice in exactly these kinds of cases. If a case is genuinely brought in the public interest, the person bringing the case should not be punished with a costs order simply because they lost.

If the law were to allow the general public to be frightened away from the Courts by the prospect of adverse costs orders worth tens of thousands of dollars, there would be little point in allowing those people access to justice in the first place.  As Justice Biscoe of the Land and Environment Court said recently in another public interest case (Friends of King Edward Park v Newcastle City Council):

“There is little point in the legislature opening the door to public participation in this way if the doorway is then blocked by a menacing costs hound which threatens to savage the responsible public interest litigant who dares to enter and loses.”

*Elaine Johnson is a Senior Solicitor at EDO NSW.

Legal Aid cuts threaten environmental justice


From 1 July this year, one of the pillars of environmental justice is about to be torn down – that is, Legal Aid will no longer be available for public interest environmental cases. It’s been a longstanding part of the architecture for 27 years.

But let’s step back a little. Why does this matter?

Environmental justice is often about access – that is, the ability of concerned community members to protect the environment through the Courts. NSW has long had an iconic right for any person to take action to stop a breach of the law – a broad provision which has meant that Courts have concerned themselves with the substance of a matter, not whether someone is entitled to be there. But that right means little without more. As Justice Toohey of the High Court once said:

“There is little point in opening the doors to the Courts if people cannot afford to come in.”

Legal Aid has allowed people to come in – not willy nilly, as some might say, but where strict means and merits tests warrant it.

It enabled a number of legal cases that tested forestry practices and environmental impact assessment in the early 1990s, saving vital forests. In a similar vein, it has contributed to our understanding of the law, through allowing for test cases on novel points of law. The high profile Walker case, the first case in Australia to consider the impacts of climate change on a proposed development is testament to this tradition.

More recently, it has helped to achieve better environmental outcomes for coal-affected communities (witness the decisions in the Hunter with the Ulan and Duralie mines), or to turn back an unsustainable developments (such as an abalone farm in Port Stephens).

Importantly also, Legal Aid has been crucial to keeping accountability and transparency in the environmental and planning system – holding decision-makers to account and ensuring the system works as it should.

All this – better environmental outcomes, the proper administration of justice and accountability and transparency – will be in doubt once 1 July ticks over.

*Jeff Smith is the Executive Director of EDO NSW.

You can support EDO NSW’s Environmental Defence Fund by clicking here to make a tax deductable donation today.


Water sources at risk in the Hunter


Changes have been made to the rules governing the water use of mining companies in the Hunter region of NSW. These changes mean that from 2015 all large open-cut and underground coal mines in the Hunter will be exempt from rules that were supposed to protect both groundwater sources (known as ‘alluvial aquifers’) and rivers, particularly during periods of drought. This highlights the importance of assessing cumulative impacts properly, as well as the need for the community to be consulted on decisions that impact how water is managed across NSW.

Changes to the Hunter Water Sharing Plan
The NSW Minister for Primary Industries recently made over 100 changes to the Water Sharing Plan for the Hunter Unregulated and Alluvial Water Sources (Hunter Water Sharing Plan). Water sharing plans establish rules for how water is allocated between different users in a particular area. This includes a requirement to set aside some water for the environment.

The Hunter Water Sharing Plan includes rules intended to protect aquifers and the rivers to which they are connected from ‘over-extraction.’ For example, it contains a set of rules which prohibit pumping water from specified aquifers during drought. These  rules are also designed to protect ecosystems that depend on the health of these aquifers and rivers. These ‘groundwater dependent ecosystems’ include dramatic limestone caves containing subterranean lakes which support a variety of fauna such as numerous bat and invertebrate species.

However, two of the recent amendments to the Hunter Water Sharing Plan mean that all licenced major projects approved under NSW planning laws are exempt from these rules. Most mining developments in NSW are categorised as major projects.

What does this mean for the environment?
While there is still much to learn about groundwater systems across NSW, we do know that alluvial aquifers in the Hunter are shallow and therefore easily contaminated. We also know that they are under strain from extractive use, and are highly connected to other water sources. The recent amendments to the Hunter Water Sharing Plan risk exacerbating these problems, as well as undermining the health of ‘groundwater dependent ecosystems’.

The changes also seem to be designed to counteract new laws which require mining companies to hold licences for all water that they extract, including ‘incidental take’.  Incidental take, which is ‘take’ that occurs when a mine is excavated through the water table, is often uncontrolled and continuous. It would therefore have been difficult for mining companies to comply with rules which prohibited pumping water from specified alluvial aquifers during periods of drought.

In a region characterised by an unusually high concentration of open-cut coal mines, the changes are problematic, not least of all because they undermine the objects and principles of the Water Management Act.

Lack of community consultation
There was no legal requirement for the Minister to consult with the community before making the changes discussed above.  Changes of this nature have significant implications for the environment and other users. As such, EDO NSW believes that it is necessary to amend the Water Management Act to ensure that the public can participate in important policy decisions which determine how water is managed across the State.

Click here to read Emma’s article in the Australian Environment Review.

*Emma Carmody is a Policy and Law Reform Solicitor at EDO NSW.

Support Your EDO NSW – It’s Workplace Giving Month


In light of our recent funding challenges and to celebrate Workplace Giving month, EDO NSW recently made the decision to start a Workplace Giving program.

Workplace giving (or payroll giving) provides employees with an opportunity to make tax deductible donations to charities out of your regular pay. This means that even a small regular donation can make a big difference when combined with other regular donors.

For employers, workplace giving can provide a low cost, administratively simple way to create community-business partnerships through mobilising significant funding and volunteer involvement.

For EDO NSW, workplace giving provides long term, stable funding for core programs. This funding requires little administrative cost meaning your donation gets to where it is needed more. EDO NSW’s workplace giving program is designed to support our work in:

  • Free environmental law hotline which takes nearly 1,500 calls a year.
  • Community workshops and seminars that focus on increasing the community’s knowledge of environmental legal issues on topics such as planning reform, pollution, mining and coal seam gas, coastal protection, and threatened species. We have run 95 workshops across NSW in the past three years.
  • Rural and regional work including support to communities on key issues like native vegetation, water plans, coal seam gas, mining, private conservation and local planning.
  • Indigenous programs providing unique support to the Aboriginal community on culture and heritage issues.
  • Educational resources including legal guides and Fact Sheets to help the community better understand their rights and responsibilities under environmental legislation.
  • Policy and law reform work that involves input to major legal reforms that will affect the environment the NSW.
  • Court cases and mediation which has led to many important environment cases on behalf of communities from the cities to the bush.

Workplace giving is an effective way to make a big difference in the community and it has enormous potential. If just 10% of the Australian workforce donated $5 pre-tax a week through workplace giving, an extra $300 million per year would be raised for the community sector.

If you or your organisation is interested in partnering with EDO NSW on Workplace Giving, we’d love to hear from you. For more information on Workplace Giving and Workplace Giving Month visit the Australian Charities Fund.

*Megan Kessler is the Scientific Director at EDO NSW.

ACF WPG Month 2011_Circle Mark

Five big challenges for the Planning White Paper – Challenge #5


Throughout this week (from Monday 20 May), EDO NSW looks at five major changes of the NSW Government’s New Planning System – White Paper. Changes that – as currently proposed – could undermine the Government’s efforts to restore accountability and public trust in the State planning system. In highlighting these issues, EDO NSW also seeks out solutions to give NSW residents, businesses and the environment a positive and sustainable future. So we’ll conclude this series with five essential improvements needed for the NSW planning reforms.

5. Appeals and Enforcement – letting in the light, or shutting out accountability?
A final aspect of the planning White Paper goes to the heart of access to justice under the new system – rights to appeal the merits of a decision, and rights to challenge legal errors and breaches through ‘civil enforcement’. These will be critical if the government is to make good on its State Plan goal to ‘Restore confidence and integrity in the planning system’.

Developers’ rights to review and appeal decisions will expand under the White Paper proposals, including against council refusals of ‘spot rezoning’ applications, and where councils fail to approve code-based development applications within 25 days (see Thursday’s post).

On the other hand, there will be no community appeal rights if a code-based development is approved that exceeds agreed criteria (relying instead on limited consultation rights). Community objectors will also continue to lose merit appeal rights against major projects, where the Planning Assessment Commission holds a public hearing – which can be requested at the Planning Minister’s discretion (under the Planning Administration Bill).  In other words, the new system entrenches the inequity between developer appeals and community rights to independent accountability through the courts.

As ICAC noted in its 2012 submission to the planning review, ‘The limited availability of third party appeal rights under the EP&A Act means that an important check on executive government is absent.’ Less than 1% of local council decisions are appealed on the merits, and Planning Department statistics shows that 99 out of 100 of these appeals are brought by developers, not community members.

But the benefit of third-party appeal rights goes beyond the few cases where they are exercised. The very existence of such rights puts decision-makers on notice, and leads to better decisions and greater community confidence. Further, as ICAC puts it: ‘The extension of third party merit appeals acts as a disincentive for corrupt decision-making by consent authorities.’

On civil enforcement, consultations have revealed widespread support for ‘open standing’ in the planning system. This allows anyone to enforce a breach of the law in court (as long as they can afford it). The White Paper proposes to retain open standing. However, the draft Planning Bill could seriously undermine this ‘iconic right’, by curtailing the public’s ability to challenge a range of legal errors or breaches in court. This includes fundamental areas such as community participation (see Tuesday’s post) and strategic plans. The Bill also appears to restrict certain third party enforcement rights under State pollution laws, but its full extent is unclear. For example, under these laws, EDO NSW recently assisted a community group to challenge pollution of the George’s River, in breach of the company’s pollution licence. We have raised these concerns with the Planning Department, and are continuing to seek changes that will maintain access to justice. The full force and spirit of open standing rights must be retained if these reforms are to have legitimacy.

Overall, the imbalance of review and appeal rights between developers and community members will continue to limit community confidence in the system.  In our view, the draft legislation must be amended to restore accountability and put the community on an equitable footing when it comes to appeal, review and civil enforcement rights.

When we started this series, there were six weeks left for consultations on the NSW Planning White Paper and draft legislation. Now there are five!  Time is short on the community’s chance to shape the scaffolding of the new planning system. But the Government already has nearly 1000 community and local council submissions to its 2012 Green Paper, and many of the calls for a more balanced and sustainable system – socially, environmentally and economically – remain unanswered.

EDO NSW believes fundamental changes are needed to chart a better course for the planning laws. Five major improvements would give much greater confidence that the Government has listened to the community, and is serious about sustainable paths to environmental planning and economic development:

  • Place ESD at the apex of the planning system, and apply its principles under law.
  • Boost the status of the Community Participation Charter to make sure it’s binding, and ensure its principles aim high.
  • Integrate environmental outcomes and sustainability requirements upfront in the strategic planning principles, including cumulative impact considerations and climate change readiness. Public participation and environmental outcomes must flow through the cascade of strategic plans.
  • Set and communicate clearer limits, safeguards and design incentives around code-based development assessment.
  • Restore accountability by putting the community on an equitable footing for appeal, review and civil enforcement rights (in areas like community participation, developments that significantly exceed set standards, and projects with the biggest likely impacts).

These changes would help to build a positive legacy for the new planning laws, with shared benefits for communities, businesses, governments and the environment – now and in the decades to come.

*Nari Sahukar is a Policy & Law Reform Solicitor at EDO NSW.

Five big challenges for the Planning White Paper – Challenge #4


Throughout this week (from Monday 20 May), EDO NSW looks at five major changes of the NSW Government’s New Planning System – White Paper. Changes that – as currently proposed – could undermine the Government’s efforts to restore accountability and public trust in the State planning system. In highlighting these issues, EDO NSW also seeks out solutions to give NSW residents, businesses and the environment a positive and sustainable future. So we’ll conclude this series with five essential improvements needed for the NSW planning reforms.

4. Code Assessment – all targets, no limits?
The biggest change in the White Paper’s approach to development assessment is to introduce ‘code assessment’ as the new, and predominant, assessment track. Code assessment would transform community consultation on neighbourhood development across a range of residential, commercial and industrial projects, by requiring standards to be set upfront in the Local Plan (in part through community consultation), and removing site-by-site consultation. Projects that comply with a Code would have to be approved by local councils, within 25 days. The White Paper sets a mandatory target of 80% code assessed development (or smaller-scale exempt and complying) within 5 years. Under-performing council standards would be replaced with departmental guides.

It is a high-stakes proposal from a community engagement perspective – and it’s safe to say the wider public are not really in a position to  know much about code assessment at this formative stage. No one wants a system where – say, two years from now – there is just as much angst about neighbouring development, but far less the community can say about it. There needs to be greater community understanding and input about codes (and their limits) before setting ambitious targets.

There is no doubt that code assessment could deliver faster approvals for developers – but the quid pro quo should be a commitment to high-quality building design and nation-leading sustainability requirements. Unfortunately, while the White Paper has a chapter on building design and certification, there is no commitment to update or expand the BASIX building sustainability tool to provide for better water, energy and material efficiency across residential, commercial and industrial codes. Nor does the White Paper start from the premise of fast-tracking environmentally friendly development through code assessment.

All that being the case, the White Paper’s assumption that 80% of developments can be code-assessed without any significant or cumulative environmental impact is given no evidentiary basis. If code assessment proceeds, clear limits and safeguards will be very important. For example:

  • Codes should be excluded from all areas of high conservation value, environmental sensitivity and cultural heritage significance;
  • Codes will also need to deal with cumulative impact considerations (the combined impact of thousands of fast-tracked medium-scale developments) and deal with interfaces between built-up areas and more sensitive areas;
  • The Government also needs to rule out code assessment for State Significant Development.

On Friday, this week’s final EDO NSW planning post looks at what rights will apply once developments are approved – or refused. Will the reforms restore an equitable balance of community appeal rights against bad decisions, and maintain open rights to enforce the law? Or will the pendulum swing further towards developer appeal rights? We look at these questions, and conclude this blog series with five essential improvements needed for the 2013 planning reforms.

*Nari Sahukar is a Policy & Law Reform Solicitor at EDO NSW.

Five big challenges for the Planning White Paper – Challenge #3


Throughout this week (from Monday 20 May), EDO NSW looks at five major changes of the NSW Government’s New Planning System – White Paper. Changes that – as currently proposed – could undermine the Government’s efforts to restore accountability and public trust in the State planning system. In highlighting these issues, EDO NSW also seeks out solutions to give NSW residents, businesses and the environment a positive and sustainable future. So we’ll conclude this series with five essential improvements needed for the NSW planning reforms.

3. Strategic Planning Principles – locking in an imbalanced approach?
EDO NSW supportsa comprehensive strategic planning framework set out in legislation.  The White Paper and Planning Bill set out 10 strategic planning principles to guide a cascading series of state, regional, subregional and local plans. Several principles deal with appropriate governance measures, including community participation, accessibility and evidence-based planning. Other principles have a clear economic focus.

Critically, none of these principles deal with improving or maintaining environmental outcomes, assessing cumulative impacts (of multiple projects and environmental pressures) or preparing for climate change. This is despite recommendations from the Government’s independent planning review panel to include these factors.  A recent Productivity Commission report also noted that ‘a range of instruments could be used to manage climate change risks in land-use planning.’ The Commission encourages a ‘risk management approach’ and ‘transparent and rigorous community consultation processes’ to get there. Despite the White Paper’s commitment to evidence-based planning, the Planning Bill remains silent on climate change and cumulative impact assessment.

Turning to the strategic plans themselves, the challenge for state and local governments will be to meaningfully engage communities on multiple levels, without overwhelming them. There is also a broader concern that, applying the principles above, the various Plans will prioritise economic targets without sufficient integration of social and environmental values. We address each level briefly below.

High level NSW Planning Policies will set critical standards on key issues that must be followed by lower-level strategic plans. However, they will not be subject to parliamentary or judicial oversight. Also, if these Policies do not adequately protect the environment and foster social outcomes, subsequent plans will be ‘locked in’ to growth-focused policies, rather than an integrated approach to ecologically sustainable development (ESD).

Similarly, we believe Regional Growth Plans should require balanced and ecologically sustainable development that promotes community wellbeing. The draft legislation gives authorities broad discretion on whether or not to incorporate environmental aims and targets, including native vegetation targets, biodiversity strategies and pollution limits. With significant time having been invested by agency resources and the community in developing environmental strategies and targets, we must ensure they are embedded in the planning system if we are serious about the idea of ‘evidence based, whole of government’ strategic planning.

Subregional Delivery Plans should build in urban sustainability, climate change responses, and a triple bottom line focus. Subregional Planning Boards should be required to exercise their functions to achieve ESD, as the new overarching planning objective.

Given the propopsed ‘line of sight’ through levels of strategic plans, the system needs to minimise the risk of top-down determinism in Local Plans – where local preferences could be shoe‑horned into pre-set State priorities. Also, the White Paper’s new approach to zoning (fewer, broader zones) and development guides requires further practical explanation and analysis. Any zoning system must ensure sensitive environmental and heritage areas are protected, particularly in translating existing protections under Local Environmental Plans.

Finally, communities may be sceptical of a strategic planning process that calls for upfront engagement and certainty on their part, while providing additional developer rights at the local level – to vary, ‘spot-rezone’ and appeal, or seek ‘strategic compatibility certificates’ to leapfrog the local planning phase. A more equitable approach would restore public trust.

On Thursday we turn from strategic planning to individual project assessment. How will the NSW Government achieve its bold vision for 80% of development approvals through code-based criteria, instead of giving the neighbours a say? Will the community and environment be at the centre or the periphery, and what safeguards will apply?

*Nari Sahukar is a Policy & Law Reform Solicitor at EDO NSW.

Five big challenges for the Planning White Paper – Challenge #2


Throughout this week (from Monday 20 May), EDO NSW looks at five major changes of the NSW Government’s New Planning System – White Paper. Changes that – as currently proposed – could undermine the Government’s efforts to restore accountability and public trust in the State planning system. In highlighting these issues, EDO NSW also seeks out solutions to give NSW residents, businesses and the environment a positive and sustainable future. So we’ll conclude this series with five essential improvements needed for the NSW planning reforms.

2. Community Participation Charter – inclusive but unenforceable?
The White Paper proposes to put public participation at the centre of planning – via a Community Participation Charter. The Charter concept is a welcome inclusion in the Bill, but firm details for this novel approach to public engagement have been left to future Community Participation Plans and guides. This may prove problematic in practice, given that consultation on 20-year regional plans has already started, and is moving rapidly, in areas like Sydney and the Lower Hunter.

What is principally concerning is that it may be impossible to enforce compliance with the Community Participation Charter. Part 2 of the draft Bill is devoted entirely to Community Participation, and it sounds encouraging – except that it’s undercut by a wide-ranging clause in Part 10 that reveals virtually all of it is ‘not mandatory’. This could mean that Community Participation Plans cannot be challenged if they don’t stack up to the Charter, even if they involve significant errors by decision makers.

A shift to upfront engagement certainly has its positives. But there is also a risk of overburdening the community – particularly when coming to grips with new approaches to strategic planning and development assessment (discussed in coming days), which radically alter the process of ‘having a say’. Motivating, upskilling and listening to a wide range of community members will require significant time, expertise and resources.

To ensure the legitimacy of this centrepiece of the reforms, the Community Participation Charter needs to be binding. The public need this assurance and accountability – that plan-makers will match the Charter’s intentions with actions. The Charter’s principles – and their implementation in community participation plans – should also ensure that people have the information, advice and input they need to plan the communities and environments they want to live in.

Wednesday’s post looks at Strategic Planning under the new system. Does the White Paper lay a path to resolving land-use conflicts and other 21st century challenges – growth, liveability and sustainability? Or does it risk locking-in an imbalanced approach upfront? 

*Nari Sahukar is a Policy & Law Reform Solicitor at EDO NSW.

Five big challenges for the Planning White Paper – Challenge #1


Throughout this week (from Monday 20 May), EDO NSW looks at five major changes of the NSW Government’s New Planning System – White Paper. Changes that – as currently proposed – could undermine the Government’s efforts to restore accountability and public trust in the State planning system. In highlighting these issues, EDO NSW also seeks out solutions to give NSW residents, businesses and the environment a positive and sustainable future. So we’ll conclude this series with five essential improvements needed for the NSW planning reforms.

The NSW planning reforms are a landmark opportunity for a 21st century planning system – and the new laws could be passed in a matter of months. Looking at the 33-year legacy of the current Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, it could be mid-century before the next opportunity to influence the planning framework rolls around. So it pays to think now about the sorts of towns, cities, environment and infrastructure we want over the next three decades and beyond.

With less than six weeks left for consultations on the NSW Planning White Paper and draft legislation, time is short for the community to help shape the scaffolding of the new planning system.  For further information, see the EDO NSW White Paper briefing note, and more, on our new Planning Reforms webpage.

1. Objectives – a weakened approach to ‘sustainable development’
For two decades, NSW environmental and planning laws have included the guiding principles of ecologically sustainable development (ESD). Most of these principles will be consigned to history if the bold vision of the White Paper becomes a reality. This would be a significant retrograde step for environmental and social considerations in NSW planning decisions – from plan-making, to environmental assessment, approvals and conditions.

The first object in the exposure draft Planning Bill 2013 (NSW) is to promote ‘economic growth and environmental and social well-being through sustainable development’. Under the Bill, ‘Sustainable development is achieved by the integration of economic, environmental and social considerations, having regard to present and future needs, in decision-making about planning and development.’

This new, narrow definition of ‘sustainable development’ only briefly refers to two ESD concepts – the integration principle (‘of economic, environmental and social considerations’), and intergenerational equity (expressed in the Bill as considering ‘present and future needs’). Three other fundamental ESD principles have fallen off the agenda.

The new Planning Bill abolishes all reference to the precautionary principle (to deal with risk and scientific uncertainty[1]), biodiversity and ecological integrity as a fundamental consideration, and improved valuation, pricing and incentive mechanisms (including the polluter pays principle). These principles have been enacted in over 50 NSW laws, and many more across Australia and overseas. Two of Australia’s most recent planning overhauls – in Queensland (2009) and the ACT (2007) put ESD principles front and centre.

Our concern is not the change of name (from ESD to ‘sustainable development’), but with it the loss of an important decision making framework. A 21st century planning system needs to prioritise and implement Ecologically Sustainable Development and its principles, not a watered-down concept of integrated decision-making. Our submission will be that the Planning Bill needs to be amended – to place ESD at the apex of the planning system, and to apply its principles when making planning and development decisions under the law.

Check out Tuesday’s post for our view on community participation as set out in the new planning system White Paper. Will it be inclusive, ground-breaking, or ultimately unenforceable?

*Nari Sahukar is a Policy & Law Reform Solicitor at EDO NSW.

[1] In brief, the precautionary principle is triggered if there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm to the environment, and there is scientific uncertainty as to whether that harm will occur. In such cases, the precautionary principle requires the developer or proponent to demonstrate its activities are sufficiently safe.