Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Tasmania’s Planning Reform Agenda - A failed process

Over the last 15 years, Federal, State and Local governments have spent over $10 million on “planning reform” in Tasmania.  That investment has resulted in the State Planning Provisions (SPPs) - described as a  “Statewide Planning Scheme for Tasmania”.   According to the Government, the aim of the exercise was to reform “the State’s planning system by introducing a single planning scheme for the State” and to “deliver greater consistency in the planning rules across the State, providing greater certainty to investors and the community”.

What in reality has been delivered is the most regressive and dangerous set of planning controls of any Australian State or Territory, posing a major threat to our environment, society and economy. The Scheme is not a Statewide Scheme as it does not apply to all land in the State, it provides little or no protection to local interests or the natural environment and it cannot promote and support sustainable economic development.  Even though the Provisions run to 429 confusing pages, they fail to provide a framework within which our most pressing development issues can be addressed. They will set back land use planning in Tasmania by at least half a century.

The stated purpose of the SPPs is to provide “greater certainty to investors and the community”. However, they have been developed within the framework of the Land Use Planning and Approvals Act (LUPAA), the objectives of which include:
•    promotion of sustainable development, 
•    providing for the fair orderly and sustainable use of air, land and water,  
•    encouraging public involvement in planning and  
 •    facilitating sustainable economic development.  

Section 5 of the Act states that it is the job of planning schemes to  further these objectives.  The SPPs which, will become the Statewide Planning Scheme, not only do not further the objectives, they do not even  mention them.   The authors of the Provisions have for, whatever reason, deliberately ignored the sustainable development objective that is fundamental to the Act.  This is a tragedy in a State where we increasingly rely on our image as “clean and green” to promote tourism, agricultural development, and branding of much of our local produce.  

The Government also says that its planning reforms aim “to provide a fairer, faster, cheaper and simpler planning system for Tasmania”.    What they actually do is provide a single set of rules for minor development across the State. The SPPs are not a “planning system”, but a development approval system that has little or nothing to do with good planning and sustainable development. The Act is a planning and approvals document - but the SPPs exist in a planning vacuum.  The critical issues of protecting our natural and cultural assets, providing adequate infrastructure, supporting truly sustainable development and meeting the needs of local communities are no “longer part of the planning system”.

The SPPs may make it easier and quicker for some developments to get development approval, but even that is in doubt. The irony is that much of the material included in the Scheme need not even be there as it is little more than a set of upgraded building controls. These controls could be put in place much more cheaply and efficiently than through a “planning reform” agenda involving massive expenditure, new legislation and major upheaval of existing arrangements. 

There is no doubt that Tasmania needs a more efficient and effective land and building development approval system.  However, that system must operate within a robust land use planning framework if it is to deliver on the objectives of the Act.  The SPPs do not provide that framework.   The SPPs are not “planning reform” and it is dishonest to call them that.

As evidence of this misleading approach to “planning reform” the Government’s planning website informs us that the “Government is now preparing a new set of policies to guide the planning system” which will  “cover a broad range of planning matters such as economic development, settlement and community infrastructure, transport and infrastructure, natural and cultural heritage, and hazards and risks”.  Apart from the fact that a simplistic and archaic set of development controls cannot deliver most of these things, readers will notice that the following words have disappeared - environment, sustainable, fair, orderly, land, water, public involvement.  In addition, why wasn’t this done before the SPPs were developed? 

This is an amazing situation. The Government is saying: “We have the controls -  now we are going to work out what they are meant to do” - and they call it planning!  

The “Statewide Scheme” represents a major threat to Tasmania’s environment, reduces the oversight by communities of State agencies and Councils, does not allow effective public participation and does not incorporate means to manage the effects of development on local communities and the environment   Moreover, fundamental questions such as the provision of basic infrastructure - roads, schools, community services and facilities - public transport, ongoing management of development are not built into the new “system”.   These are critical issues that will not be be part of the “planning system” as defined by the Government.

Some examples of what is being foisted upon Tasmania will demonstrate my concerns.
  • The “natural Assets Code“ (which is the part of the provisions which are supposed to provide protection of our natural assets) provides a blanket exemption to allow threatened native vegetation and the habitat of threatened fauna species to be destroyed on pasture or crop production land, vineyard or orchard land, within a private garden, public garden or park, national park, within reserves under State Government or Council ownership, or for coastal protection works when undertaken by relevant agency. This can be done without a permit, without public consultation and without any reasons being given.  This means that agencies such as National Parks, Crown Lands, your local Council, and many primary producers can just get rid of threatened species without any permit or oversight, and certainly no public input.  The Provisions will create a “planning system” that has different rules for development on public land and private land.
  • There is no capacity for integrated developments to be approved.  A farm operation or a major tourist development can only be given a approval for the bits and pieces of the operation and each bit needs a separate permit.  So an integrated tourist operation with many components cannot be dealt with as a single development. It results in the ridiculous situation where some specific aspects of a development can be prohibited and others permitted on the same piece of land, while other aspects are not even considered .  At the same time broader consequences for infrastructure, community costs, ongoing management of effects and environmental impact are not part of the assessment process.   It allows, for example, major traffic generating developments (e.g. a new city centre hotel, or a new industrial agricultural enterprise) to be developed without providing for the resources to upgrade vital transport infrastructure.  It allows tourism developments that depend on access to natural resources (e.g. wilderness safaris or cruises) to be developed without having to address how the management of those areas is to be resourced.
  • The zoning system embodied in the Provisions leads one to conclude that the only important environmental assets are in National parks or State Reserves.  These are the only areas to be zoned Environmental Management - but why bother when there are few if any controls in the Provisions as to what or how development can occur on these lands.
  • The SPPs make it easier to continue urban fringe residential development than to address the issue of making more effective and efficient use of available land closer to jobs, shops, public transport and community services.  Most of the urban growth areas identified in Regional and local land use strategies for new residential and associated development are at the urban fringe.  They have only basic services (usually water and sewerage, energy and internal subdivision roads).  Meanwhile,  considerations of local employment availability, public transport, environmental impacts, need for additional public investment in roads, schools, local health and welfare facilities and open spaces are not part of the planning system.  This type of urban growth is known to produce many negative social, economic and community impacts, and is literally unsustainable. The Provisions will ensure that it will be the primary form of residential development in Tasmania.  It is a recipe to continue the unsustainable urban sprawl around our towns and cities.  One result will be even more congestion on our roads.
To reiterate, what we have is not a set of planning provisions but an inordinately complex approval system for minor developments.  Many of the developments covered by the SPPs are, in other States, dealt with outside the planning system - new dwellings, units, dwelling alterations and additions, residential and commercial outbuildings, commercial changes of use, new industrial and commercial buildings, signs, and demolition.  These development types make up 65-75% of all planning applications in Tasmania and should be dealt with through a robust integrated approvals system.  That system could be based on approvals given within a common Statewide framework of development standards.  It is exactly what happens for building and many other types of approval.  

This would be a meaningful reform which would free up resources to develop an effective planning system that could deliver on sustainable development.  It would release professional planners from the mind numbingly boring task of assessing minor development proposals and allow them to use their skills and knowledge to help the State achieve sustainable outcomes from development.  Planners would be able to make a real contribution to protecting our natural and cultural assets and supporting economic sustainability.

With the introduction of the SPPs we now have a planning system that cannot deliver sustainable development.   

Tasmania faces a clear choice.  We can either go back and  put in place a planning system that can deliver on the sustainable development objectives of the Act and which does not create several separate approval systems - or we can do away with the objectives and say that we have no intent of achieving sustainable development of our land and resources.  On current performance, the Government (and the opposition) would most likely choose the latter.

Bob Graham is a Fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia.  He has been involved in planning and approvals reform for over 25 years.  He was an advisor to the Federal and Queensland Governments on planning reform, the National Facilitator for the Local Approvals Review Program, and is the author of regional and local land use planning frameworks in Queensland, NSW, South Australia, the Northern territory and Tasmania.  He has also prepared over 30 planning schemes in Tasmania, Queensland and NSW. 

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