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Politician's Panel Discussion

Bruce Baird, Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, Andrew Humpherson, John Kaye

Question: I've heard this afternoon that we need to tighten up planning controls, preserve what we already have, and that we have political failings. The unfortunate thing is that what I'm about to read to you was all designed by politicians in most cases. And we have from the Federal perspective, the EPBC Act, also the POEO Act, the EP&A Act, Threatened Species Act. You can go through a multitude of other Acts including SEPPs, LEPs and DCPs, all of them having some loophole that destroys the environment in some way. And certainly the major issue at the moment is 'state significant development' and jobs, or so-called jobs versus the environment. Issues include that are noteworthy are: the intentions of those Acts, the community concerns and will, and the loss of the amenity. We are not winning the fight whatsoever whilst these Acts - that are supposed to be here to protect the environment - have these loopholes. We see one of our guests here today bring up the issue of the Cooks River which was advertised in the Sunday papers a couple of weeks ago. "Filthiest river in Australia". Who is responsible for that river? Well you'll find that they are: Planning NSW; DLWC; EPA; Sydney Water; and local government. And I've got a report going back to 1924 when the then Health Minister said "We need to do something about the sewage overflow into this river before we destroy it". And I've seen a lot of different governments come and go, but nobody has done a thing about it. So please tell me what you're going to do.

Andrew Humpherson: Two points. Firstly as far as planning controls go, I'll make a point that relates to SEPP1, to Rockdale, as well as more broadly. SEPP1 was originally intended to allow some flexibility at the margins. It's not applied that way anymore. SEPP1 allows you to have a Development Control Plan developed in consultation with the community, established, and endorsed, to protect what the community expects. But you still then have an applicant come into an area with a four storey development control limit say in Rockdale, and you can still end up with an 8-storey approval because SEPP1 is being applied and the Council, for a range of reasons obviously, have the sufficient latitude. The fact is that if the intention is not honourable, there is far too much flexibility available to those making the decision. The protections ought to have been there but were able to be overriden because SEPP1 has been made somewhat irrelevant. So that's one point. Belatedly and after we called for it, Minister Refshauge wound-back some of that discretion from Rockdale, but nowhere else.

The other point in relation to Cooks River. Let me just sum it up in this respect. You're right,there have been a lot of stakeholders, bodies and agencies over many years who are responsible. Over the past seven years, Sydney Water has given Treasury $1360m in dividends. If a large part of this money had been applied to some of the priorities which exist in relation to overflows, sewage effluent treatment, and so forth, it could have improved not only the Cooks River, but a lot of other things. And really the biggest project we've seen in recent years has been a big hole dug under Middle Harbour and Sydney Harbour. This may achieve some things, but I just don't think it was the best bang-for-our-buck. I'm an engineer, but I hate the mentality that seems to be established within Sydney Water and the lack of innovation and inflexibility when it comes to doing things. And I think that the State Government has had its fingers in financially, in Sydney Water far too much.

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans: I was with Sydney Water for 11 years. When I started, it had 17,000 employees. When I finished, it about 3,500. Basically they made the decision, I believe, not to fix sewers and particularly not to chase rainwater going into the sewerage system or to manage leaks within the sewerage system. This meant that groundwater went into the sewerage system. In many instances, pipes don't always leak out, sometimes the surrounding water leaks into them. I've had a complaint from a person living behind Rockdale whose whole property floods. Sydney Water's solution is "We want to buy the property, mate", rather than fix the problem. The 'hole' at North Sydney sewer outfall was basically a huge engineering solution which involved building a huge drain, rather than fixing the individual pipes. I think they got a bad deal out of that contract as well but that's incidental. As Andrew says, Sydney Water have been basically treated as a cash cow. In other words, the repairs are not being done and the money's being simply taken back into consolidated revenue. So when you won't pay for things, you don't get them. And fundamentally you've got to fix that. You've got to enforce the pollution regulations in terms of where people walk their dogs, but also in terms of where they wash their car and what you do with stormwater runoff. You've got to catch rainwater and get it in a separate system from the sewer system. You have to have the sewer system repaired regularly so it doesn't have leaks. And only then can you clean up your rivers. And of course you've got to manage industrial pollution which you then enforce with some teeth. Sydney Water have had more success, I believe, in that than in other areas because they're not willing to spend the money and I think that's the bottom line. The conservatives always tell you that you get what you pay for and to this extent they're correct. And we believe that you have to pay for things that are for the common good as well as the individual profit.

Bruce Baird: I did mention the Cooks River in terms of my introductory comments but as part of the $103m which the Federal Government has given out to protecting the coasts and waterways this year, they'll be seeking binding agreements with State and local governments to address some of the problems and some of the hotspots, of which Cooks River is one and Georges River another. I can remember when Tim Moore was the Shadow Minister and then as Minister, that Cooks River was talked about a lot and I still see that it performs very badly.

John Kaye: You pushed one of my buttons which is 'Jobs v Environment'. This is a false dichotomy that we've been sold. It's an excuse used by this Minister, and his predecessor and his predecessor's predecessor, back to the 30 th generation, Planning Ministers in NSW and around Australia, and Environment Ministers, have hidden behind the idea that "We've got to do this because it's good for jobs". So we've got to trade-off jobs versus environment. In the first part of the 21 st Century that is an utter and complete myth. What we now need to talk about is jobs and the environment. There are lots and lots of jobs in the environment, in environmentally beneficial technologies, if we seize the opportunity now. If we lose the opportunity now we really lose those jobs, because they then go overseas and we end up becoming an importer of those technologies. So whenever you hear people say "Jobs versus environment" you have to say, "No, I will not cop that!" Which leads into my second point. You listed five of my favourite Acts I think and we have to stand up as a community and say "This is nonsense!", particularly the EP&A Act , which I spent about a quarter of my life reading and fighting over. The Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, which is the primary Act under which all development in NSW assessed, has to be torn up and we have to start again. When it started in 1979, it was not a good piece of legislation. There have been about twelve substantial revisions to it. Each revision has been a step in favour of the developer. So you start off with developer-focused legislation and every year or so, you make it more developer-friendly. We're going in the wrong direction. We need to go in the other direction. We need to seriously re-empower the community. We need to tear that legislation up and go back to the idea that the environment is a public good, and the public has a right to assert its control over it. It's time we started doing that.

Question: As Chairman of PHPS, I follow a series of heroes of Port Hacking in that position, all of whom have done great work for Port Hacking. My own contribution has been comparatively insignificant. Beside that though, I am a former hsitory teacher and I'd like to give two historical anecdotes. What was the estuary that people could travel to by train 120 years ago, where they could swim, fish, recreate, paddle in boats and enjoy the environment as we now enjoy Port Hacking? The answer of course is the Cooks River. Port Hacking is the Cooks River 120 years ago. In another 120 years, where are we going to be with Port Hacking? Another anecdote. Whose shadow from that same period still falls across Port Hacking? It's John Robinson, the Premier of NSW in the 1870s. Who set aside the most substantial environmentally protected area in this part of Sydney? That same government 120 years ago. The question is: What are our current politicians going to do to be as far sighted as that act that was taken all those many years ago that we're still benefitting from now? What are our current politicians going to do? What is going to be the criteria against which we will judge them in the future to see whether they were succesful or not? I would suggest that one litmus test could be something that Ron West raised earlier in the day. Are we going to have a comprehensive series of marine reserves set aside to protect our marine environment and could Port Hacking perhaps be one of the first and best examples of an area that was protected in that way? That's the question. Could we have something like that?

No Specific Responses From the Panel

Question: Just going back to John's earlier point about the EP&A Act. As everyone probably in this room is well aware, Part 3 of the Act which governs Local Environment Plans, Regional Environment Plans and State Environmental Planning Policies, which is where all the bad decisions get made, has been under review for 4 years now. Recently Cabinet rejected the redraft of Part 3 of the EP&A Act, and they will administer the principles of PlanFirst through the existing Part 3 of the EP&A Act. Given the direction that the draft was going in, NCC supports that move, but I think there are some substantial amendments to Part 3 of the EP&A Act particularly in respect of how the community values are implemented through the planning system. So I'd like to have first of all the views of Andrew as the Shadow and then both Arthur and John on behalf of the Democrats and the Greens on how you would amend Part 3 of the EP&A Act to protect community values.

Andrew Humpherson: What was promised with PlanFirst about a year ago will never eventuate and what Kathy says is pretty much right, we'll see a very diluted form. We have got some policy planning work which we've done in relation to the planning system which we think will be an improvement on what the current systems are. We want to entrench in that policy planning, the community input and involvement and values. I'm not going to detail that, but I thank you for the invitation to do so Kathy. I'm sure we'll be discussing this sometime down the track.

If a planning system is just what it says, 'a plan' and the community supports it and the controls that go with it, and provided that the controls are adhered to, then it should work for all parties, be they objectors; stakeholders; those offering the community perspective; or applicants. We ought to be cutting out some of the discretion that actually seems to be applied down the track, whether it's at a Council officer/Councillor versus applicant level, or whether it's further on down at the Land and Environment Court. I think that whether you're an applicant or a community stakeholder, the fact is, if you've actually got some rules and a plan, then you expect an area to evolve in a certain way. If you're going to apply to do something within the parameters established within that plan, then provided you actually adhere to it, there should be less of the angst and less of the debate that occurs currently. I think people have lost sight of what a planning system is supposed to be. It supposed to be planned and the community should expect to have it agreed to.

John Kaye: Whilst I totally agree with respect to prescriptive controls like floor space and height, they do need to be enforced completely and need to have legislative power. But there are other planning issues which you can't make prescriptive. It just simply has to be given some degree of subjective value by the Council.

On PlanFirst, I agree with Kathy that there were some really good things in PlanFirst. But there were also some things in it which had the Greens quite concerned. One of those features was the way in which it had the potential to reduce the already weak power of a local government to constrain development. And it has to be understood that if you really believed the precautionary principle, you would have a number of constraints against development. That is, you would allow local government to have some control over its environmental planning instruments; its LEPs, DCPs and so on. And then you allow the State Government to have some control. But both of those ought to act as constraints. That is, as barriers through which a development has to go. It should have to get through all those barriers before it goes ahead. My concern with what was going on with PlanFirst was that it would have weakened the ability of local government to constrain development. Some local governments are really appalling, there's no doubt about that. The Greens have been screaming about the problems in Rockdale for five years and there are some rural Councils that are really appalling. But there are some Councils where you can argue about some of their decisions, but they do try to do the right thing. The Greens concern about PlanFirst was that it gave the Minister yet another opportunity to override the decisions of local government in a permissive sense. Where we want to go with it is that we want to take the best of PlanFirst i.e the ideas of regional planning and so on, and get them into the system. What we want to do is to create a system whereby a development can be blocked by local government without being overriden by the Minister. Also have a system whereby the Minister can override local government in as much as the Minister may wish to block a development. And in that event, it seems to me you can have the best of both worlds.

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans: The solution is to empower the community and take away the behind-the-scenes deals between a planner - who puts in a plan for an area - and the government which says, "Yeah, OK, as long as you modify this little bit". In this current situation the plan is then put out with community consultation being a sort of PR fiasco at the end. And that's increasingly happening in NSW in big plan areas. We think that's completely the wrong way to go. I have an Open Government Act which is coming up next week which will say that you'll have to have an open government paradigm. Once you've got that, it will be harder for these sort of deals to go on. Then we can get much more open discussion on planning and that's what's needed. And then we'll make plans which then will have to be adhered to, not overruled by the EP&A Act.
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