Planning and Environment Amendment Bill 2021
I rise in support of Mr Hayes’s bill that he has brought before the chamber today, and I thank him for the work that he has done in this area to advance this issue, which is an issue that I and the Greens also share very serious concerns about. The bill introduces a requirement that an applicant for a planning permit has to complete an environmental impact assessment, which has to be included with their application and then considered through the permit process. In many ways this is a really simple bill which really highlights that the current act is completely failing, and what it does make abundantly clear is that the environment needs to be considered at every stage of the planning system, which currently it is not. The protection of both the environment and our native species is critical when we think about the future of our neighbourhoods and our planning system.
Just in terms of some of the details—just to reiterate and just for the benefit of the debate today, because I feel like some details of this are being exaggerated to hide why people are not supportive of this—and why it is worth supporting, it is adding protection of the environment and native species into the objectives and purposes of the act. Planning authorities have a duty to protect the environment and conserve native species, and they have to look at the environmental impact statements. It involves including environmental impact statements in the list of things that have to be prepared and exhibited as part of a planning amendment process. A planning panel cannot make a recommendation to adopt an amendment unless they consider and respond to the impact statement. The minister’s approval is subject to the consideration of and response to any measures recommended in the environmental impact statement. Applications for permits need to be accompanied by an impact statement. Before deciding on an application, responsible authorities have to consider the environmental impact statement and the extent to which the proposed use or development would minimise any negative environmental impacts or enhance the location. Permits can include conditions to minimise negative impacts identified, and permits can be cancelled for substantial failure to consider and respond to the environmental impact statement.
Why we need this bill: it is more urgent than ever. Development keeps ignoring the environment or destroying it totally. You do not have to look far to see countless examples of this occurring every single day right around us and statewide. I repeatedly hear from constituents and from people right across Victoria who are dismayed at the level of environmental destruction happening in their suburbs. They are getting in touch, begging us to help save their trees, grasslands, open space and habitat for native species. The Planning and Environment Act 1987 as it is currently constituted has not been reformed significantly for decades, and it is clearly failing our environment and actually resulting in really poor urban planning outcomes at the same time. We have also then got this kind of centralisation of power by the Minister for Planning over the last few years particularly, and that is not helping build any confidence or trust that the local community can have a say in protecting their local environment. It shuts out communities and denies them having a say in the shape of their neighbourhoods and their environment.
The arguments the government have used to oppose this bill are really weak and seem to be more about making excuses than engaging with the substance of what this bill is trying to achieve. Exaggerating examples where planning permits are needed and where they are not and to say that environmental impact statements are needed is not helpful for this debate because some of the examples cited do not actually need planning permits, so they will not have this process kick in. So it seems like a weak attempt to distract the debate from where it is actually going.
If we are going to protect our environment in the long term, we are going to have to rethink the systems in so many ways, and that includes our planning and urban development system. My own experience at local government was that there were so many systems that were so rigid, but if you started to move them, you actually started to see really big impacts. For example, changing the format of how a planning application report came to council—making sure it ticked off a number of areas and ensuring the planning office had asked the applicant to consider these matters—started to have a big impact on the applicant actually saying, ‘I’d better do some work here because the council’s going to ask me and it’s going to be aired in a public forum’. We know if you introduce elements to change the system, you actually have direct results on the outcomes. And that is what this bill is seeking to do.
We also need it because we have to start thinking about climate change mitigation given the climate crisis that we are experiencing. We cannot think about urban development without thinking about climate change. We have to start shifting development in Victoria to adaptation—for example, keeping trees and tree canopy cover, creating more open space and responding to and preparing for the urban heat island effect. We must think about our native species. We have sat on the Environment and Planning Committee for the last eight months and heard damning evidence about the destruction of our environment and the extinction crisis that Victoria is facing, and we have heard so clearly that our laws and regulations and those frameworks have to change significantly if we are going to protect these species that are on the brink of extinction. This is what this bill is attempting to do: start to improve those laws and regulations, which is clearly what we have been told at the inquiry we should be doing as well.
The environment effects statement, EES, process as it currently stands is a big sham. It basically rubberstamps major projects, it denies community a voice, it fails to prevent bad projects and it cannot issue binding conditions for the improvement of projects. An environmental assessment process should actually be assessing the impact a development or project will have on the environment. So we are pleased to see that Mr Hayes’s bill will be addressing this failing by introducing the EIS for all permits and planning scheme amendments, which should consider all the impacts, including the seemingly minor ones, because we know minor ones have major consequences at the end of the day.
Just lastly and in conclusion in the time I have available, this is a precursor to what I hope this Parliament will consider in terms of more substantive work to our Planning and Environment Act, both on the planning grounds and the environmental grounds. The Greens and I have long been calling for an overhaul of the Planning and Environment Act because it is just not fit for purpose anymore. It has not modernised, it has not adapted to the conditions that we are in. There are so many gaps, and our councils are crying out for support rather than this sort of patchwork, patch-on type of approach that the minister seems to be taking. Instead of saying, ‘Actually, the system isn’t working; let’s rethink this system as a whole’, what they seem to be doing is centralising power, saying, ‘We’re going to take more power away from you. We’re going to usurp local councils, not give you third-party appeal rights’. Councils and residents are now feeling more and more powerless because they are losing control of their urban development, their neighbourhoods and their environment with really devastating consequences.
So I hope the Parliament in the context of this bill starts thinking about how we can actually improve planning and environmental outcomes through both revising the Planning and Environment Act and the committee inquiry that we are starting very soon where we will deep dive into these issues. But as a starting point we should support Mr Hayes’s bill because it is an attempt to fix what is a really broken system where our environment is the one that is suffering.