FINALLY, a draft of new native vegetation laws is on public display, which is a significant step towards fulfilling the Nationals’ promise to repeal NSW’s controversial land clearing regulations by early 2017.
This morning NSW Deputy Premier Troy Grant - flanked by Environment Minister Mark Speakman and Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair - released the Coalition’s long-awaited Biodiversity Bill draft for public consultation – expected to enter parliament for debate before the end of the year.
Mr Grant said the new laws would be built around a theme of incentivised land management, and would remove a hardline requirement for land clearing applications to improve or maintain environmental values on a property.
The legislation is based on a 2014 independent review of exiting laws, which recommended a triple-bottom-line assessment to give equal weight to social, environmental and economic values when considering applications from producers to vegetation.
But while the draft gives a greater regulatory powers to Local Land Services (LLS) - it is far from the finished article - with critical satellite mapping that will form basis of assessment yet to be revealed.
It is also undecided which government agency will be responsible for land clearing compliance and issuing fines.
Mr Grant said he was proud to announce the government had pushed the land management reforms along the path to become law.
“I am proud we are one step closer to repealing this legislation… For too long the burden of these laws has rested n the shoulders of farmers,” he said.
Mr Blair said “Our farmers are our frontline environmental custodians and it makes sense to give them the flexibility to manage and protect the land that is the lifeblood of our regional communities."
The government also committed today to fund a five-year, $240 million private land conservation program, with a further $70 million per year after the initial tranche of funding.
Mapping and codes
Government said the all-important satellite imagery maps - based on disturbed land since 1990 - will be released in January.
Using the maps, land will be either classified as regulated or unregulated.
In a regulated zone, there will be seven categories of codes that place increasing restrictions on landholders, depending on the amount and type of clearing.
The first category is wholly self-assessed - for clearing of minor and insignificant vegetation around farm infrastructure, like a trees around a shed. No set asides are required for this type of clearing.
There are four codes most to regulate clearing that do not alter the current land use which would be most commonly apply to an average landholders’ plans.
These four codes use “set asides”, or a requirement for the landholder to commit to quarantine and maintain native vegetation in exchange for permission to clear other areas.
Landholders would draw up their own clearing regime and LLS is tasked with certification of the plan.
These codes, described in the reform package as self assessable options, would replace the current property vegetation plan (PVP) system.
The other three codes employ “set-asides”, which require a ratio of two-to-one for clearing permission – that is twice as much native vegetation zoned off in exchange for permission to clear.
If endangered ecological communities are present, more restrictive set asides and assessments are required – including increasing the set aside ration by 50 per cent.
There are also limits to the rate of clearing – set at 100 hectares over three years, or a to a maximum of 25pc of what you could clear capped at 500 hectares.
Set asides must be placed within a property boundary, but a provision exists for neighbouring landholders to set up a cluster to enable shared clearing and offsets. Individual landholders with adjoining properties are treated as one contiguous landholding under the proposed laws.
The two most onerous codes in the new legislation cover clearing when the current land to alter the current land use, or to a land use which requires approval – such as a mining or residential development.
Ministerial powers - essesntially which minister has the power to change the laws - are a key concern for farm stakeholder groups, who have criticised negative impacts to property rights from laws designed to conserve environmental value.
Minister Blair has carriage of the laws governing LLS – which will implement the clearing codes.
However, deciding what can and can’t be cleared under the codes is joint responsibility of Mr Blair and the Environment Minister Mark Speakman.
It is also yet to be decided which body will administer compliance and impose penalties for breaches.
A new era for native veg
Repealing the Native Vegetation Act was a key promise from the Coalition in the March 2015 state election.
This morning’s proposal would replace existing NSW Native Vegetation and Conservation Acts - as well as parts of the LLS act - with a single Biodiversity Conservation act that would govern among other things what - and how much - land can be cleared.
Farmers’ troubles with current land clearing laws can be traced back to the SEPP 46 laws installed in an overnight move by NSW Labor leader Bob Carr in 1995.
Landholders argue they’re unnecessarily restrictive, a drag on farm productivity and create unclear biodiversity outcomes.
Conservation groups, however, claim the laws proposed today will lead to relaxed environmental standards and, in turn, mass land clearing and destruction of native flora and fauna.
The draft laws have been lunched in the shadow of federal Labor’s climate change policy – which hangs like a pall over the NSW’s reform.
Leader Bill Shorten said that a Labor government would use federal laws to prevent the states from relaxing land clearing laws.
The Coalition committed to introduce the Bill to parliament in the Spring session, which runs from September to December. Public consultation is open for the next eight weeks.