Is the Minister for Planning actually planning for coastal climate change?

On Monday this week, the Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, outlined his new approach to planning in Victoria’s coastal areas, which are subject to impacts from climate change such as sea-level rise.

The announcement was that the Minister had finally prepared his response to a Report that had been provided to the government in December 2010.

Needless to say, the release of the Report, and the Minister’s response, is well overdue.

I’ve outlined below the background to the Report, the Minister’s response, and what I think about it.  This is an area the EDO is very interested in – in the past few years we’ve done lots of work to make sure Victoria’s coastal areas are protected, including by make a submission to the Committee that prepared this report, and helping community group Friends of the Surry successfully explain to the Victorian Government why the beautiful estuary of the Surry River, near Portland, should be protected, not developed.

What is the Report?

The Report was authored by an Advisory Committee, which was appointed in early 2010 to advise the Minister for Planning about how to deal with the coastal impacts of climate change.  The Advisory Committee involved a public submissions process, after which the Committee prepared a detailed report, which it provided to the Coalition government shortly after it had taken office in December 2010.

Now that it has been released, we know that the Report is long and detailed, and includes a list of 32 recommendations.  The Report notes that in addition to publicly consulting, the Committee had regard to interstate and international experience on the issue of planning for coastal climate change.

The Report has a clear message: The imapcts of climate change over the next 90 years on the Victorian community and the Victorian environment are likely to result in significant changes to where and how we live.  Nowhere will this be felt more keenly than on the coast where a significant proportion of the Victorian community lives.

What did the EDO tell the Committee? 

The EDO made a joint submission to the Committee with the Victorian National Parks Association.  Our submission focused on the threats posed by climate change and sea level rise to biodiversity of coastal areas.

We recommended a range of concrete planning measures to help avoid the problem of ‘coastal squeeze’ – that is, where coastal biodiversity is hemmed in by human infrastructure, and thus prevented for adapting to climate change.

What did the Committee recommend? 

Among other things, the Committee’s Report identified that Victoria needs a new coastal strategic planning program for Victoria.  It also noted that new controls needed to be revised or added to our planning system to ensure sound planning for natural areas of our coast.

Among its 32 recommendations, the Committee recommended that:

  1. Victoria’s planning law, the Planning and Environment Act, be amended to explicitly recognise that it is an objective of planning to identify and plan for the potential impacts of climate change in order to minimise risks to human health and safety and to ecological communities.
  2. Victoria’s Planning Schemes be amended to require planning to take into account sea-level rise figures of 0.2m by 2040 and 0.5m by 2070 in addition to the existing requirement to consider a sea-level rise of 0.8m by 2100.
  3. Planning Schemes include new planning controls to protect coastal biodiversity, and alert landowners and decision makers to the risks of building in coastal areas, including:
    • A Coastal Conservation Zone to protect natural coastal environments.
    • A Coastal Adaptation to deal with coastal urban planning.
    • A Coastal Hazard Overlay to alert land owners and decision makers to coastal risks and hazards.

What was the Minister’s response? 

The Minister’s response supports many of the Committee’s 32 recommendations.

In particular, the Minister has agreed to amend the planning system so that planning must take into account a sea-level rise of 0.2m by 2040.

It is concerning, however, that it is not entirely clear whether the Minister intends to add this sea-level rise figure to the existing control (a sea-level rise of 0.8m by 2100), as recommended by the Committee, or completely undermine the Committee’s recommendations by replacing the 2100 figure with a more short-term 2040 one.

Unfortunately, the Minister has also elected to ignore the key recommendations outlined above:

  • The Minister rejected the suggestion that the Planning and Environment Act should recognise the need to plan for climate change on the coast.
  • The Minister rejected the need for new planning controls to provide certainty for land owners and decision-makers, and protection for natural environments.

What do we think?

It is clear to the EDO that there is today an urgent need to deal appropriately with coastal climate change and its relationship to development, and natural environments.  The Committee recognised this urgency in December 2010 when it prepared its report – it is now 18 months later.

Fortunately, Victoria’s Planning System already has a mature approach to coastal climate change – including explicit recognition of the impacts of climate change on coastal areas, and the need to plan for a 0.8m sea level rise by 2100.  If the Minister seeks to wind back or water down these provisions (as suggested by The Age), this would be a damaging and retrogade step.

Ultimately, the Minister’s response is good, but should have been much better, particularly given how long it has taken for him to respond (the Committee’s Report was released in December 2010, about one month after the government was installed – compare to the alpine grazing trial, which was up and running by January 2011!).

In particular, the Minister’s response fails to recognise Victoria’s coastal biodiversity, and the need to help it to deal with climate change impacts, and avoid coastal squeeze.  The role of Councils and referral authorities in this process – their responsibilities and liabilities – still remains extremely unclear.

If the Minister’s intent is to deal with coastal climate change by allowing short term development on the coast, and then leaving the inevitable degradation of these properties and the natural environments that surround them for future generations to deal with, then this is certainly is irresponsible approach.  We will have to wait for the Minister to further clarify his response to the Report to find out.

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