Green wedges lungs of Melbourne, safety net for biodiversity | Australian Greens

Green wedges lungs of Melbourne, safety net for biodiversity

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 (All day)
Greg Barber

Mr BARBER (Northern Metropolitan) -- According to Mr Tee's analysis of the history of green wedge protection, we are at a critical point and alarm bells are ringing. Mr Tee needs to get off the grass.

I agree that the high point for green wedge protection was in 2003, when Mr Thwaites, the then Minister for the Environment, introduced a new system of green wedge protection through legislation and planning scheme amendments, even though green wedges themselves had been under various other forms of protection for some time. Through that he created a requirement that when any amendments to an urban growth boundary are made or when changes to subdivision controls of green wedge and other similar zonings occur, the Parliament needs to ratify that. That was, if you like, the modern protection for green wedges, but it was in fact the high point.

Under Mr Tee's government things went downhill from there and reached their absolute low point last year, when the then government pushed through the Parliament -- with the support of the Liberal Party, I have to say -- a massive expansion of Melbourne's boundary into the green lungs of Melbourne, taking out with it some of our most important remnant ecosystems around the fringe, to which I will refer. In between, we saw an abject neglect of green wedges.

They were not protected in line with the vision. The green wedge management plans were slow; in fact we only got the first of those just this year.

The protection of the values within those green wedges, particularly biodiversity and so forth, is left in a large degree to local councils, which rely on the rates of their thinly dispersed ratepayers to protect the very values that Mr Tee says he is so committed to protecting. One of the worst public policies I have ever seen involved the massive release of more land for subdivision.

As I say, it was backed by the coalition parties, but it just made me want to spit. When the ordinary citizens of Victoria heard about it, they thought it was madness. They realised that urban sprawl is an unsustainable mode. It is unsustainable for the finances and livability of the city, but it is also unsustainable in terms of the highly productive biodiverse or farming land that it inevitably eats up.

The Nationals were completely missing in action when it came to the important food bowl down in the south-east. The Werribee food bowl lies within well-known and fully protected green wedge land, at least for now, but down in the south-east there is an even larger vegetable-growing region within Eastern Victoria Region. We heard next to nothing about what was happening in that urban fringe from The Nationals and Liberal country members from that region.

That is a very poor platform from which Mr Tee can launch his passionate defence of the green wedges. But it gets worse, because at the federal level the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC act), which is critical to the protection of many species and ecosystems around Melbourne's fringe, is being further watered down and handed back to -- guess who? -- the Minister for Planning, Matthew Guy.

There are many endangered ecosystems, plants and animals around Melbourne's fringe, for obvious reasons. Firstly, it has always been a highly biodiverse area, even going back before white settlement. Secondly, those species are endangered by us -- they are endangered by our sprawling city.

Mr Tee's plan was to make the city sprawl out even faster, and now his federal colleague, Tony Burke, the federal Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, wants to rip out the provisions of the EPBC act that might actually protect those endangered species and ecosystems in those green wedges and to hand them to Matthew Guy. Mr Tee has come into this place and said, 'Oh, my God -- Mr Matthew Guy, the green wedge destroyer!', but Tony Burke is outsourcing the assessment and environment effects process to Matthew Guy through his proposed amendments, and only the Greens are opposing that move at the federal level.

The Labor Party is going to get those amendments to the EPBC act through the federal Parliament by voting with the coalition, just as it voted with the coalition eight months ago to massively expand Melbourne's growth boundary, eating into the green lungs and in the process destroying one of our most endangered ecosystems, the temperate grassy woodland.

Under the amendment that Mr Madden rushed through the Parliament, the Labor Party described destroying grasslands as protecting grasslands. To make it worse, that amendment was simply brought into the Parliament and voted on one day. It was never put to a planning panel. Mr Guy with his logical inclusions is actually going to a planning panel. There will be an opportunity to make submissions to the planning panel and there will be an expert report from the planning panel.

That is not the way the Labor Party added 40 000 hectares of land to Melbourne's growth area. The former Labor government simply brought its policy in here in two great big thick folders. My attempts to move the government's plan for expansion into the green wedges off to a parliamentary committee, just like the Labor Party is seeking to move this process to a parliamentary committee, were blocked. It never went there. The committee never had the opportunity to look at the process, the policy or any of the things that Mr Tee now says he wants to look at in this motion.

What is left? In his motion, Mr Tee looks at three particular issues.

He has said a secret audit is being undertaken by the Premier's office, which the Minister for Planning admitted in this house could increase green wedge development to anything short of high-density housing. Presumably the matter Mr Tee is referring to concerns the Premier's office looking at the permissible uses under sections 1, 2 and 3 of the schedule to the green wedge zone. Section 1 uses are those that a person can do without a planning permit; section 2 uses are those that a person may be able to do, but they will need a planning permit; and section 3 uses are those that a person is not allowed to do -- they are those that are strictly prohibited.

The whole problem with the green wedge zone and the way it was set up by John Thwaites, a former Minister for Planning, is that there are vast number of uses under section 2 that may be permitted with a planning permit. They are often ill defined.

For example, we might see an application in the green wedge to have a winery that turns out to be small number of acres of grapes with a giant 100-bed conference centre next to it, and we are told that under section 2 that development is defined by its agricultural production.

There is massive leakage through section 2 and a constant chipping away at the green wedge. If the image of the green wedges, as Mr Tee said, is of places where families can relax on the weekends, natural areas of mixed farmland and bushland, then the average citizen would be amazed to see the number of uses that are permitted in the green wedges, including landing light planes. Those from a farming background would be equally amazed to see that there is little protection for farming uses in a green wedge zone. There are real difficulties for farmers who continue to operate in areas where there are other encroaching activities.

I believe the Premier's office is undertaking some kind of audit or study of all of those different uses. I do not have any confidence that the Premier will come out with a greener outcome than John Thwaites, but I believe John Thwaites's outcome was not particularly green. As a matter of principle, I think that, yes, absolutely, we should be auditing the provision of the green wedge zone and its other zones, because there are too many section 2 uses and they either need to be put into section 1 or section 3, or some other planning tool needs to be put in place to ensure that we do not just chip away at the nature or character of green wedges.

The Growth Areas Authority is required to recommend green wedge land for development -- that is, the logical inclusions process. I do not know what is logical about them. I do not know which ones are logical and which ones are illogical, but I would not be releasing any more land right now. I think Melbourne needs a permanently fixed urban growth boundary.

It needs much stronger tools to create appropriate high-density housing. Then we also need strong planning provisions out in regional centres, which is where the leapfrog growth is going to go. In any case, that is a process that I understand will go through a planning scheme amendment through a planning panel.

In relation to paragraph 2 (c) of the motion, I believe it refers to the letter that recommends to non-growth area councils, such as Nillumbik, that if they wish to participate in the same process, they can. My understanding is that Nillumbik will not be taking that up unless the councillors have a change of heart fairly soon, and I have not heard of other councils rushing to be part of the Growth Areas Authority process. Those are the issues that have led to Mr Tee's concern.

In his motion, Mr Tee has called for an inquiry into how the Liberal Party developed its policy, which is unusual.

As I said, I would have loved to have had an inquiry into the actual changes that were proposed by the former Labor government when it added 40 000 hectares of land to the size of Melbourne's city, but I was not given that opportunity.

What appears to be proposed here is an inquiry into how the Liberal Party developed its policy, but I guess I will need to wait and listen to the debate to see exactly what else might fall under that umbrella. Beyond the material that Mr Tee provided, which I was already familiar with, I am not sure what the inquiry will be looking into. Maybe Mr Tee will clarify that when he sums up in a little while.