GREENS BILL: Public say on private developments in National Parks

Today Mark introduced a Greens' Private Members Bill to ensure that any proposed private developments in National Parks are subject to full public notification, representation and appeal rights and that planning authorities take any approved Management Plan into account when assessing these developments. 

Planning, Development and Infrastructure (Reserves) Amendment Bill 2019

The State Government has declared that it is looking for opportunities to give private developers access to public National Parks. This policy has come to attention most recently in relation to the approval by the State Planning Commission of private luxury developments in the Flinders Chase National Park. There will be around 20 private buildings in total as part of that development.

At this point, I would make it quite clear that there are different views about the merits or otherwise of private developments in National Parks. I have certainly put my views on the record: I think that these developments should be scaled down and moved to a more appropriate location. But this bill has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual merits of individual proposals for development in National Parks.

This bill is about two aspects of the Kangaroo Island matter that have received almost universal condemnation. These two issues are: firstly, the fact that the public were prevented from making submissions to the State Planning Commission about the development applications and were denied the opportunity to have their say at the hearings. Even the presiding member of those planning hearings acknowledged the frustration of those who attended the hearings but were not allowed to participate. That is the first problem: the inability of the public to participate in decisions about development in a National Park.

The second issue was that many people have said—and I agree—that it is ludicrous that the main statutory document guiding the management of our National Parks is ignored by the State Planning Commission when they are assessing development applications. I will deal with that second point first.

Under the National Parks and Wildlife Act, all parks and reserves should have an approved Management Plan. This Management Plan goes through a comprehensive process of public consultation and, when completed, it sets out the principles under which the park will be managed, including future development and priorities for infrastructure. It is the guiding document for the minister, for the department and for the hardworking rangers and other staff, including volunteers, who look after our parks on a day-to-day basis.

It makes absolutely no sense that a planning authority, when deciding whether or not to approve development in a National Park, should ignore the park's Management Plan. So why is it so? The answer lies in a dodgy set of planning rules that have been around for many years and which have now been copied and pasted into the new planning system. In a nutshell, the rules say that a National Park Management Plan can only be used to guide development decisions if the Minister for Planning puts a notice in the Government Gazette to that effect. In fact, in the 25 years since the Development Act commenced, this has never happened. No planning minister has ever put a note in the Government Gazette incorporating a National Park Management Plan into the planning rules for this state.

This means that while the general public is being sidetracked by engaging with the environment department and helping them to write the best possible management plan for the park, the planning authorities are completely ignoring that work, and they are using their own documents to decide what is or is not appropriate in the way of development in national parks.

My bill seeks to fix this ludicrous situation by providing that approved management plans for parks and reserves under the National Parks and Wildlife Act are automatically incorporated into the Planning and Design Code, which is the new rulebook that the State Planning Commission will use in assessing development applications, so there is no need for a separate Government Gazette notice. Once the environment minister has signed off on a national park management plan, it becomes part of the Planning and Design Code. Most people would have assumed that that was how the system worked, but it never has. My bill provides that that will be the case from now on.

The second thing my bill does is that it makes sure that all private developments proposed for National Parks and other reserves under the National Parks and Wildlife Act will be subject to full public notification, representation and appeal rights. This means that situations such as that which occurred on Kangaroo Island will not happen again.

The tragedy of the current situation is that decision-makers are denied the ability to hear from anyone other than the developer, or perhaps the department, when they are assessing private developments in public National Parks. Conservation groups are denied a say, park volunteers are denied a say, neighbours are denied a say. In fact, everyone other than the developer is denied a say.

This is an appalling breach of trust, in my opinion. The government holds these precious natural areas on trust for this and future generations, so to deny the community the right to participate in decision-making is just unacceptable. My bill proposes to fix that situation by providing that all private developments in public parks must go through full third party consultation and appeal rights.

When I say private developments, we need to be clear that we are not talking about routine developments in parks, such as picnic grounds or walking trails. We are talking about developments such as in Flinders Chase, with private dwellings for private fee-paying customers. My bill does not affect the ability of the government to undertake routine development, such as facilities for park visitors or for park management, or even for scientific research, but if a private developer comes along, their project will be put through full public consultation.

Getting these planning rules right should be a top priority for the government, especially in light of our declining biodiversity and more and more species being added to the endangered species list. The Kangaroo Island echidna is one species soon to be added, according to media reports today. With the dual environmental challenges of the extinction crisis and the climate emergency, our protected areas will become more and more important as refuges for wildlife struggling to cope with the pressure we are putting on the environment.

This bill does not say what can or cannot be done in a National Park, but it does ensure that the rules will be more rigorous and comprehensive and that key stakeholders will not be denied a voice. If left to their own devices, planners would give scant regard to environmental considerations, and as a result decisions will be made that add even more pressure to our struggling natural environment. I commend the bill to the chamber.

Download a copy of the Bill here