Surely a 20 year Plan for a Region needs to be realistic and worthwhile ?
A perspective of a Regional Community member .
CASSE NSW Blog - Cilla Kinross 4th March 2022
Regional planning: Where it all starts to go wrong.
The steady state economy and an ecologically sustainable future need to be brought into reality via planning, starting with regional planning. This blog considers a case history of planning in the Central West of NSW.
What is the point of regional planning? The Central West and Orana Regional Plan 2041 (‘The Plan’) states that its plan is ‘a 20 year land-use blueprint to support a prosperous future for the region’. That’s a pretty impressive goal and causes environmental groups to sit up and take notice.
As President of the Central West Environment Council (CWEC) recently provided feedback to the plan, as well as providing a submission guide to other local environment groups to help them with their comments. CWEC is an umbrella group, its members being district groups concerned with conservation, landcare, field naturalist studies and similar. Together we have been trying to provide some protection for the environment in this region for 30 years in the face of inappropriate developments, particularly where the proposal would be: situated on land of high conservation significance; highly extractive of irreplaceable resources, particularly water; or contributing to biodiversity decline or climate change in an unacceptable manner.
There are many members in these groups that not only care passionately for their district’s environment, but have a deep understanding of their local ecosystems and how they function. Most groups include professional or retired scientists and have members with a wide range of skills in botany, zoology, ecology, geomorphology, hydrology and geology. This is enormously helpful when preparing submissions objecting to unsustainable developments and documents such as The Plan currently under review.
In 2015 CWEC supported and helped convene a conference into the way land was being managed in this region. The conference included academics, progressive farmers and Aboriginal land managers and had a focus on biodiversity. The ensuing papers in the conference proceedings (Kinross, Goldney, Kerle and Mactaggart (2019) provided an illuminating picture of the region’s history of land mismanagement, its current condition (dire) and suggestions for the way forward. I would surmise that the people preparing The Plan had either not consulted this publication or had chosen to ignore it.
Despite the overall goal of supporting a ‘prosperous future’ the plan has 22 objectives, many of which would, if achieved, provide not only for healthy and wealthy human communities, but also an ecologically sustainable region with a flourishing network of biodiversity corridors, outstanding wetlands and a transition away from fossil fuels.
Sounds too good to be true? Alas, it is. The problem starts with the fact that many of the objectives are not actually objectives eg 15 ‘Implement a precinct-based approach’ or 9 ‘Manage rural residential development’ (which are clearly actions or strategies). Pedantry aside, most of the objectives are too broadly termed to be measurable, one of the characteristics of a good ‘objective’. So how can one tell whether one has achieved one’s aim?
Then there is the issue that the objectives can never be achieved either because there is no recognition of the region’s underlying problems and/or because they are in direct conflict with each other.
For example, the very first objective reads: ‘Identify, protect and connect important environment’. Leaving aside the difficulty of defining ‘important’, this section of the plan outlines many strategies, which if implemented, could provide a real boost to the regional environment. But there are major issues. Firstly, the plan does not acknowledge that the conservation status of the regional species and ecosystems are in poor health and declining. The Central West has so little land left in its natural or near-natural condition, that all remnant vegetation and wetlands should be classified as ‘important’. Biodiversity is in severe decline in the region. For example, of 597 vertebrate species known from two of the major catchments in this region (Central West and Lachlan), 382 are declining. That’s 64%! (Kerle and Goldney, 2019). This condition needs to be acknowledged before a way forward can be identified.
As an example of how governments at all levels have failed to protect threatened species. The Koala population is still in steep decline, its habitat is still being cleared and it has recently been listed by the Commonwealth as ‘endangered’ in New South Wales (SMH, 11/2/ 2022), despite various actions plans to conserve it. The strategies and actions in this plan are not going to reverse that situation, nor the plight of many other threatened species and ecological communities. They are simply not strong enough. And if you think about it, reversal of the situation is not possible without wholesale changes to the legislative framework. Since 2017, land clearing has increased due to fewer legislative controls. If the first objective has to work within those laws, it is doomed to failure…and the plan should acknowledge that.
Another example of poor planning is the strategy of a biodiversity corridor. This of course an excellent idea, if hardly innovative. However, no mention is made of the existing Travelling Stock Reserve and Route network, which could provide the basis of an outstanding natural corridor across the region and beyond. It is particularly important due to the presence of remnant vegetation in lowland areas, most of which has been cleared for agriculture, making it of very high conservation value. It is also of great significance to Indigenous people as it provides links to ancient pathways (Spooner et al., 2019). I am not sure why the plan does not make reference to this network, perhaps because the state government would love to sell it off to neighbouring farmers and reduce the cost of its maintenance. Perhaps I am too cynical!
The other main issue is that of conflicting objectives. Most of the objectives 2-22 are in support of increasing housing, transport networks, agriculture and industry in the region. Nowhere is it acknowledged that in most cases, increasing development is going to conflict with the first objective and also that of increasing agricultural production. Increasing the dwellings by 19,000 (as forecast) will need to be either on environmentally sensitive or agricultural land.
The plan does support the principles of a circular economy but doesn’t provide strategies to effect this change, nor does it acknowledge that, on its own, it will not be sufficient to reduce carbon emissions or reverse declining biodiversity. For that a bolder transition to a steady state economy will be needed. The prosperity of the community can still be the top priority for the region, but heading in a different direction, with more emphasis on quality of life, rather than quantity of wealth (Washington, 2017).
In respect of the other pressing regional issue, water, the plan acknowledges that water sources in the region are capped against growth in extraction and are fully allocated systems, but provides inadequate emphasis on the over-allocation of the Macquarie and Lachlan rivers and the need for water to be returned for river health under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. There are currently several proposals on the drawing board for new dams or raised dam walls that will have severe environmental consequences for downstream users and wetlands.
If the plan is to protect wetlands (Objective 1), then these proposals should be clearly knocked on the head. But the plan wants to have it both ways. Inland rivers and groundwater sources cannot support growth in water dependent industries while also supporting growing populations under climate change scenarios.
Other planned activities suffer from the same ‘we can have it all’ mentality: increased agricultural activity, more mining, growth or rural centres, without any apparent impact on the environment.
Regional planning is important. It is setting the vision and strategies for the next 20 years and should help curb inappropriate development. The department has provided a good length of time for feedback and adequate strategies for community input. It will be interesting to see who (apart from our environment groups) gives what feedback to the draft plan and whether any amendments are made in response to those comments.
This new plan is a great improvement on previous plans. It has some excellent initiatives and proposals that could enhance the environment of the Central West region if implemented carefully.
It reads well and on first reading, it seems as if the future for this region can achieve healthy and prosperous communities as well as the conservation of important environmental assets.
Unfortunately, it’s rarely that simple. Continuing down our existing path of increased population and prosperity will exacerbate the existing decline of the health of our ecosystems and biodiversity. Minor amendments here and there to ‘encourage’ more sustainable activities are not going to reverse that decline. In other words, the plan suffers from the problem of conflicting objectives. If the region’s planners want to conserve environmental assets (Objective 1), then they will need to be much more explicit about that in Objectives 2-21 as many of the strategies outlined in the plan will do little or nothing to achieve those environmental goals.
Kerle, A. & D. Goldney (2019). Two hundred years of European land management in central western New South Wales: has this change affected biodiversity and the landscape. In Kinross, C., Goldney, D., Kerle, A. & B. Mactaggart (eds). Biodiversity Dreaming: Sustaining Nature and Agriculture after 200 years of European inland settlement in the Central West Region of New South Wales, Greening Bathurst.
Kinross, C., Goldney, D., Kerle, A. & B. Mactaggart (eds). (2019). Biodiversity Dreaming: Sustaining Nature and Agriculture after 200 years of European inland settlement in the Central West Region of New South Wales, Greening Bathurst.
Spooner, P.G., Firman, M. & Yalmambirra (2019) Travelling Stock Routes and Reserves (TSRs) and links to previous Indigenous pathways. In Kinross, C., Goldney, D., Kerle, A. & B. Mactaggart (eds.) Biodiversity Dreaming: Sustaining Nature and Agriculture after 200 years of European inland settlement in the Central West Region of New South Wales. Greening Bathurst.
SMH (2022) Sydney Morning Herald, Koalas officially an endangered species in NSW, Queensland, 11/2/2022
Washington, H. (ed.) (2017). Positive Steps to a Steady State Economy, Centre for the Steady State Economy, NSW.