Speech on the Rural Fires Amendment (Bush Fire Prevention) Bill 2015

In Parliament | 26.08.15

Rural Fires Amendment (Bush Fire Prevention) Bill 2015

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE [4.31 p.m.]: I lead for the New South Wales Labor Opposition on the Rural Fires Amendment (Bush Fire Prevention) Bill 2015. The bill amends the Rural Fires Act 1997 to implement recommendations that were set out in the 10/50 Vegetation Clearing Scheme Review, and consequential amendments. The inception of the bushfire prevention legislation was necessary to introduce further bushfire mitigation measures as a result of the devastating Blue Mountains bushfires in 2013. The 10/50 Vegetation Clearing Scheme was introduced in answer to these calls. The 2013 Blue Mountains bushfires saw more than 200 homes lost, with widespread danger to life and livelihood throughout the region. It is not something anyone in this House wants to see again. I fear, as we look to a future of climate change and the approaching fire season, there are great risks coming our way.

This legislation allows landowners to clear trees on their property within 10 metres of a home without seeking approval and to clear underlying vegetation such as shrubs, but not trees, on their property within 50 metres of a home without seeking approval. An amendment has been proposed to extend such vegetation clearing rules to include vegetation near farm sheds not just near homes. Clearing does not require external assessment provided that it is undertaken in accordance with the 10/50 Vegetation Clearing Code of Practice. This legislation will also now define a "tree" as a woody plant that stands three or more metres in height and has a self-supporting trunk with a circumference of 0.3 metres at a height of 1.3 metres above the ground. It is very precise.

The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps: I love government so much!

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: I knew that the Hon. Dr Peter Phelps would enjoy this level of detail in the legislation. The proposed amendments will enable a landowner to clear trees and vegetation within 10 or 50 metres of an external wall of a building. We must understand where we are at in relation to this legislation. This legislation has clarified a situation where landowners had been removing trees and vegetation based on their proximity from their neighbour's external wall. This has been changed. It now requires the landowner to obtain written consent from their neighbour before any clearing works may be undertaken. Again, it is a very detailed response to what has been, in the past 12 months, a lesson for us all about hastily passing legislation that is not fit for purpose and does not deliver the results intended—that is, to mitigate fire risk.

The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps: So government regulation could have unintended consequences.

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: And I am prepared to accept that that has been the case, which is why we are debating this legislation today. The 10/50 Vegetation Clearing Scheme was introduced on 1 August 2014. Under section 100R of the Rural Fires Act 1997, a person whose property was situated within a 10/50 vegetation clearing entitlement area was able to clear vegetation. By 30 September 2014, eight weeks later, we had already seen the chainsaws come out. We were already seeing people using this code as an excuse to improve their property's views and to cut down trees that had been annoying them for some time—it had nothing to do with mitigating fire risk; it was simply an opportunity to improve views and property values. No-one in this place thought this would happen as quickly as it did.

In response to community concern that the scheme was being used as a means of improving landholders' views and property values, a number of changes were made to the scheme, including changing the buffer for category 2 vegetation, typically smaller areas of bushland. It was reduced from 350 metres to 150 metres. On 28 November 2014, two months later, again, amid continuing community concern about what people were seeing in their communities and media scrutiny, further changes were made to the scheme. The buffers for category 1 and category 2 vegetation were set at 100 metres and 30 metres respectively. The Baird Government sensibly also announced a review of the scheme.

As we stand here today, we have now been through that review process. It was a very important review, which received more than 3,500 community submissions. To say that the community is concerned about this issue would be a gross understatement; this is something the community has been very alive to. People have seen trees and important habitat in their communities disappear. Again, this has not actually improved fire risk mitigation one bit. On 12 August 2015 Minister Speakman and Minister Elliott announced that the Baird Government accepted all 30 recommendations of the review. The bill before us today implements those recommendations. There are a couple of points to highlight from submissions made to the review. One made the point:

Scientific surveys highlight that ember attack is responsible for the majority of house losses during bush fires.

Another submission said that work conducted by the CSIRO suggested:

    Embers will travel over distances ranging from hundreds of metres to kilometres …

The ability to simply clear land through a very crude scheme does not guarantee that one's house will not go up in smoke during a bushfire. It is important for us to look at the science in relation to bushfires and mitigating risk. It is estimated that in just 12 months more than 5,000 trees have been lost across New South Wales as a result of this code. That is a significant amount. We have lost important habitat trees and habitat for threatened species. Of those 5,000 trees, very few were removed to actually decrease bushfire risk; a lot of them were removed simply to improve views.

Individual councils have done their own estimations of tree removals under 10/50. By December 2014 about 414 trees had been removed in Ku-ring-gai local government area, 250 in Pittwater, more than 100 in Mosman and more than 240 in Lane Cove. Those councils themselves identified that the code was not working and that the primary reason these trees were removed, resulting in a loss of habitat, was that people wanted to improve their property views. The case of Lane Cove Council illustrates the disconnect between bushfire risk and the entitlement area. Mr Wrightson from Lane Cove Council noted that:

The risk of bushfire in Lane Cove is so low that there has not been a single house lost to bushfire as far as the records provided by NSW Fire and Rescue go back.

It is also important to note that throughout this process over the past 12 months the Office of Environment and Heritage has sounded the alarm about this bill. The New South Wales RFS assessed the 10/30 code put in place in Victoria. The RFS said, "The approach may not generate the safety outcomes the community is hoping for, and in fact may result in some people being more vulnerable." Labor welcomes a range of changes in this bill. We are not going to oppose the bill. We welcome the changes that will exclude World Heritage and Ramsar wetlands, core koala habitat, certain ecological communities, critically endangered plants and critical habitat, coastal wetlands, littoral rainforest, mangroves and saltmarshes—amongst other environmentally sensitive regions—as well as important Aboriginal heritage areas. This was an oversight by this Parliament 12 months ago. It is being rectified by this bill and Labor believes that is very important. However, I make the point that Labor never should have supported world heritage areas and Ramsar wetlands as one example of areas that could be cleared without any sort of permission.

Labor understands the significant problems associated with 10/50 vegetation clearing, but we also welcome the measures that will improve this scheme. Labor's approach, which will be seen in Committee, is to move a number of amendments. The key area needing change in this legislation is self-assessment. In the past 12 months the idea that people can clear land without having any recourse to expert advice in relation to bushfire mitigation has been proven to be a disaster. If the Government is serious about strengthening this bill and having the ability to mitigate fire risks, proper assessments must be in place. Labor will move an amendment to that effect in the Committee stage.

Our second amendment deals with a registry. We simply do not have enough information about what has been cleared so far. The stories that we have heard are horrifying. The idea that there could be so much loss of habitat and unnecessary clearing across the State is simply unacceptable. If the Government is serious about it surely there should be a register indicating where this clearing has taken place, if for no other reason than to give guidance to the NSW Rural Fire Service [RFS] when its members are undertaking long-term planning, and for the communities to be aware of what is going on in their local area. Labor will be moving an amendment to set up such a registry.

Labor believes there are critically endangered habitats not sufficiently protected under the current changes. Labor accepts that there are issues around the mapping of those areas. Labor will be moving what is a common-sense and reasonable amendment in the Committee stage so that where it is known that there are critically endangered and endangered ecological communities that have been properly mapped, they should be exempt from the 10/50 code, and as more mapping occurs that should be added to exemptions within the code. This process should be a lesson to us all in rushing through legislation when trying to fix a problem. The Blue Mountains had everything to lose and 200 people lost their homes.

This is something we all take very seriously, but even the Blue Mountains City Council has been sounding the alarm about this code ever since it started. I understand that people in the Blue Mountains and the Blue Mountains City Council are looking for the sorts of amendments that Labor has suggested, and I hope they will find favour with the Committee this afternoon. The outcome of this legislation is very important. We are heading into increased fire activity, with a higher number of fire incidents. We have to get bushfire mitigation right. We have to do that by making it scientific and by using the best experts to assess how we deal with that. We should not give landowners an opportunity to let rip and cut down vital trees across this State.

SOURCE: Hansard