24/08/2011 - 10:02

Approvals assessment a welcome first step

24/08/2011 - 10:02

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Approvals assessment a welcome first step

LOCAL developers have cautiously welcomed a push to simplify the environmental approvals process for the Perth and Peel regions, so long as it doesn’t push up the cost of housing.

The federal and Western Australia governments have revealed plans to undertake a strategic assessment of the Swan Coastal Plain, which would ultimately lead to an agreement outlining the development, conservation and heritage priorities in the area.

This would remove the need for developers to seek federal environmental assessments for projects, and the habitat of threatened species such as the Carnaby’s Cockatoo would be safeguarded. 

The strategic assessment has the potential to cut the time it takes to secure the environmental approval, but Cedar Woods state manager Stuart Duplock warned the impact on housing affordability could be significant.

WA already has one of the most expensive residential property markets in the country, and Mr Duplock said trade-offs such as on-site vegetation retention or expensive offsets for cleared land would all add to higher development costs.

“And that inevitably translates into increased prices for the consumer,” Mr Duplock told WA Business News.

Despite these concerns, Cedar Woods welcomed the strategic assessment, particularly if it addressed the overlaps between the state and federal systems.

One of the key concerns voiced by developers is that projects that have secured state approval can still be referred for federal assessment under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

“If you take the draft referral guidelines at face value, all it takes is for a site to contain a single significant tree or over one hectare of remnant vegetation to require referral, in theory this applies to most projects in the state,” Mr Duplock said

Strategic assessments have already been undertaken in a number of locations around Australia, including Victoria, which has an agreement covering Melbourne and its projected expansion.

Property developer Nigel Satterley said while the Melbourne growth boundary agreement had brought the state and federal approval systems together, some uncertainty remained.

And with housing affordability in WA an increasingly important political issue, Mr Satterley said there was no room for any changes that could push up the cost of homes.

“By bringing the (state and federal) processes together, the industry believes it will speed the process up and that will reduce the cost,” Mr Satterley said.

“This is a top-five issue for the industry, to try and streamline the environmental process along with getting the government ... to get the infrastructure planned ahead so everyone knows where it is going.”

The Urban Development Institute of Australia regards simplifying the environmental approvals process as its number one advocacy issue.

UDIA (WA) chief Debra Goodstrey said the strategic assessment was a positive step but she cautioned it would be a long process with little change in the short term.

“Currently under the arrangements with the federal government, the trigger for referral is very late in the process ... and it would sometimes set projects back by a couple of years,” she said.

“We have been working with the federal government to get developers to refer earlier but in an ideal world – and this is what this (strategic assessment) starts to do – it’s all integrated into one process where the two governments agree on strategic outcomes and the state government approval process does it for both agencies.”

However, moves to streamline the environmental approvals process are not without their critics, such as the WWF-Australia, which has warned the focus of the strategic assessment should be protecting bushland rather than cutting red tape for developers.

WWF WA policy manager Katherine Howard said while she recognised the potential for the strategic assessment to improve the current situation, the national legislation needed to be used to protect internationally recognised biodiversity and threatened species.

“We have an international obligation to get this right; the biodiversity of Perth is actually really remarkable, we have more reptile species in Perth than any other urban area in the world,” Ms Howard said. 

“We have a city right in the middle of an internationally recognised biodiversity hot spot and that does make life a bit more tricky.”

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