Perth’s growing pains continue to cause tensions between residential and industrial development.
A lack of certainty over Austral Bricks’ plans to expand the footprint of its Cardup factory is a recent example of the difficulties in balancing Perth’s residential growth requirements while respecting pre-existing industrial buffer zones.
In late 2019, Austral filed a $55 million development application for an 8,944 square metre factory expansion, to facilitate an increase in annual production by 50,000 tonnes.
The clay extraction site has operated at the foot of the Darling Scarp on the southern extremity of Byford for more than a century, largely underpinning the state’s brick production industry.
Historically, the site was in a rural area, but the outer suburbs of Perth’s south-east have rapidly urbanised, with Byford’s population growing more than 200 per cent during the past decade.
Austral’s plans are permitted within the site’s current zoning, but the recent urban subdivision to the north means the boundary of the brickworks is now within 180 metres of urban development and within 420 metres of residential housing.
Environmental Protection Authority regulations require clay brick manufacturers to maintain a buffer of 300 to 1,000 metres from sensitive receptors, which include residential areas, schools, and hospitals.
A spokesperson from Austral Bricks told Business News the decision to approve housing closer to the company’s Cardup operations and buffer areas had been beyond its control, but it remained committed to abiding by legislative and regulatory obligations.
As has been the case with industrial developments elsewhere in recent years, the proposed expansion raised the ire of community groups, including the Scarp Residents Association and the Serpentine-Jarrahdale Ratepayers Association.
Both groups have concerns about the potential health effects of the dust allegedly coming from stacks at the site and its chemical makeup.
Anecdotal evidence from residents included excessive dust landing on roofs, fading paint and rusting car bodywork.
Those concerns led to a request that the EPA undertake a Public Environmental Review of the proposal; that request was denied.
Austral insists the operation is subject to rigorous obligations and has a strong track record of compliance, regularly engaging with the shire and its local stakeholder group.
The issue is further complicated by claims from the Austral Bricks Stakeholder Engagement Group, established by the company, that it had indicated plans to wind down and eventually cease operations at the site.
Those claims were echoed by a local resident, who told Business News they had purchased land in the nearby residential estate more than a decade ago on that advice.
Meanwhile, the Shire of Serpentine Jarrahdale council supported a move to work with Austral and the Peel Development Commission to investigate relocating the brickworks 10 kilometres west to Mundijong’s 440-hectare industrial area.
With the extension of Tonkin Highway and links to existing industrial freight infrastructure in Welshpool, Perth and Jandakot, West Mundijong is ideally placed to serve as an intermodal transport hub.
But with the site not yet connected to water or electricity, an Austral Bricks spokesperson told Business News shifting the brickworks was not a viable option.
“We need to be very clear that relocating Austral’s Cardup operations is a very big and very complicated task,” the spokesperson said.
For now, the company’s expansion plan remains in limbo; free to operate within the confines of its existing licence but awaiting approval to grow its operations.
A similar debate is brewing over the buffer between industrial activity and residential estates in the City of Cockburn, where the council is assessing a development application by Brajkovich Landfill and Recycling.
The company has requested approval to facilitate crushing operations and install dust mitigation infrastructure at its Yangebup site.
In recent weeks, however, local residents have raised concerns about the impact of dust from the proposed expansion on sensitive receptors less than 1,000 metres from the site’s boundary.
The City of Cockburn released a statement confirming it was working with the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation regarding air quality requirements but provided no further details.
The impact on air quality has also come into question to the south-west of Perth, where the Shire of Capel has refused to grant development approval for an asphalt production plant in Gelorup.
In 2018, Perth-based civil engineering company Asphaltech lodged an application to build the plant on a 3ha site, owned by road contractor Hanson Construction Materials, in the semi-rural suburb of Gelorup,
The plant, with an anticipated production capacity of 35,000t per year, would encroach inside 1,000 metres of sensitive receptors, including Bunbury Cathedral Grammar School, prompting a nine-month community campaign against the proposal.
In December 2019, the Shire of Capel refused to grant approval on the grounds the development did not achieve the required buffer and had the potential to adversely affect surrounding properties.
While permissible under the local planning scheme and capable of approval in a rural zone, the development was deemed to be not compatible with its setting because of its potential odour emissions, dust and noise.
But the company appealed that decision to the State Administrative Tribunal, highlighting several existing asphalt plants in the Perth metropolitan region less than 1,000 metres from residential development.
Last month, the tribunal ruled in favour of the shire’s decision, for lack of sufficient evidence the proposal would not pose a risk to human health and the absence of modelling of air toxins.
“I’ve been at KIC for 14 years and it’s been there longer than that, probably even more than 20 years,” Mr Oughton told Business News.
“In that time, we’ve seen more pressure from property developers seeking planning approval to build residential subdivisions that encroach into the industrial buffer zone, particularly in the Wattleup, Munster and Mandogalup areas.”
Those areas surround the Kwinana Industrial Area, one of the state’s main industrial precincts.
Late last year, Planning Minister Rita Saffioti approved two proposals for subdivision along Wattleup Road in Hammond Park, both located within the buffer zone.
Wattleup is adjacent to the Kwinana industrial area, with Ms Saffioti’s recent move endorsing proposals for subdivision into more than 200 housing lots.
Those subdivision proposals had previously been refused by the State Administrative Tribunal, citing the close proximity of existing industry, including Alcoa’s alumina refinery, and potential health risks related to air quality.
Mr Oughton said the minister’s recent ruling had created a precedent for future residential encroachment and had sent a shockwave through industry.
“This is the state’s premier industrial area; it generates around $16 billion worth of economic activity for the state and employs around 30,000 indirect and direct workers,” he said.
“Many of these industries absolutely rely on the presence of the buffer zone, they can’t operate without a buffer zone.
“Now it’s insecure and, in effect, it’s unreliable.”
Improvement plans – planning instruments that assess future development and planning scenarios– are under way for the Mandogalup and Wattleup areas, following a longstanding residential development debate in the area.
Improvement plans are used to inform improvement schemes, which detail development control provisions, and can override local planning schemes.
In response to enquiries from Business News, a Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage spokesperson said the department had been working with landowners, local governments, the KIC and key stakeholders to review the planning framework for Perth’s south-west metropolitan suburbs.
A revised draft State Planning Policy 4.1 – State Industrial Buffer Policy is due for completion by the end of 2021, which the spokesperson said aimed to protect and provide long-term security for industrial zones and better define buffer areas.
Mr Oughton said Port Hedland’s industrial area had recently been granted special control area (SCA) protection, and KIC had lodged an SCA application for the Western Trade Coast buffer zone (which includes Kwinana Industrial Area), last updated in 2019.
The department spokesperson said KIC’s application had since been referred to affected local governments and relevant government agencies for preliminary advice.
If residential development continued to encroach on the buffer zone, Mr Oughton said, industry was faced with closure or relocation, which came at significant cost.
“A company in the north end of the buffer zone many years ago had to expend well in excess of $50 million on new technology because of community complaints, yet some of those complaints were coming from community members whose properties were approved to be located inside the buffer zone,” he said.
“There was a parliamentary inquiry into this matter concluded in 2008 ... one of the findings was the planners, state and local, didn’t understand the purpose of industrial buffer zones, and they still don’t.
“This is why industry needs a rock-solid buffer zone, not one to be meddled with for the financial benefit of residential property developers.”
Mr Oughton said KIC had raised concerns over the potential influence of residential developers in the planning process, calling for more transparency over public servant gift registers.
With the growth in Kwinana’s lithium industry, Mr Oughton said buffer zone issues could also deter new businesses eyeing Perth.
“Buffer ‘wobbliness’ creates a level of uncertainty for those businesses considering establishment because
an uncertain buffer is a risk to be accounted for, a negative cost impact,” he said.
“Industry wants the buffer zone protected by a legal planning tool.
“If a decision is made that creates a future land-use conflict, and the foreseeability of the conflict has been clearly stated from the outset, and industry suffers loss as a result, is there an action for damages created?”
Hero Properties is an active developer in WA’s industrial space, with a portfolio of assets mostly located in Forrestfield, Kewdale, Henderson and Welshpool.
Chief executive Julie Drago said Perth’s recent uptick in residential activity had exacerbated existing challenges.
“Industrial is booming and so is residential, everyone is fighting for the same pockets of land and looking for future opportunities,” Ms Drago told Business News.
Metronet had been another hit to buffer uncertainty for industry, she said, pointing to land in Kalamunda, where 25ha previously earmarked for future industrial use had now been set aside for mixed residential and commercial.
She said while there was a clear need to increase residential density around train stations as part of Metronet, any rezoning of land (including rezoning land from ‘heavy’ to ‘general’ or ‘light industrial’) could erode the future growth potential of industrial operators.
This included imposing any future restrictions on 24-7 operations, and plant or equipment noise.
The Industrial Lands Authority, established by DevelopmentWA in 2018, is aiming to provide more certainty for future development.
The ILA’s responsibilities include delivery of the Strategic Industrial Area program, which Lands Minister Tony Buti said was designed for investment in industrial activities, including significant buffers.
Mr Buti said while the program was a long-term project in WA, constant regulatory changes, take-up of infrastructure capacity and changing demand profiles meant the project-ready status of an SIA was an ever-evolving issue.
Ms Drago said it was important buffer zones had more definite protection when planning bodies considered zoning and structure plans for Perth.
“When I’m dealing with operators, questions are ‘Well, there’s a housing estate over there, what’s the impact on me?’” she said.
“The last thing you need is [subsequently] being told you can’t operate.”