Posted on October 17, 2016 by Megan Hawley

Community Confidence in Major Project Assessment

The Department of Planning & Environment has today released a discussion paper for the Environmental Impact Assessment Improvement Project (Discussion Paper), which proposes new guidelines for the assessment of major projects with a view to improving public confidence in the process.

The Discussion Paper applies to state significant development and infrastructure projects which are declared through state environmental planning policies and include a range of developments with a capital investment value of more than $30 million and other developments such as mining and extractive industries, waste facilities and public transport projects.

Development of a certain scale on specified sites such as the Sydney Opera House, Barangaroo and Western Sydney Parklands, is also state significant development.

The purpose of the Discussion Paper is to seek input from stakeholders and the public on the key issues with the assessment of state significant projects and the preliminary initiatives set out in the Discussion Paper.

The preliminary initiatives proposed in the Discussion Paper are:

  • to develop a consistent framework for scoping to ensure that environmental issues are properly prioritised;
  • earlier and better public engagement including pre-lodgement meetings to discuss community engagement and requiring proponents to report to the community on how or if the community’s views have been taken into account;
  • improving the quality of documents;
  • setting a standard approach to conditions;
  • a code of conduct for people preparing environmental impact assessment documents and more scope for peer review;
  • setting timeframes for assessments and better co-ordination between various government agencies;
  • strengthening monitoring, auditing and reporting on compliance; and
  • changes to post approval processes such as communicating changes and the assessment requirement for changes to projects.

It is not proposed that there will be any legislative change resulting from the process, only the preparation of guidelines.

Possibly the most significant of the proposals are to engage the community at an earlier stage in the process, and to require peer review of assessment reports.

Any change aimed at engaging the community and improving the quality of environmental assessment must be positive. However, there will inevitably be claims that peer review and additional engagement requirements will further increase the costs and delays associated with major developments. It will be interesting to see how the initiative of setting timeframes and co-ordinating government agencies addresses that issue.

The Sydney Morning Herald today reports that the Discussion Paper signals the biggest change to environmental planning rules in decades and that the aim is to minimise the legal battles and community division that have convulsed towns such as Berrima, Bulga and Narrabri in recent years.

At this early stage in the process it is difficult to know whether the guidelines will appease community groups, and give rise to any greater confidence in the quality of reports, and thoroughness of assessments.

As the principal solicitor of the Environmental Defender’s Office has reportedly said, the changes may be a step in the right direction. But there must be serious doubt that the guidelines will effect a change significant enough to avoid legal battles with communities affected by major projects.

The Discussion Paper can be found here and consultation closes on 27 November 2016.