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Lessons from SoE Report and this Forum

Professor Bruce Thom - Chair, NSW Coastal Councils; Chair, Australian State of Environment Committee (1998-2002)

This Forum gives me the opportunity to reflect on some of the lessons from SOE2001 in relation to the objectives and interests of the Estuary Forum. My on-going role as Chair of the NSW Coastal Council provides a further opportunity to consider those lessons in the context of improved coastal and estuary planning and management.

A broad philosophical issue discussed in SOE2001 is that of "Care for Country" - a concept which from an indigenous perspective may be seen as a challenge to property rights. It is an issue that governments have to examine very carefully - the concept of properties founded in common law is well entrenched in NSW. When we come to look at questions of sustainability, which means an appreciation of the relationships of the interconnectedness of one part of the landscape and waterscape to another, you encounter difficulties arising from individual application of property rights. A lot of us own property, some of us own waterfront property, some us own waterfront property and others own property in the bush. But when we come to use our property, we think we have certain rights and we try to exercise those rights within the context of laws and regulations. Sometimes the agencies/councils responsible for compliance are not in a position for whatever reason to ensure that you exercise those rights in order to create a sustainable environment.

The main focus of SOE2001 was in the intensive land use zone which of course relates to the farming community involving use of rural landscapes and impacts on river systems. However, there are implications for other parts of Australia including the estuaries.

We recognise that Australia is impacted upon by three tyrannies. First there is the "tyranny of vastness" because we have 19 million people responsible for a huge land mass plus water areas. The "tyranny of history" - the mistakes that we've made in the past - gives rise over time to degrading cumulative impacts on biophysical systems. And third there is the "tyranny of small decisions". We are making decisions all the time. George Cotis' brilliant slides picked up very nicely, or very ugly I suppose, impacts arising from the tyranny of small decisions around Port Hacking. Those three tyrannies together challenge Australian policy makers in NRM. They challenge all Australian communities. And they challenge us as individuals. The SOE Report aims to raise the awareness of all Australians that they have a duty of care not just for themselves, but for lands and waters beyond their property boundaries for both present and future generations. It is a big ask! Our growing understanding of the impacts of past mistakes and the interconnectedness of natural systems requires all of us to think beyond our boundary fence.

The NSW coast is undergoing massive population change. It is the only state in Australia from border to border that is having population growth, or in the case of the Sydney region, undergoing redevelopment with impacts on our coast and waterways. We expect the baby boomer population, now starting their retirements, to move out of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, to settlements along the coastal strip. We now have much more access to these settlements with the building of the highways. All this will generate more pressures and impacts on our estuaries and around our coastal dune sites and headlands. A lot of the new retirees will want to have boats, support infrastructure, and access to the sea. The Sydney area is already experiencing many of these problems and Port Hacking is representative of what will occur more widely in the years ahead.

Through the 1990s the NSW Government placed emphasis on a partnership program between local councils and Department of Public Works, and, after 1995, the Department of Land and Water Conservation in the development of management plans for our estuaries. Unfortunately, there has been a decline in expenditure since 1996 despite a growth in number of estuary management committees. Other avenues of expenditure have risen with benefits to estuary management such as Stormwater Trust grants and NHT funded projects. New funding initiatives such as through catchment "blueprints" require a focus on estuary interests given the physical fact that estuaries serve as the "sink" for much of the "rubbish" (sediment, nutrients, pathogens, etc) from upstream. There remains an issue of linking the activities of those on private property with those responsible for managing public lands along and within our coastal waterways - an issue of sustaining a healthy and productive natural system dependent on the actions of millions of landholders in the Sydney area.

The matching of community demands for protecting and enhancing environmental resources of estuaries with availability of funds is a difficult proposition for local councils and lead agencies like DLWC. For many, it is quite a divisive matter.

For DLWC to be realistic players in the estuary management process in NSW, the resourcing levels have to be extended. This is a big issue for this department although there are places like Lake Macquarie which have been well supported.

In the area of coastal management, we now have the Coastal Package. This was announced in late June of last year by the Premier; $11.7m is to be spent over the next 3-4 years on implementing the Package. The largest component of expenditure is going into the Comprehensive Coastal Assessment. We also have a new planning instrument, the Coastal Protection SEPP(No.71). This SEPP is designed to help solve some of the problems that George and others pointed out today. It's heavily directed towards foreshore environments. The Minister for Planning through the Department of Planning can be expected to take a more direct role in the assessment of some development applications. Already he has used his s88A powers under the EP&A Act to "call in" some developments which would appear to be contrary to principles of the 1997 Coastal Policy. The new SEPP will help councils, the Minister and the Court in the assessment process. I expect there will be a round of cases before the Land & Environment Court to test the provisions and decisions taken under the new SEPP71. Perhaps the role I have already performed as the Minister's agent in the Court will be further used in order to articulate the various policies which the Government is seeking to implement.

Extending the Coastal Policy to cover parts of the Greater Metropolitan Region, including areas of Sutherland Shire, is another component of the Coastal Package. I welcome the Government's decision in this instance as it will enable the Coastal Council to offer formal advice on contentious issues related to development of the Port Hacking estuary.

The Government is also amending the Coastal Protection Act (1979) as part of the Package. The Act will get some new teeth in two areas: (1) protection of the beach environment and beach amenity through statutory coastal zone management plans; and (2) provisions for the public to access the foreshores and headlands. Debate on the amendments in the Legislative Assembly indicate support in principle for these amendments. They raise the broad principle of public good in sustaining natural values, such as a beach and access to it, when private property interests may suggest fences, rock walls and other defences are needed to protect the private good. For the first time in NSW law, the beach will have standing, and decision-makers must consider its value in environmental and amenity terms. Here is an example in the broader context of NRM in Australia where the interests of broader environmental values are given an importance in an ESD context to counter the influence of self-interested private landholders.

The Estuary Forum today has opened for discussion many very important issues including habitat protection, estuary management processes, foreshore development excesses, and Government and council commitments. Lessons are being learnt all the time. SOE2001 talked about adaptive management principles. From what we know of our estuaries, we should be in a better position to introduce better management practices. The new Coastal Zone Management Manual, another component of the Package, will demonstrate how much we have learnt. When it goes on exhibition, it is anticipated there will be need for input to further assist its usefulness. Port Hacking is a good example of an estuary where management principles and practices should be tested. This will open opportunities to address emerging problems such as the spread of Caulerpa taxifolia , and how best to manage competing interests including those of Aboriginal peoples.

Many powerful messages have emerged from today's Forum. Estuaries and embayments such as Port Hacking and Botany Bay provide histories and examples of gains, frustrations and future opportunities in managing such natural systems. Their differences highlight the need for management approaches to be sufficiently flexible to embrace varied institutional and biophysical systems. Lake Macquarie under a "place manager" offers another model which we must look at carefully if we are to achieve levels of ecological sustainability that we should aspire to. Our estuaries are potentially too fragile and important to Australian lifestyles and livelihoods to be just left to the whims of private interests.

Finally, I'd like to take this opportunity of thanking Jim Sloan and his team for all their organisation of this Forum. You have benefited over the years from some inspirational leadership; such as from Paul Martin. For all in the community, there is now a great opportunity to better manage your "places", your "country", and to care for it in a way which benefits all stakeholders.
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