27 August 2015
(Debate, 25 August 2015, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
At the outset I acknowledge and thank the Minister's office for the briefing given to the crossbench today. I also acknowledge that The Greens and Opposition have very reasonable amendments which they will be moving in the other place. The Rural Fires Amendment (Bush Fire Prevention) Bill 2015 continues the 10/50 policy that has seen the loss of more than 5,000 trees, including habitat trees and threatened species. The 10/50 code removed the need for landowners to obtain assessments from the NSW Rural Fire Service or local council to remove trees within 50 metres and vegetation within 10 metres of a habitable building in bushfire-prone areas. It allowed them to clear the vegetation without any oversight.
The system has failed to meet its objectives. Trees that should have been protected have been destroyed, many to open up views while no evidence has been presented that bushfire risks to property have been improved. In fact, the approach to tree removal is considered to create serious risks to people and property. Woodchip and offcuts from cleared trees and vegetation create fuel and there are no requirements on how they are disposed of or for landowners to get expert advice. I understand there are instances where woodchip has been scattered adjacent to homes and powerlines, thereby creating serious new fire risks.
Landowners also experience a false sense of security from the removal of vegetation. Many will think that removing trees and bushes is the best and only way to protect their home. This is not the case. Other or even additional measures are often needed. Landowners in bushfire-prone areas should get an expert assessment with tailored advice that incorporates building maintenance, ember protection and evacuation planning. The regime prior to the 10/50 policy ensured that concerned landowners were visited by an expert who assessed their specific situation and provided comprehensive advice. For many this no longer occurs.
The environmental impacts have seen significant loss of biodiversity. I welcome changes to the 10/50 Vegetation Clearing Code of Practice 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 among other environmentally sensitive regions as well as Aboriginal heritage areas. But not all endangered communities are excluded, such as the turpentine and ironbark communities and Illawarra Lowlands Grassy Woodland. Furthermore, cumulative environmental impacts including soil erosion and carbon emissions from clearing elsewhere will continue to be ignored.
It is well acknowledged that the 10/50 regime is being used to clear trees that block views. While the code of practice will exclude land within 100 metres of the coast and mapped estuaries, this will do nothing to prevent clearing for views on hilltops or of non-water related views. Lane Cove residents are particularly concerned that urban bushland remnants in their area remain a high level bushfire risk equivalent to that of the Blue Mountains. I agree that this demonstrates that the methodology is flawed and could erode the vital tree canopy in this area without improving bushfire risks. The 10/50 system allows the removal of trees and vegetation with no expert oversight. Without this oversight no records will be kept and it will be difficult to determine how effective the policy is. The experience so far has shown that self-assessment is environmentally destructive and leaves the system open to abuse. I strongly believe the 10/50 code should be withdrawn, with the previous system restored. It is disappointing that New South Wales will continue to lose natural habitat and much-needed trees.