Letter writing to ministers and MPs consumed debate at the Lismore City Council (LCC) meeting last night. The newly formed council voted to write letters regarding the coal-seam gas (CSG) poll, the removal of environment zones, and the state government’s new strategic land-use policies and their failure to rule out any areas of the shire from CSG mining.
Mayor Jenny Dowell received a majority vote (Cr Graham Meineke and Cr Mathew Schiebl against) for her mayoral minute to write a letter to ministers and MPs to inform them of the results of the CSG poll, the growing numbers of communities that are declaring their roads CSG free, provide a timeline of council decisions on CSG over the past two years, and to urge ministers and MPs to take steps to prevent CSG activity in the Lismore Local Government Area (LGA).
‘It’s all very well to do a poll, but we now need to decide what we do with the information from that poll,’ Cr Dowell told council.
‘Our local members in particular are hearing our voice, but they need to hear and see it in a formal way through a letter… and in Sydney and Canberra they need to know that in this LGA it is clear and unequivocal that this community does not want CSG mining here. We value our agricultural land, we value our landscape, we value our water, we value our air, and we value social harmony much more than what we value the quick money that CSG can supposedly bring us.’
Cr Gianpiero Battista suggested that in the letter, ‘LCC should acknowledge the steps that have already been taken by the state government such as setting up a commission.’
Cr Dowell responded, ‘I am not willing to take that on board as I think the state government has done far too little. I concede there have been earlier steps, but it is too little too late.’
Zoning removal concerns
Cr Simon Clough declared his intention to lobby state government for the return of power to local government in local decision-making during his successful pitch for deputy mayor last week. Last night he received majority support from LCC in writing letters to ministers and MPs to express deep concern over the arbitrary removal of environmental zones E3 and E2 from the LCC draft Local Environment Plan (LEP) for review, and a request to revoke all licences for exploration and production of CSG in the Lismore LGA.
Cr Clough’s letter regarding E3 and E2 zonings expressed deep concern over the state minister for planning and infrastructure removing these environmental zonings after a comprehensive process of consultation with the community had taken place by LCC in the development of the LEP since early 2010.
‘These zonings make up 1.5 per cent of our LGA; it is hardly huge. It has only increased by one per cent since the last zoning,’ Cr Clough said.
‘If local decision-making is done properly, if hundreds of hours of staff time, if tens of thousands of dollars have been spent, if six months of public exhibition have been carried out, and that process is duly arrived at, then that decision should be respected. I believe it has been completely trampled on because of a few noisy landholders.
Cr Greg Bennett, who is a farmer, opposed the letter as he believes that the additional zonings further restrict farming practices without proper consultation and no compensation.
‘We as farmers have maintained areas of native vegetation for over one hundred years. Do you think that by removing these E zones that it will somehow be degraded?’ Cr Bennett asked councillors.
‘In the Year of the Farmer I am appalled that council is attacking farmers like this. They deserve our support. The world population has risen from around three billion in the sixties to around seven billion today. These people need to be fed from some resource. This land needs to be protected from CSG and not locked up in environmental zones. Let the farmers farm their land.’
Cr Vanessa Ekins supported Cr Clough’s intent of the letter but suggested that ‘Cr Clough was very polite in his terminology. She would have used terms like disgusted and outraged.
‘I have seen a lot of Big Scrub remnants and most of them are in very steep rocky gullies that are unable to be cleared and farmed. That is the only reason many of those high-conservation-value environments are still there now.
‘Of the one hundred and seventy-seven landowners who had E zones only ten of them objected to the areas that we allocated. Eighty-five per cent of this whole LGA is zoned rural, 1.5 per cent is zoned environmental. That is too small a percentage in my view. We have one of the highest biodiversity areas in this country.
‘I do however, support looking at what kind of incentives and contributions we can offer these landholders.’
Cr Battista added to the debate. ‘Since the sixties, the vegetation in this area has increased enormously because farmers are more aware of the environment. They will plant windbreaks that please the koalas for example.
‘The manner in which these farms were rezoned is like a dictatorship and forceful.’
Cr Isaac Smith refuted Cr Battista’s observation of the environmental zoning processes.
‘A decent society is one that listens and learns and responds. The LEP process has been big and involved. A lot of research and a lot of facts were put forward. To go through all that, make a decision and have that decision stood on by Sydney reflects poorly on what we have done here.
‘This LEP is the most in-depth thing we have ever done. It was funded by the state government and LCC and it was a good process.
‘When this new state government came in there was hope and optimism that they were going to devolve power to a local level. Despite some good early noises, it seems to be going the other way.’
Cr Neil Marks lost an earlier vote to write a letter congratulating the NSW minister for planning and infrastructure on his decision to excise the E zones over agricultural land in the Lismore LEP.
‘How do our farmers feel when we call them a minority? We write plenty of letters and sometimes we choose to be the minority and sometimes we don’t.
‘If we spend half as much time on the people who don’t look after their properties as the people who do, we would be a lot better off. Drive around and start visiting the properties who are just letting them go, the lantana, the privet bush, camphor laurel etc.
‘These E zones do the wrong thing by those doing the right things.’
Strategic Land Use policies
The environmental zoning letter received far more debate than Cr Clough’s other letter (which was passed with only councillors Schiebl, Battista and Meineke against) to ministers and MPs registering the ‘deep concern’ of LCC over the recently introduced Strategic Land Use package and that state government respect the views of the community and revoke all licences for exploration and production of CSG in the Lismore LGA.
The Strategic Land Use package consists of the Strategic Regional Land Use Plan (SRLUP) – New England North West and the Upper Hunter, the Aquifer Interference Policy and two CSG-specific codes of practice (The Code of Practice for Coal-Seam Gas – Well Integrity and Fracture Stimulation Activities).
Cr Clough told council, ‘We have seen from these policies that they are in conflict with our community. It will be two to three years before we see the SRLUP for this area.
‘However, let it be noted, that in none of the areas that have land-use plans in place, there is no CSG lockout; all areas are open to have their rural landscape destroyed, pipelines, pumping stations etc all over the landscape.
‘When we do get our SRLUP for our area there will be no excise from CSG regardless of how fertile or beautiful the area is. The only areas that will be excised are National Parks. Not even water catchments are excised from CSG mining.
‘We experienced drilling less than one kilometre away from the Wilson River Source; Rous Water didn’t even know it was happening.’
The gateway process for state-significant development was also questioned by Cr Clough.
‘There are only two options in this process: approval or approval with conditions. There is no option for refusal.
‘We are being ignored by our local members of parliament because of the big money and the power of their coalition friends in the Liberal party. We have to, at every point, be counted on this issue.’