New circumstances, new projects, new regulations

June 2, 2020

It’s a major challenge to keep an existing local project running during these tricky times (let alone an interstate or international project!), but how can we start new projects as the ground shifts around us and as regulations around Australia change?

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In this third article from Entura’s environment and planning team, we feature a recent win in the national water infrastructure space – the detailed design, and planning and environmental approvals for a new off-creek storage in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales. And we take a look at how regulatory changes are playing out around Australia to provide greater flexibility to respond to current constraints.

Starting a new project during a pandemic

Entura, working together with Hunter H2O, is now assisting Walcha Council with a regionally significant project despite COVID-19. The township of Walcha is currently serviced by one small off-creek water storage, which means that stringent water restrictions are needed during periods of drought. The regional council, supported by federal government funding, is investing in improving Walcha’s water reliability and security, which will also deliver social benefits to the community.

Our team tendered successfully when COVID-19 was yet to hit our shores, but in a mere few weeks we found ourselves loading up our office gear to set up from home. The same week that our engineering, planning and environmental specialists were scheduled to fly to Walcha to meet with Council on site, travel restrictions intensified and flying out of Tasmania was no longer an option. We adapted by taking to virtual platforms to communicate with our client about the challenges imposed by COVID-19 and how we could still keep the project moving, albeit with some deviations from the original schedule.

As a multidisciplinary firm capable of working across many jurisdictions, we pride ourselves on the relationships we have established with local contractors. In these times we are even more aware of the benefit of these associations to help keep the work flowing. For this project, collaboration with local contractors and swift adaptation has allowed the team to keep the project moving forward. Local geotechnical contractors have begun their investigations to feed information to our teams. Meanwhile, our environmental and planning experts have studied databases and existing literature to determine potential terrestrial, aquatic and regulatory constraints that may affect the design of the new off-creek storage.

Lockdown restrictions are starting to ease across the nation, but for now we are sitting tight and waiting until it is safe to visit the site. We need to ensure that storage design works are undertaken only when our technical specialists have stepped foot on the site themselves and have a thorough understanding of the site context. In the meantime, we continue to provide value through virtual meetings and workshops with our client. Hunter H2O and Walcha Council share our view regarding both the safety of our people and the quality of design required for the project.

On this constantly shifting ground, we are keeping the regulators up to date with the progress of the project, and we are also ensuring we keep up to date with any regulatory changes which may affect the project and that these are well-communicated with our client.

Regulatory changes for flexible responses

Across the country, state governments are establishing new measures to accelerate projects to shovel-readiness to help buffer the social and economic impacts of the pandemic. They’re also making temporary orders to existing legislation to provide flexible planning and environmental responses.

New South Wales

In New South Wales, the Planning System Acceleration Program has been introduced to fast-track State Significant Developments, rezonings and development applications, as well as provide support to decision-makers to speed up local and regionally significant projects to approval. Temporary orders have been implemented to allow some infrastructure construction work to be carried out on weekends to maintain productivity and employment in the sector. In NSW, temporary changes to the Environmental Protection and Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act) allows the Minister for Planning and Public Spaces to authorise development to be carried out on land without any approval under the EP&A Act where that development is required to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other recent legislative change in NSW is the long-awaited amendment of the NSW Bilateral Agreement under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cmwth), which was required after the introduction of the new Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 (NSW). This updated bilateral agreement has allowed environmental assessments and offsets to be streamlined, including endorsement of the NSW Biodiversity Offsets Scheme for the purposes of offsetting for a Commonwealth approval.

Queensland and Western Australia

In Queensland, COVID-19 has been declared an applicable event under planning legislation, thus allowing the Planning Minister more flexibility to suspend or extend any statutory timeframe across the planning framework if required. Similarly, in Western Australia, the Minister for Planning has issued a two-year extension for all current development approvals to assist job-creating projects during the recovery stage, along with other exemptions from planning approval for essential local community services.

Victoria

The Victorian Government has announced temporary measures to make sure that planning and approval processes can continue to function despite remote working arrangements, including allowing local government planning authorities to make decisions under delegation to facilitate efficient application turnaround times. The Victorian Government has also established the Building Victoria’s Recovery Taskforce to explore planning and investment opportunities to boost the development industry. Additionally, the new Victorian Environment Protection Amendment Act 2018 (EPA Act), which is relevant to many infrastructure projects, was to take effect from 1 July 2020 but has been deferred until July 2021 to ensure developers, consultants and regulators have time to adapt to changes in workload and workflow as a result of the pandemic.

Tasmania

Tasmanian planning reform continues with the exhibition and assessment of local planning schedules as part of the transition to a statewide planning scheme. Consultation has also concluded on the proposed process for major projects, which, if enacted, will be the state’s first multi-permit approval process.

Nationwide

The Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 is also currently being reviewed, and our planning and environmental consultants are ensuring that they keep pace with the impending changes and implications for ongoing and new projects.

Managing change

For the Walcha project, the approval process is comparatively simple and the changes to approval processes are not likely to impact the project. However, for some of our other projects, these changes create challenges. Most notably, physical distancing requirements have meant temporary shutting of council offices and town information centres where application documents and technical studies are usually displayed. Instead, full suites of application documentation are being published online or, when specifically required, hardcopies are being mailed out. With postal services already under pressure, one way to ensure the community has a fair opportunity to provide feedback is to lengthen comment and consultation timeframes.

Although the global pandemic may have been disruptive to our work arrangements, smart and innovative ways to juggle project commitments and changed circumstances have fostered strong relationships which will persist beyond COVID-19. Elevated levels of trust and virtual teamwork with clients will surely present more opportunities to collaborate once the ground settles and we reach a new equilibrium.

If you would like to discuss how Entura can help you with your environmental or planning project, please contact us.

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