For over twelve years the Society has been working to protect
metropolitan bushland adjacent to Garigal National Park in Sydney's
Beaches. Over this time we have seen, throughout the Warringah local
area, large tracts of bushland bulldozed under the SEPP5 provisions but
nothing has matched the current onslaught. For example, it is estimated
that more than two-thirds of the remaining bushland at Red Hill is
threat from at least 10 separate SEPP 5 proposals (several have not yet
been submitted to Council). It is evident that the current policy is
an irresistible temptation to speculators who see it as a way to
Council's planning restrictions, with the bonus of avoiding Section 94
The key issue is that SEPP5 encourages medium density development on land which is zoned non-urban and ajoins urban land. In Warringah, and in many other metropolitan LGAs, the only remaining "non urban land" is bushland. Therefore metropolitan bushland that is adjacent to existing residential areas is vulnerable. However, the description of SEPP5 on page 4 of the document states "It permitted aged and disabled housing... on land where residential development, churches and hospitals were permitted". These are misleading words - "churches and hospitals" are permitted on land zoned non-urban, as is very low density housing (less than one dwelling per hectare). In fact these are weasel words because they are clearly intended to give the impression that, if a retirement village was not built on the site, then a residential sub-division or a hospital or church would.
This glossing over of the threat to metropolitan bushland is continued throughout the discussion paper. On page 8 the section on non-urban lands starts "Some Councils have raised concerns that the SEPP has the potential to lead to development of SEPP5 accommodation in inappropriate locations (eg on valuable bushland or in areas which are subject to bushfire of flood hazards) or lead to leapfrogging of development beyond existing urban boundaries." The policy doesn't just have "the potential" to do this. We have twelve years of examples where it has happened.
On page 13 the discussion paper raises the issue of councils having the capacity to refuse applications located on environmentally sensitive land. Time and time again Warringah's experience is that extraordinary evidence has to be presented to satisfy the Land and Environment Court that a tract of metropolitan bushland is environmentally sensitive. This is reinforced by Warringah's dealing with DUAP over its innovative draft Local Environment Plan (discussed in more detail below). The initial document actually identified non-urban sites that were too environmentally sensitive for SEPP5 development but DUAP forced council to remove these indications from the documents. The irony is that in early 1970s the (non-Labor!) state government placed an "Interim Development Order" over all of the non-urban land within the catchment of Narrabeen Lagoon in order to prevent further degradation of water quality. If this had been called instead an "Environmental Protection Order" (which was clearly its intended purpose) then the land would probably be safe from SEPP5 development.
A serious omission from the table in Appendix 3 is an estimate of
amount of metropolitan bushland that has been cleared to make way for
developments. The Society has prepared a map of SEPP5-affected bushland
in Warringah, based on the urban bushland maps prepared by the Nature
Council of NSW (a notable omission from the organisations consulted
the Review). This shows an alarming number bushland sites that have
cleared or are under threat. The map is on the Internet at
but is in need of updating due to recent events.
A related key issue in Warringah is bushfire danger. The disastrous 1994 bushfire saw emergency services in the area stretched to the limit because they had to organise the evacuation of aged people from numerous retirement villages on the fringes of developed areas, adjacent to bushland. There was a particularly dangerous situation at Cromer Heights, which has only one access road. One controversial retirement village is located at Cromer Heights and proved a major concern in 1994, even though it was only partially occupied. Owners of other non-urban land at Cromer Heights are looking at SEPP5 developments. As the events in 1994 showed, all of these sites are highly susceptible to bushfires because they are adjacent to bushland and yet Council appears to be powerless to refuse approval on the basis this danger.
Page 13 of the discussion paper raises the issue of Councils being granted exemption from SEPP5 if it can be demonstrated that their zoning controls incorporate suitable provisions for aged and disabled housing. This approach is long overdue.
In 1996 the Society's Convenor, Michael Paine, was appointed to Warringah Council's LEP Community Advisory Committee (CAC). This committee of community volunteers was introduced to the idea of a place-based planning document and had highly productive meetings with planning consultant John Mant, who conceived the innovative approach. Early in the process CAC developed a set of objectives for the new LEP that included:
In particular CAC recognised the need to accommodate an increasing proportion of aged people in Warringah. CAC realised that, in Warringah, the continued development of retirement villages in bushland on the fringes of developed areas was inappropriate - problems include bushfire danger, steep terrain, loss of bushland, threat to waterways, lack of services and transport and isolation from the rest of the community. The LEP therefore included mechanisms to provide suitable housing in more appropriate areas. For example, the new LEP provides for "granny flats" and "unique development sites". The latter enable much greater flexibility in the styles of buildings used in the development of large sites. For example, some of the recent innovative Department of Housing townhouse/cluster developments in Narraweena would fit into this category. From the outside these developments fit in with the character of the local area but they are designed to make very efficient use of the site.
- protecting natural areas such as bushland and lakes and
- providing a variety of housing to suit the differing needs of the residents of Warringah.
- protecting the visual qualities of the natural features of Warringah
A problem appears to be that non-government developers are reluctant to proceed with these types of innovative developments because SEPP5 developments on non-urban land are much more lucrative - the land is cheaper and s94 contributions are avoided.
CAC also did initial work on the concept of urban villages which would enable older residents to remain in the local community through selling their detached house and moving into easy-to-maintain town house associated with a local shopping centre. Unfortunately the issue was dealt with inadequately by Council and a community backlash resulted from the misinformation that circulated. Many CAC members still see this as the best option to address Warringah's future housing needs, including coping with an aging population.
Along with Councillors and Council staff, members of CAC are finding it extremely frustrating that their careful work to plan the future development of Warringah is being undermined by SEPP5. This is aggravated by frequent references in the discussion paper to developments not being "out of character with the area" but this term is not defined. Warringah's new LEP is based on "statements of desired character" for localities but it is understood that DUAP insisted that SEPP5 developments should not be subject to conformance with such statements.
A related concern is that developers are using the "threat" of a
development to force Council into considering residential sub-division
of non-urban land. Council has already caved in to a residential
at Belrose and apparently the same outcome is intended for a huge SEPP5
proposal by the Catholic Church at Red Hill.
Page 14 of the discussion paper sets out suggested action to address concerns about SEPP5.
The short term action list fails to address a key issue - uncertainty about the definition of "environmentally sensitive" land. As indicated above, Land and Environment Court decisions have not been reassuring on this issue. Such a definition must result in the protection of remaining metropolitan bushland and the catchments of vulnerable waterways. Furthermore, the 1998 amendment which removed protection for land which had scenic quality should be reversed because scenic natural areas are a major asset of Sydney.
In view of the problems identified in the discussion paper the
action should be to place a moratorium on all SEPP5 developments. The
term needs of aged and disabled people will not be adversely affected
such a temporary move. Under current arrangements environmental damage
is being done and many precious areas will be lost during the time it
to complete and implement the review. For example, nearly all current
proposed SEPP5 applications in Warringah are in environmentally
areas and the moratorium would serve to protect these areas until the
SEPP5 is well intentioned and has focused attention on the accommodation needs of aged and disabled people. Unfortunately, however, it has introduced an element of greed into the equation. The resulting onslaught of inappropriate developments is wrecking responsible town planning initiatives by councils and is destroying the few remaining tracts of unprotected bushland in the Sydney metropolitan area.
This September hundreds of thousands of Olympic visitors will marvel at the way Sydney has managed to retain its natural features. The State Government needs to act now to protect many of these natural areas from a State planning policy that has gone awry.
The looming disasters in Warringah that are likely to result from the current SEPP5 are:
Convenor, Red Hill Preservation Society