Are strategic assessments a good idea?

Strategic assessments under the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) have been running for several years now. What are they? What opportunities do they offer? What are the risks?

What is a strategic assessment?

Strategic assessments are a landscape scale assessment under Part 10 of the EPBC Act. Unlike site-​by-​site assessments which look at individual actions (e.g a port or a mine), strategic assessments can consider a much broader set of issues. For example, a large urban growth area that will be developed over many years.

At a very broad level, the strategic assessment process occurs in two steps:

  1. Assessment and endorsement of a “policy, plan or program” (e.g. the NSW Government program to develop the Western Sydney growth centres)
  2. Approval of actions or classes of actions that are associated with the endorsed policy, plan or program. It is this second step that allows development to proceed across potentially a large area without the further need for EPBC Act approval. This can have a huge benefit in reducing the regulatory burden on developers

Strategic assessments are commonly undertaken by a state or territory government in partnership with the Commonwealth. These assessments are also beginning to be adopted by industry to drive a project with the Commonwealth to achieve a strategic approval.

An overview of the process is available on the Commonwealth Environment Department’s website.

What opportunities do strategic assessments offer?

Looking at development at a landscape scale provides a number of important opportunities. It has long been argued that site-by-site development approval is the path of “death by a thousand cuts”. Strategic assessments on the other hand offer the opportunity to deal with cumulative impacts and look for both development and conservation outcomes at a much larger scale.

They also offer the opportunity to:

  • Work through a single assessment process rather than potentially hundreds of site-​by-​site processes. This can lead to enormous time and cost savings
  • Achieve positive planning outcomes such as well planned and funded infrastructure. As opposed to a haphazard response to development pressure
  • Join up Commonwealth and state approval processes providing greater certainty for developers

What are the risks in strategic assessments?

Based on the experience to date there are a number of risks associated with the process:

  • There can be a lack of clarity about how to conduct the assessment, what information is needed, and what is the actual scope of the policy, plan or program
  • Unlike for site-​by-​site assessments, there are limited statutory timeframes for strategic assessments
  • Given the scale of the assessments, politics can play a much larger role in the process and potential outcome
  • State and territory governments committing to long term actions to protect the environment (e.g. funding management of reserves for 30+ years) is proving a big challenge. Government’s are particularly reluctant to make long term funding commitments

The experience of Open Lines suggests that there are a number of things that can be done to mitigate these risks. Key among them is establishing a strong and positive working relationship between the parties. A real effort at collaboration, management of expectations and high level support for the process are vital to achieving a successful outcome.