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:
- Assessment and endorsement of a “policy, plan or program” (e.g. the NSW Government program to develop the Western Sydney growth centres)
- 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.