The Sustainable Ports Development Bill 2015 (the Bill) was introduced by the Queensland Government to parliament on 3 June 2015. The introduction of the Bill comes days after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Committee (UNESCO) released a draft recommendation that the Great Barrier Reef not be included on the “in danger” list.

Consistent with one of the Government’s key election promises, the Bill seeks to provide long term protection to the Great Barrier Reef by managing port development in and around the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA). The Bill will regulate four priority ports, being the ports of Abbot Point, Gladstone, Townsville and the port of Hay Point and Mackay (Priority Ports).

History

In recent years, protection of the Great Barrier Reef has become a significant focus of State and Federal governments, who have promised to implement legislation aimed at safeguarding the future of the Reef and the economic prosperity of the regions.

The previous Queensland Government’s Ports Strategy and the lapsed Ports Bill 2014 (Qld) (Lapsed Bill) sought to implement a legislative framework to regulate port planning and development, and restrict port related dredging.

As reported previously, the federal government has also announced a ban on the disposal of capital dredge spoil within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (see our previous alert). On 28 May 2015, theGreat Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment (Capital Dredge Spoil Dumping) Regulation 2015 (Cth) was made, which operates to prohibit the dumping of capital dredge spoil in the marine park.

Approach to Port Planning

The Bill, in its current form, has given life to some key concepts contained in the Lapsed Bill. If passed, the Bill will create a largely self-contained, two part port planning framework for Priority Ports comprising of Minister made:

  • master plans - a high level plan setting the strategic vision for each priority port; and
  • port overlays - which will regulate port development in a master planned area.

A key aspect of the Bill is the introduction of port overlays (POL). POLs will give the Minister greater control over development at Priority Ports including the ability to:

  • direct how the relevant local government makes and amends planning schemes;
  • change the level of assessment for development carried out in master planned areas; and
  • make land use plans under the Transport Infrastructure Act 1994 (Qld) redundant as the POL will prevail where there is an inconsistency between the two instruments.

POLs will also prevail over inconsistencies with a planning instrument made under the Sustainable Planning Act 2009 (Qld) (SP Act). Once a POL comes into effect the relevant authority administering a development scheme under the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971 (Qld) and under the Economic Development Act 2012 (Qld) must review development schemes for inconsistencies with a POL. The administering authority must then decide whether to amend the development scheme or table a report before parliament explaining why a decision was made not to amend the scheme.

Capital dredging and disposal

As recently foreshadowed in the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, the Bill seeks to make significant changes to port related dredging. Importantly, the Bill will:

  • ban capital dredging in the GBRWHA (this prohibition will not apply to capital dredging in a master planned area or for projects subject to an active EIS);
  • prohibit sea-based disposal of capital dredge spoil in the GBRWHA;
  • mandate beneficial reuse (eg land reclamation, beach nourishment etc) or land-based disposal of port-related capital dredge spoil; and
  • require the Minister to refuse development applications relating to port facilities that are within the GBRWHA and outside the existing limits of the port (this will not include applications for dredging or disposal of dredge spoil).

These changes will require solutions to be found to manage on shore dredge spoil through either beneficial reuse or land disposal. Further, the increased costs of on shore capital dredge spoil reuse or disposal may have implications for port authorities, port users and on the viability of future port expansions.

Maintenance dredging and disposal

The Bill does not regulate maintenance dredge spoil disposal (ie dredging required for ongoing operation of existing port facilities) and port authorities will continue to follow existing processes under State and Federal laws for dredging and associated maintenance dredge spoil disposal.

State planning regime

The Queensland Government recently announced that State planning laws will be re-written. As stated in the Better Planning for Queensland directions paper, the SP Act and Regulation will be repealed and replaced with a new a Planning Act and supporting Regulation (see our previous alert).

While the Bill is predicated on the current SP Act regime, the Bill and the new Planning Act will need to interact to regulate port development in the future.

Next steps

The Bill has now been referred to the Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources Committee who is required to report on the Bill by 1 September 2015.

The Queensland Government has announced that the master planning process will commence for Gladstone and Abbot Point later this year, and next year for Hay Point/Mackay and Townsville ports. Consultation will occur prior to the implementation of master plans.