The NSW Rural Fire Service has announced a formal review and changes to its controversial 10/50 Vegetation Clearing Code of Practice in the face of community concerns that property owners in urban areas were misusing the clearing entitlement to improve views or facilitate future development.

The Code of Practice was brought in under new laws allowing property owners on or near bush fire prone land to cut down trees on their own land without state or local approval. The laws were introduced as a response to community concerns after the 2013 New South Wales bushfires which destroyed more than 200 homes.

From 1 August 2014 the Rural Fires Act 1997 permits land owners in the designated ‘10/50 vegetation clearing entitlement area’ to remove trees within 10 metres of a residential building, child care centre, school or hospital, as well as shrubs up to 50 metres away. A map of the clearing entitlement area is published on the Rural Fire Service website.

The Code of Practice sets out what can be cleared which includes all types of vegetation other than mangroves and salt marsh on public land. However, where the land is steeper than an 18 degree slope, trees can only be removed if approved by a geotechnical engineer. Clearing is also restricted where it would be inconsistent with specific land management agreements, or carried out near streams or on Aboriginal or other cultural heritage property.

Importantly, clearing under the Code of Practice may be carried out despite any approval, consent or other authorisation required for the work, including under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979. The clearing entitlement also overrides any development application refusals or conditions of consent.

Since the new laws took effect, large numbers of trees have reportedly been cut down across greater Sydney. Councils and residents have raised concerns that the clearing entitlement is being misused by property owners to circumvent environmental and planning laws rather than for legitimate purposes of bushfire risk management.

In response, the Rural Fire Service has reduced the clearing entitlement area which previously covered properties within 350 metres of Category 1 and Category 2 bush fire prone vegetation. From 30 September 2014 the distance from Category 2 vegetation (which poses a reduced fire risk) has been reduced from 350 metres to 150 metres. Councils can now also reclassify smaller parcels of vegetation from Category 1 to Category 2 which may further reduce the entitlement area.

A formal review of the Code of Practice which was to take place after 12 months was additionally brought forward to commence on 1 October 2014. Submissions to the Rural Fire Service closed 14 November 2014.