The Regional Planning Interests Bill (Qld) is legislation squarely directed at the resources industry in Queensland.
If the Bill is passed in its current form, it will generally prevent resources activities being carried out in areas of regional interest. While resource project proponents will be able to apply for a regional interests authority to carry out their activities in these areas, it would seem they will only be permitted if both the state government and relevant local governments agree.
So, will these new regional interests authorities better “manage the impact of resource activities and other regulated activities on areas of the State that contribute, or are likely to contribute, to Queensland’s economic, social and environmental prosperity”, as intended by the Bill?
Or is it simply another layer of regulatory burden on the resources industry, and another means by which resources projects can be challenged and refused?
The Bill’s basic stance is that resources activities (and other regulated activities which will be identified in regulations) cannot be carried out in areas of regional interest.
However, it does offer a process for applying for a regional interests authority which would allow such activities to be carried out in those areas. The process allows various bodies (which seem to include, as a minimum, the relevant local council) to have input into the grant of a regional interests authority and any conditions attaching to such an authority.
For some applications, any person can make submissions which will need to be considered by an assessor. It seems likely that any matter raised in submissions against a regional interests authority will likely be the same as issues raised against any tenement approval or environmental authority. So project proponents may find themselves having to deal with the same issues multiple times in different forums.
For some resource authorities, most notably mining leases, the grant of the resource authority occurs after an application process during which the decision maker (usually the Minister) must take into account a number of factors including the public interest.
For mining leases, a decision about the grant must also take into account other factors such as alternate land uses. With consideration already needing to be given to these factors, which would include impacts on local communities, impacts on agricultural activities etc, it seems that a large part of the function of a regional interest authority is already covered as part of that decision making process.
It is also concerning that regional interests, as expressed by any local government, would override broader State interests. This is because, under the Bill, the chief executive, who makes the ultimate decision on whether the regional interests authority will be granted, must “give effect” to any recommendations given by a local government in response to the application.
There does not appear to be any ability for the State to override the views of the local council regardless of the potential benefits to the State as a whole. That is, regional interests will take priority over State interests.
The Bill is also designed to give strategic regional plans some legislative force for the purposes of resources legislation. At present, strategic regional plans exist as statutory instruments under the Sustainable Planning Act 2009 (Qld) which is generally excluded from the operation of resources legislation.
The existing statutory regional plans, while mentioning the importance of the resources industry in their areas of operation, focus primarily on the importance of the agricultural sector and urban development. As might be expected from a document prepared primarily as a planning document, the statutory regional plans developed to date do not include any substantive measures designed to support or facilitate the resources industry.
Also, the existing statutory regional plans do not appear to be limited in how often they can be amended and therefore how often the various areas of regional interest can be expanded or changed.
The Bill foreshadows that a significant degree of detail will be included in regulations so the full impacts of the Bill can not be assessed until those regulations are released.
However, if the Bill is passed in its current form, resources projects will generally be excluded from areas of regional interest.