State Significant Agricultural Land Use Planning Policy

Articles Written by Samantha Daly (Partner), Angus Hannam (Senior Associate)

The NSW Government released a report prepared by the NSW Agriculture Commissioner, Mr Daryl Quinlivan, on Improving the Prospects for Agriculture and Regional Australia in the NSW Planning System on 31 October 2021. The Commissioner made 13 separate recommendations directed at adjusting the planning system in NSW to improve the regulatory environment for the agriculture sector, and reduce land use conflicts involving agricultural and neighbouring operations. At the heart of the recommendations were:

  • The phased development of a statutory State Significant Agricultural Land Use Planning Policy (ALUP Policy) to recognise the importance of land for agriculture and clarify how agricultural land use should be regulated in the planning system; and
  • Creation of a map of State Significant Agricultural Land (SSAL) to support the ALUP Policy and inform planning authorities, landholders and developers about the location of the best agricultural land in the state.

Development of a statutory ALUP Policy and mapping system for SSAL could have important ramifications for competing land-users in rural areas, in particular for existing and proposed developments in the energy and resources sector, including a growing number of renewable energy projects. The NSW Minister for Agriculture, Mr Adam Marshall, has said that the Government will respond to the recommendations in coming months.

The problem of competing land uses

The review examined how the NSW planning system accommodates competing land uses and their impacts. For rural and peri-urban land, conflicts arise through the need to meet demands for housing, industrial development, essential local and regional infrastructure and services, as well as production agriculture and conservation. Such developments co-exist in rural settings with land used for mining, quarrying, and energy production and transmission.

Whilst on the one hand, the NSW Government has supported the agriculture industry’s objective of growing farmgate production to $30 billion by 2030 (from 2017-2018, NSW agricultural output was around $13 billion), a renewed interest from producers and investors in the agriculture sector is coming up against growing urban populations, an expanding urban footprint to meet population demand, and increasing interest in rural residential development and lifestyles. In his report, Commissioner Quinlivan stated that the message from local councils and industry received during public consultation was clear – to manage agricultural land use conflict, a specific policy response was required.

The ALUP Policy

At present, there is no NSW Government policy on the priority and preferred use of agricultural land. In consultations conducted as part of the review, councils voiced their frustration at the lack of guidance on how to prioritise and plan for agriculture. As an initial step to improve the way in which agriculture is considered in land use planning, the Commissioner recommended the formulation of a specific policy on agricultural land use along a number of principles (as set out in Attachment 3 of the report), including that:

  • The policy should apply to land mapped as SSAL and guide planning authorities on how to plan for agriculture in strategic planning where it is identified as a priority land use;
  • It should not ban any land uses, but rather apply a greater level of consideration to non-agricultural land uses on SSAL; and
  • It should not alter the permissibility of developments permitted under an environmental planning instrument (such as mining under the Mining SEPP) or replace environmental impact assessment requirements in the EP&A Act.

The development of a policy with statutory backing was preferred by most stakeholders over a voluntary policy or guidance material. In conjunction with the policy, the Commissioner recommended that the Government consider adopting further “considerations” in the Primary Production and Rural Development SEPP (PPRD SEPP) to direct councils on how to respond to developments on and around SSAL. 

Proposed SSAL mapping

To support the ALUP Policy, the Commissioner recommended development of a SSAL map which would define and identify SSAL. As a starting point, the map will draw on existing data sets, for instance, the Biophysical Strategic Agricultural Land mapping, mapping of irrigated lands and the North Coast Farmland mapping, to be supplemented over time with “Identified Protection Areas”, defined as areas having demonstrated or potential capacity for specialised production systems, and other areas identified and zoned for higher value or specialised agricultural production. It was recommended that the Government consult with relevant industries and councils on their development goals for agriculture and how Identified Protection Areas could be implemented across NSW.

Since releasing the Commissioner’s report and recommendations, the NSW Department of Primary Industries has released a draft SSAL map for exhibition and comment, until 24 December 2021. Stakeholders have been invited to make submissions on the preliminary map and landowners have been given the opportunity to provide evidence to DPI as to whether mapped land meets the definition for SSAL.

Implications for the energy and resources sector

Whilst the Commissioner indicated that his review did not consider many of the issues raised during consultation relating to water, mining, biodiversity and forestry, noting ongoing review processes in those areas (such as the Private Native Forestry Review and the review into the Biodiversity Offsets Scheme), his report commented on the renewable energy sector as an emerging frontier of land-use conflict. Stakeholders expressed concerns about the development of renewable energy infrastructure and associated transmission capacity on agricultural land. For example, submissions to the review voiced concerns about landscape disturbance, the impact of value on nearby land, the fragmentation or sterilisation of good agricultural land, and uncertainty around decommissioning obligations and outcomes.

The NSW Government aims to focus renewable energy development through its Electricity Strategy and Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap, which will deliver Renewable Energy Zones. Development of infrastructure for renewable energy generation will inevitably involve the use of agricultural land, however, as the Commissioner stated in his report:

“There is a pressing need for this energy supply and the required transmission infrastructure. … energy infrastructure is a source of diversified income for landowners, independent of the variable income streams associated with agriculture … There will be a transition phase as renewable developments respond to the opportunities in these locations, and landowners in these areas will be affected in different ways and react accordingly.”

The Commissioner considered that the NSW Government should ensure that the impact on agricultural land is minimised where this is a realistic option, and communities are reassured about decommissioning arrangements and their other concerns where this is feasible. He noted that the DPIE is currently undertaking a public consultation process in relation to these objectives.

The timing of the finalisation of the SSAL policy has not yet been confirmed. In the meantime land-owners and energy and resources companies should provide any feedback to the DPI on both the SSAL map and the objectives mentioned above in respect of the coexistence of renewable energy projects and agricultural land.  

Important Disclaimer: The material contained in this article is comment of a general nature only and is not and nor is it intended to be advice on any specific professional matter. In that the effectiveness or accuracy of any professional advice depends upon the particular circumstances of each case, neither the firm nor any individual author accepts any responsibility whatsoever for any acts or omissions resulting from reliance upon the content of any articles. Before acting on the basis of any material contained in this publication, we recommend that you consult your professional adviser. Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation (Australia-wide except in Tasmania).

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