NSW government refuses to stop the carnage of trees

As Christmas approaches, there is no reprieve in sight for the thousands of trees, including threatened species, destined to be destroyed under the NSW Government’s bushfire vegetation clearing legislation known as Code 10/50.

Two sets of changes to the code have been announced in as little as four months and there have been more than 1800 submissions to the review of the code, raising significant concerns about its rationale and widespread misuse across NSW.

However, despite growing community anger, the government has declined to stop the carnage while the review of the code is underway, giving the green light for the removal of thousands more trees, with little understanding of how such activity might actually improve property owners’ overall preparedness for bushfire.

What is Code 10/50?

The legislation enabling Code 10/50 was rushed through Parliament with no community consultation in July 2014 and came into effect on 1 August 2014.

The alleged intention of the code is to help landowners protect their property from bushfire by enabling them to remove vegetation on their land (including trees) within 10 metres of habitable residences and other vegetation (excluding trees) within 50 metres of such residences (it does not have to be their own).

Vegetation removal under the code is fully self-assessed, and residents living within an “entitlement” area as identified by the Rural Fire Service online tool can remove vegetation on their land without approval or neighbourly consultation.

Although there are some restrictions on vegetation removal under the code, no mechanism is in place to monitor that these are being adhered to, or to record who is removing what, why they are doing so, and whether their action will indeed reduce the risk of property loss due to bushfire.

The code overrides all local council tree preservation orders, as well as NSW threatened species legislation, but does not override Commonwealth legislation.

Bridge Street, Lane Cove, before

The rationale behind Code 10/50

Documentation recently obtained by the NSW Greens under freedom of information legislation has revealed that Code 10/50 is at least partly based on research exploring the factors associated with property loss during extreme fire events, such as those in Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT.

This research has found that 85 per cent of houses burnt during these events were located within 100 metres of bushland. It also suggests that removing vegetation within 40m of properties is an important way of minimising property loss in the event of bushfire.

However, it is also important to recognise that while vegetation clearing around properties is important within a defined distance of bushland, it does not eliminate the risk of bushfire and there is still significant residual risk to property and individuals.

Moreover, vegetation removal under Code 10/50 is only one of many factors responsible for property loss in the event of bushfire. Studies have shown that housing density is also an important factor in limiting the transmission of fire, as is the weather, overall building placement, design and construction.

From a bushfire perspective, a problematic result of Code 10/50 is the message it sends to residents that by removing vegetation from their

Bridge Street, Lane Cove, after

property, they are now safe from bushfire. In doing so, the code overrides the previous system in NSW whereby property owners concerned about bushfire could elect to have an RFS officer assess their property and design a site-specific plan of management that may or may not have involved vegetation removal.

Not only is the self-assessable nature of the code inherently flawed in terms of bushfire risk management, it is continuing to lead to gross misuse across the state.

Code 10/50 impacts to date

Since there is no formal system in place to monitor the impacts (positive or negative) associated with the code, we must rely on information collected by local councils and concerned community members.

This is what has been recorded or observed to date:

  • The self-assessable nature of the code means that it is being widely misused by landowners across NSW for reasons that have nothing to do with bushfire protection. In the Lane Cove municipality, for example, the council has recorded a total of 216 trees removed, only four of which residents said had anything to do with bushfire. Views, house extensions, development, property damage and leaves in swimming pools are given as key reasons for tree removal under the code.
  • Threatened species protected under Commonwealth legislation are being destroyed through the use of the code since there is no monitoring in place of to record what is being removed.
  • Excess mulch from tree removal is routinely being spread over gardens or dumped illegally near bushland. This in itself is increasing the risk of bushfire.
  • Unscrupulous operators have entered the industry as a result of excess demand for tree removal and have been seen operating with scant regard for their own or others’ safety.
  • Vegetation removal under the code has created tensions, and sometimes lasting divisions between neighbours, as mature trees are removed without consultation or warning.
  • The code has not been integrated into the planning system, with the Land and Environment Court recently refusing a development application because it had the potential to lead to removal under the code of endangered Blue Gum High Forest.
  • Opportunist property developers are manipulating the system in order to facilitate the removal of trees from development sites by using the code and then demolishing existing dwellings before submitting a development application.
Ronald Avenue, Lane Cove, before

Interestingly, freedom of information documentation obtained by the NSW Greens has revealed that the Office of Environment and Heritage did not make a submission to the code when it was originally proposed, suggesting that threatened species should not inhibit clearing around homes.

In doing so, OEH failed to assess the impacts of the code not only on threatened species, but also on heritage-listed trees, our environment and community wellbeing as a whole.

Research shows that a five per cent reduction in tree cover can result in a 1-2 degrees increase in ambient air temperature, increasing the risk of our most vulnerable community members to extreme heat events and putting additional strain on already stretched electricity resources during hot days.

Trees and green space have also been strongly associated with improved outcomes for community wellbeing and mental health.

This is particularly pertinent given the significant increased densification projected for urban NSW, which threatens to bring with it a loss of vegetation and a worsening of the associated urban island heat effect now known to occur within areas dominated by hard surfaces.

Ronald Avenue, Lane Cove, after

At the time we most need to maintain tree cover, the code is on track to lead to significant defoliation of urban NSW.

Will recent changes to the code make a difference?

In response to community concerns about misuse of the code, there have been two major changes to the code, redefining the scope of the entitlement area (the distance from the nearest area of bushland within which vegetation removal can occur).

The latest of these changes, announced in November, has reduced the entitlement area from 350m to 100m for Category 1 bushland and from 100m to 30m for Category 2 bushland.

The classification of bushland as Category 1 or 2 reflects its vulnerability to bushfire based on relatively rigid RFS guidelines that do not distinguish between small remnants of wet sclerophyll forest, such as those in Lane Cove and elsewhere, and vast tracks of dry forest such as the Blue Mountains National Park.

Although local councils can request downgrading of bushland reserves from 1 to 2, such requests are subject to assessment by the RFS and may take many months to be finalised, if they are accepted at all.

The reduction of the code’s entitlement area is significant and will save thousands of trees. However, within the remaining entitlement areas, self-assessment and the associated misuse of the code will continue.

There is only one responsible course of action: the government must end the self-assessment component of the code, declare a moratorium pending the outcomes of its review and revert to the previous system of site-by-site assessment by RFS officers.

The government would also be well advised to look closely at the equivalent Victorian system known as Code 10/30, a system infinitely more refined than what has been implemented in NSW.

The code comes under the Police and Emergency Services portfolio held by Minister Stuart Ayes, MP for Penrith. If you are concerned, you may contact Minister Ayres at office@ayres.minister.nsw.gov.au.

Corinne Fisher is co-founder of the Better Planning Network and outgoing President of the Lane Cove Bushland and Conservation Society. She has a Master of Environmental Studies from Macquarie University.

13 replies on “Corinne Fisher on tree carnage in Sydney”

  1. Being within 30 meters of a significant bushfire threat (BAL 29), I must say I welcomed the legislation which allowed my family and my neighbors families to manage the bushfire risk of our houses, it’s akin to personal responsibility and accountability. It’s unfortunate that some people have taken advantage of the situation to knock down “those leaf dropping pesky trees” (quote from my father in-law with a pool)

  2. Amazingly poor planning by the NSW State Government!

    What is the Department of Planning thinking …. not much it seems !

    What legal precedent have they used to come up with this new Draconian law ?

    In my view State Government should be abolished so that the real planners & Ecologists in Local Government can manage the environment properly

  3. Twenty years ago, the pride of Lane Cove was its reverence for mentally healthy, leafy suburban areas where children grew up in the shade of gums and the air that is refreshed by them.

    Now that property prices are going through the roof and Mosman wannabes have to settle for the leafy Cove, the wanton destruction of trees comes with a high price.

    I have heard reports from other areas. A friend used to see a lovely valley from their bush land retreat style home. However, wood chippers started using a private road in a neighboring property to illegally dump the chips created by chain sawing gum trees. The result: no longer a valley in sight! Illegal dumping is a fire danger. When will our governments put procedures and checks and balances into their unthoughtful policies!

  4. Horrible, horrible wanton destruction, land owners have just been waiting for this opportunity . They have no idea of the value of trees.

  5. Having lived in Longueville for 35 years the wanted destruction of the trees has changed our area significantly. From leafy tree views previously now we can see right into our neighbours home, their and our privacy is gone, the gardens are burning from the increase in direct sun light and the road noise has increased 1000%. The area is being ruined and since the only fires we have ever experienced are house fires not a single bush fire ever the laws are wrong. The only way to make this go away is at the ballot box.

  6. Call me cynical but this is occurring in all the blue ribbon State seats. If it was occurring in the western suburbs, the legislation would have been repealed 3 months ago.

    In my street alone we lost 26 trees [that I know of] in the space of 2 days. Twenty five of those trees were across four adjoining properties and 10 of the 25 trees lost were on one property alone. The beautiful streetscape has been destroyed. None of these properties have any bushfire risk and the community had fought hard for many years to successfully get this stand of trees protected prior to CSIRO Lindfield subdividing its land. With the stroke of Mr Ayres’ pen it now stands as a signature to his mismanagement.

    1. A clear, informative summary of why/where the legislation has come from (Victoria)and how it is being applied in NSW to the detriment of urban areas that were sensibly protected in Victoria. Perhaps the NSW legislators thought they could get away with claiming it as their own original idea if they tweaked the Victorian legislation a bit and left metropolitan areas in. One thing’s for sure they didn’t waste any time thinking about it, well apart from the knee-jerk reaction to last Summer in the Blue Mountains. As the planet warms, there is sound scientific research showing the benefits of trees in controlling ambient air temperatures reducing the need for artificial methods such as air-conditioning which use energy, create noise pollution and may have health ramifications for some people(Legionnaire’s Disease). Long Live Our Trees ! Or what’s left of them after 10/50.

    2. The front page article in the Sydney Morning Herald 12.12. 2014 sends a chilling message to all who battle for environmental sustainability and human survival on planet earth. Minister Bishop wants “land use change’ to be included in calculating emissions targets. “Land use change” is a euphemism for vegetation clearance.

      In NSW Corinne Fisher’s analysis and assessment of the ramifications of the NSW 10/50 Vegetation Clearance Code reveals how poor the legislation is and how appalling the unintended consequences have been – if indeed they were unintended.

      It also demonstrates how slowly and inadequately response is made to a Code which has clearly misfired. At a local level in NSW where many highly motivated people and organisations are monitoring and publicising just what is happening under the 10/50 Code, where a moratorium should have been called months ago, still the trees are coming down with no accountability from the Minister or relevant authorities.

      The response from our Ministers ? Denial. Then under pressure, blame shifting ( to the RFS ) procrastination and paralysis.

      How will disaster unfold at a national and global level ? Minister Bishop and Minister Robb seem to be motivated by short term goals underpinned by greed and self interest. ( Just like the New South Wales government ) Who will monitor and report the consequences of vegetation clearance at a national or global level ? How many Corinne Fishers and Gaye Whites will be needed to bring accountability on a National or Global scale ?

      As low lying foreshores, islands and estuaries are submerged world wide, and insurance companies collapse under escalating pay outs what will the response be from our Ministers and relevant authorities ?

      Denial, blame shifting, procrastination and paralysis ?

      Long term environmental policy based on scientific evidence must replace current hit and miss policy based on self interest greed and the short term political cycle if we are to reverse this cycle of environmental destruction at local, national and global levels.

  7. THIS MUST STOP

    In Victoria, a 10/30 10/50 rule applies state-wide but 21 metropolitan municipalities are exempt and a 10/50 rule applies only to areas which may be significantly affected by fire. The metropolitan exemptions were explicitly applied for the city and urban council areas in order to avoid loss of landscape amenity.

    Why would NSW bring in this heavy-handed, one-size-fits all approach when they could have learnt from the Victorian application.

    We have lost over 250 of our tallest and most iconic backyard trees in Lane Cove in the first four months of Code 10/50 and a marked loss of our landscape amenity. This needs to stop immediately and the management of reserves returned to local council in metropolitan areas.

    Gaye White

    Greenwich NSW 2065

  8. An excellent article. Despite rising community angst, the government has STILL not put in place an immediate moratorium. Whilst the bureaucrats fiddle around, we are losing more and more trees!

  9. We have precious little bushland left in the suburbs of Sydney yet the Baird Government has decided to allow home owners to become arborists deciding what trees they can remove from their yards. This decision affects not only themselves but their neighbours, people in their suburb and the larger Sydney now and into the future.
    I am not sure when Mike Beard and Stuart Ayres will get the message and realise that this ruling is not saving homes from bushfire risk in the suburbs of Sydney all it is doing it destroying our suburbs.
    Assessment of Bushfire risk is better left to the experts!

  10. A very comprehensive and well written explanation of a complicated piece of legislation. It raises the question as to why the NSW Government thinks it knows better than Victoria (who experience an even greater fire risk then we do) when it decided not to exclude urban areas from the Code. Is there a hidden development-favouring agenda here?

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