In a move that would homogenise towns and encourage dense and high-rise development with total disregard for the surrounding natural environment, the NSW Government is threatening to impose a generic development plan on the Blue Mountains Local Government Area.
The City of Blue Mountains is surrounded by the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Once, the attainment of World Heritage status would garner respect and be revered by local communities and tourists. Today this no longer appears to be the case with more and more valuable tracts of fragile land being put at risk as a result of development. A saddening truth pervades – one that bears little sensitivity or understanding of the critical importance of our remaining wild areas.
The Blue Mountains, on the doorstep of Sydney, is a unique area – yet one now under threat from this one-size-fits-all generic development approach. Having evolved over millennia, the Blue Mountains is an area of particular natural significance – few places in the world can boast of being surrounded by over a million hectares of wilderness. With its varied ecosystems and biodiversity, 300 metre cliffs, canyons and waterfalls, the area is part of the system of eight National Parks that make up the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, recognised by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and awarded World Heritage Status in 2000.
One of only 197 natural sites globally[i] the World Heritage-listed National Park, the most visited in NSW, is regarded as the “lungs” of the Sydney basin and represents one of the largest, most intact tracts of protected bushland in Australia.
It is here though, in this wild and rugged landscape, on the edge of the country’s largest metropolis, that the NSW Government is threatening to impose a “one-size-fits-all” Local Environmental Plan and remove or downgrade the key environmental provisions it had previously supported – provisions, which are crucial to protecting the Blue Mountains, character towns and villages and the valuable National Parks.
The community is worried that if the environmental and heritage protections that are contained in the current LEPs are not carried over into the new plan this made lead to increasingly dense and high-rise development on the townships, with their quiet tree-lined streets and century-old homes, whilst jeopardising the National Parks – compromising its UNESCO World Heritage status.
In 2012 the Blue Mountains City Council was asked by state government to develop a new Local Environment Plan, one consistent with the mandated standard state-wide planning model. In doing so, the primary objective was to conserve the stunning World Heritage Area as well as the historical towns and villages. Current planning guidelines have successfully regulated the impact of urban development on the National Parks, ensuring too that the small towns and villages aren’t subjected to increasingly dense and high-rise urban development.
When the initial draft LEP was developed the previous planning minister made a commitment that special consideration would be given to the Blue Mountains, given its significance, and this was welcomed by the community. However, its now understood that the NSW Department of Planning has concerns with the draft Plan and no longer supports the inclusion of these key protective provisions.
For over two decades the community and Council have worked tirelessly to develop a plan that incorporates appropriate measures to protect the fragile eco systems as well as the towns and villages, yet now it appears the NSW government is going to remove or downgrade these because they don’t fit the standard state-wide planning model.
It is quite incomprehensible that the Blue Mountains, an area of such outstanding ecological significance and cultural importance could be forced to fit into a one-size-fits-all development plan – one more suited to suburban areas. UNESCO recognises the threat too, that urban development brings – citing exemplary management of the towns and villages as critical to the future of the World Heritage Area.
To date, there has been no commitment by planning minister Robert Stokes and the Department of Planning to uphold the earlier commitment made and the community continue to campaign to keep the current protections.
If the government doesn’t recognise the ecological significance of the Blue Mountains and accept that the key protective measures are necessary, then sadly the future of a very ancient, fragile and globally significant region will be endangered.
Lachlan Garland, a Blue Mountains resident for more than 20 years and keen environmentalist, has been involved at a community level in the development of the local environment plan.
Below are highlights of a QandA on the Blue Mountains planning issue, produced by the Blue Mountains Conservation Society.
What is the NSW government proposing for the Blue Mountains?
The NSW government is threatening to force a “one-size-fits-all” LEP onto the Blue Mountains without many of the critical special local provisions we have in our current LEPs (LEPs 1991 and 2005). If this goes ahead, key environmental and built character protections will be lost or downgraded. The NSW government had previously supported these additional standards.
How will this impact the Blue Mountains region?
The Blue Mountains is surrounded by national parks which are internationally recognised as the Greater Blue Mountains Blue Mountains World Heritage Area Nearly all the residential areas and towns in the Blue Mountains directly border onto the GBMWHA. If the generic ‘one-size-fits-all’ development plan is forced on the Blue Mountains by the NSW Government, the future of the GBMWHA will be jeopardised. The character towns and villages, with their quiet tree-lined streets, will also be subject to increasingly dense and high-rise development. The area cannot retain its character and conserve its World Heritage National Parks if it is developed as if it were a Sydney suburb.
If the current provisions are not retained the environmental values of the GBMWHA will be at risk. This includes increased sediment and weeds entering the GBMWHA; increased risk of stormwater leaving urban areas and polluting pristine creeks and rivers such as the Grose River; and the risk of development impinging on the threatened Blue Mountains swamps. The degradation of the swamps will put certain threatened animal species at further risk, such as the Blue Mountains Water Skink and Giant Dragonfly.
What provisions are currently in place to protect the World Heritage Status of the Blue Mountains National Parks and character of the villages?
The current LEPs includes specific environmental provisions that have successfully regulated the impact of urban development on the fragile eco systems of the National Parks. The current LEPs also have specific provisions to protect local heritage and preserve the built character of the Blue Mountains villages.
What has been the process in developing an appropriate new Blue Mountains LEP?
The Blue Mountains community and Council have worked hard over the past 20 years to develop a Local Environmental Plan that will protect the stunning natural environment and GBMWHA, and the village character of the townships. The current Blue Mountains draft LEP 2013 is based on the key elements of LEP 2005 – for which community contribution began in 1994, was completed in 2002 and gazetted in 2005. Significant steps in the process included a draft LEP in 1997, a Commission of Inquiry in 1998 and the exhibition of a new draft LEP in 2002, which became LEP 2005. At each stage there was widespread community participation, with over 1400 submissions during the final exhibition stage for LEP 2002. If the NSW Government rejects the Blue Mountains DLEP 2013, which is based on 20 years of widespread community participation, democracy is being compromised.
In 2013, the Blue Mountains City Council, in conjunction with the community, prepared the Draft Blue Mountains LEP 2013 (DLEP) to comply with the one size fits all Standard LEP template, now mandatory across NSW. In developing the new plan, two of the key objectives were to conserve the World Heritage Area and character towns and villages.
The Blue Mountains City Council attempted to achieve the same environmental protection and built character outcomes in DLEP 2013 as in previous LEPs (1991 and 2005). This was largely achieved through the addition of several key existing provisions into the new LEP.
The inclusion of these existing provisions in the new LEP was initially accepted by then Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard, and the NSW Department of Planning and were included in the draft exhibited Plan. They include:
- a Schedule of Significant Vegetation Communities found outside of the National Park, and specific provisions aimed at protecting these communities
- a higher standard for proposed developments to “comply with” zone objectives and the aims of the draft LEP
- the effective management of stormwater runoff (amount and quality) to ensure it has no adverse impact on the GBMWHA; and
- built character provisions including a proposed Residential Character Conservation zone (R6) to replace the existing Living-Conservation zone, and designated Period Housing Areas.
The draft Plan was widely endorsed by the community during the public exhibition process, with some two-thirds of submissions in support. Six months after the draft plan was submitted to the Department of Planning in November 2014, the Council and community learnt that “it appears that the Department are no longer advocating for the inclusion of most, if not all, of these key provisions” (Mayoral Minute to Council meeting of 19th May 2015). The community feels that the Department of Planning has not kept faith with it, approving the exhibition of a draft plan key elements of which it apparently now no longer supports.
The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area
The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area (GBMWHA) is noted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for its evolutionary adaptation and diversification. World Heritage status is bestowed on sites of special cultural or physical significance of which there are less than 200 listed globally for natural significance. The Blue Mountains is one and received its listing in 2000.
Noteworthy for its biodiversity, it is home to significant numbers of rare or threatened species, including endemic and evolutionary relict species, such as the Wollemi pine, which have persisted in highly restricted microsites.
If the environmental measures that are currently in place to protect the environment are removed the future of the World Heritage listing will be compromised.
About the Blue Mountains
The City of the Blue Mountains local government area comprises 27-character filled towns and villages spread along 100km of mountainous terrain. With a population of approximately 78,000, the area covers 1,431 sq km with 70 per cent of it comprising World Heritage National Park and only 11 per cent available for settlement. Due to the historic and current “ribbon” development along the ridges, nearly all the residential areas and towns within the Blue Mountains directly back onto bushland or national park.
Areas outside the national park also contain significant areas of bushland, which have value in their own right, including an estimated 13,000 ha of publicly and privately owned bushland. Careful management of these bushland areas is vital as much of these natural areas border the World Heritage-listed national park.
As an area of great natural beauty and rich cultural resources the Blue Mountains attracts millions of international and domestic tourists every year. If the UNESCO-listing of the National parks was lost the industry and associated local businesses would be significantly impacted.