Australia — STATE Government policies to preserve native vegetation have led to high fuel loads on public land and greater wildfire risk, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard today.
Neil Young QC said the government can no longer leave it to local councils to juggle the competing interests in native vegetation preservation and land policies that protect the public from bushfires.
He said it is time for the government to take statewide and strategic control of planning and set the agenda for reducing the risk of bushfires.
Mr Young, appearing for local councils and the Municipal Association of Victoria, said bushfire safety was not the highest priority in state planning laws.
The States native vegetation framework has largely been formulated without any real regard to bushfire risk, he said.
The consequence of that policy has been to lead to increasing fuel loads in state forests, national parks and areas adjacent to them.
Mr Young said councils had to try and control development planning application by planning application and they were not allowed to ban new building, even in the highest risk areas.
Councils have fairly limited tools to address bushfire risk, particularly in areas approximate to state forests or national parks, he said.
The existing zones do not contemplate areas where development is entirely prohibited.
State planning system priorities were native vegetation preservation – particularly within the Department of Sustainability and Environment – and bushfire risk was not a primary consideration.
Local planning laws were limited in changing land use in response to bushfires, Mr Young said.
They are forward looking, don’t cover exisiting use, are reactive to planning applications and can only change land use very slowly and over many years.
Councils are at the bottom of the state planning system and they have to act within state policies, he told the commission.
The control of land use and development in high risk bushfire zones and the impact of population growth and climate change are issues of high public policy which justify a common strategic reponse by the State Government.
Some of Victorias poorest councils were also those with the highest risk in bushfires and the government should set out the priority that should be given to reducing the risks to property and lives.