by David Gainsford, Executive Director of Priority Projects Assessments, NSW Department of Planning and Environment
The NSW Government is investing a record $73.2 billion over four years in new hospitals, schools, roads, public transport and other vital infrastructure across the state. Infrastructure improves quality of life, making cities and regions better places to live.
The NSW Department of Planning and Environment plays an important role in this, by assessing state significant developments for major infrastructure projects. These are then sent to the Minister for Planning to determine.
Infrastructure can also promote economic growth by allowing the movement of people, resources and ideas.
Roads, electricity and water allow new communities and homes to be built. Schools, parks and libraries build communities and emergency services and hospitals provide essential services. Ports and telecommunications help our economy to grow and keep us connected.
Infrastructure projects determined by the Minister and the Department in the last financial year (2015-2016) were worth $9.7 billion.
There were 13 determinations made within that timeframe, which included projects such as WestConnex M4 East – a part of Australia’s largest road infrastructure project. These approved projects will generate 2,791 operational jobs and 9,706 construction jobs across NSW.
All applications are assessed by the Department on their merits, under state planning legislation, and clear NSW Government policies. These regulations, policies and guidelines allow us to assess and determine infrastructure project applications across the state, with the objective of minimising negative consequences and maximising positive opportunities.
When a government agency is interested in proposing an infrastructure project, they submit a request for Secretary’s Environmental Assessment Requirements from our Department – known as SEARs for short. The request often includes a scoping document with preliminary details about the proposed site and project.
The Department may then issue SEARs to the applicant, which provide a framework of issues and information the applicant must address when submitting a formal application known as the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Community consultation is an important part of the assessment process. Once an EIS is received, the Department will arrange a public exhibition to encourage community feedback and participation. The exhibitions typically last around one month. All submissions from the public and relevant government agencies are published on the Department’s website.
The applicant must consider the issues raised during consultation and then address them in a Response to Submission (RtS) document. The RtS (another planning acronym) is also published on the Department’s website. We then begin assessing the proposal on its merits, taking all submissions, community feedback, the EIS and RtS into consideration.
Typical assessment timeframes are difficult to measure because applications and the issues that arise can vary, requiring different studies or independent expert analysis. However, once a project is determined, the Department’s assessment report is published online and relevant communities are consulted.
The Department’s assessment report makes a recommendation to the Minister, or the Minister’s delegate for determination. The Minister can refuse or approve, with or without conditions.
Standard sears and conditions for critical state significant infrastructure
The Minister for Planning can deem a state significant infrastructure project essential for the state for economic, environmental or social reasons. These applications are known as critical state significant infrastructure and are determined by the NSW Minister for Planning.
The Department has prepared standard SEARs for critical state significant infrastructure projects in consultation with a range of other government agencies.
The objectives of the standard SEARs are to achieve a better outcome for the community and the public at large by requesting the applicant’s EIS to focus on the most important issues that may cause the greatest impact, affect the most sensitive aspects of the environment and are usually of greatest interest or concern to the community.
Standard SEARs also provide applicants with certainty about the majority of SEARs they can expect to be issued for critical state significant infrastructure projects.
There are also standard conditions for infrastructure deemed critical by the Minister. The Department has prepared sets of standard and model conditions to help infrastructure providers understand the types of conditions likely to be applied to State significant projects if they are approved.
The Department aims to provide standard definitions and approaches to issues common to a particular industry, reduce duplication and inconsistency, and clearly explain compliance requirements for approved developments.
Standard conditions now clearly state an objective and outcome for the community, for example to mitigate noise impacts at a certain level. The approach aims to move away from conditions closely prescribing how an applicant would mitigate noise, dust, light and other impacts.
A focus on the objective in the standard conditions means an applicant now has more flexibility for innovative approaches in meeting the conditions. An applicant can work creatively with communities and in consultation with the Department to find ways to meet their planning obligations. All conditions are monitored by the Department’s compliance officers, who have a strong enforcement function.
Understanding the issues
The Department encourages applicants to do their homework on the most important issues impacting specific local communities and environments when submitting an infrastructure project proposal. This will generate better engagement with local communities affected by the proposal, a smoother assessment process and better projects. Every application is different and specific issues arise particular to a project.
Currently, the NSW Government is working towards making this process more straightforward for applicants with the Environmental Impact Assessment Improvement Project, which simultaneously promotes earlier and better engagement with the community.
Initial ideas for improving the assessment of large-scale or complex projects, such as state significant development or state significant infrastructure, have been made publicly available in a recent discussion paper.
Suggested changes put forward for discussion include: driving earlier and better engagement with affected communities; improving the quality and consistency of EIA documents; developing a standard approach for applying conditions to projects; providing greater certainty and efficiency around decision-making, including assessment timeframes; strengthening monitoring and reporting on project compliance and improving accountability of EIA professionals.
The Department is leading the ongoing consultation on this project and will be publishing a more developed proposal for further public consultation in 2017.
Cumulative impact assessment
Cumulative impacts are an important consideration in the assessment of infrastructure proposals. These are impacts that result from the successive, incremental and combined effects of an activity or project when added to other past, current, planned, or reasonably anticipated future projects.
Effective assessment of cumulative impacts can lead to practical and coordinated measures that minimise impacts on surrounding communities and the natural environment. The successful management of cumulative impacts is becoming a necessity for major infrastructure projects.