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Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia
20/05/2014
Development of northern Australia

NAIRN, Mr Gary, Chairman, Northern Territory Planning Commission

TEH, Mr James, Manager, Northern Territory Planning Commission Secretariat

[10:13]

CHAIR: Welcome. The hearings are a formal proceeding of the parliament. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament. The evidence given today is, as I indicated, recorded by Hansard and as such attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement and then I will open it up for members of the committee to fire off some questions.

Mr Nairn : Thank you for the opportunity to appear at your hearing here today in Darwin. You received our written submission, setting out the role and responsibilities of the Northern Territory Planning Commission and some detail of the work that has been done since its inception. Today I would like to emphasise some matters and also update you on particular projects currently before the commission.

Firstly, I would like to comment that the planning commission sees the work of your committee as being very important and directly linked to the strategic work of the planning commission. Your remit is specifically about the policies needed to develop Northern Australia. You have been asked to examine the potential of the north and to make recommendations on how to realise that potential. Importantly, you must identify the infrastructure needed to support long-term growth. All of these matters fit within the responsibilities and objectives of the planning commission. We are all about strategic land use in the Northern Territory.

We also need to understand its potential so that we can plan for it. The recommendations will be important inputs into our work. We must make the correct allowances for the NT's future growth. Where will people live? Where will they go to work? How will they get there? What services will they need and when will they need them? Where will businesses be located to best deliver their good or service? How will they get their product to market? What is needed to export their product or service? At what point will government need to provide more schools, hospitals, increased water supply and sewage treatment? Do we need another airport? If so, when? Do we need another port? All these matters keep the planning commission's mind active on a daily basis. So we need to stay connected with what is happening right across the Northern Territory and, obviously, with your deliberations.

One of the many strategic locations in the Northern Territory is the town of Katherine, particularly with respect to the connection to the west and the future development of the Ord scheme. The planning commission has completed a new strategic land use plan—this plan here—and that plan was recently exhibited by the minister. I expect it to be finalised and the Northern Territory Planning Scheme to be amended shortly to reflect that plan.

Katherine is the natural town to be directly connected to the Ord, as it is at the intersection of the Stuart and Victoria highways and because the Adelaide to Darwin railway passes through. Our land use plan identifies areas for substantial population growth in Katherine, along with necessary commercial, industrial and community service needs, such as a new hospital. It also identifies substantial horticultural and agricultural land for future exploitation and an intermodal transport hub. Katherine is also home to a significant military presence at the Tindal air base where a large number of the new Joint Strike Fighters will be based.

The Darwin region is the subject of another strategic land use planning study by the planning commission. The Darwin region is home to about 50 per cent of the Northern Territory's population and is the location of the fastest growth in the Northern Territory. Its strategic location makes it the natural capital of Northern Australia, as well as the capital of the Northern Territory. Therefore, the Northern Territory Planning Commission must carefully plan for its future growth.

An earlier document entitled Towards Darwin regional land use plan was released to the public late last year. We received over 100 submissions during the exhibition period. The planning commission is currently further developing that plan for consideration at our next full planning commission meeting, to be held here in Darwin next week. I would be pleased to provide you with an updated version of that plan as soon as it is ready for further public release. I aim to have a final plan to the minister around October this year.

Key elements of our proposal are for substantial new infrastructure in and around Darwin Harbour with extended rail to a new port at Glyde Point, which will pass by a new town, Murrumujuk, on its way to a large industrial precinct. The main port in Darwin Harbour at East Arm, as you heard from the Chief Minister, is under pressure to expand, so we have also identified an additional port location in the Middle Arm area. This and a second airport site, also in Middle Arm, could well prove to be strategic locations for future Defence requirements, given the current limitation at Larrakeyah for the patrol boats and the increasing conflict with civil needs at Darwin airport.

The growing Darwin region would also see substantial development on Cox Peninsula. This area just on the other side of Darwin Harbour has been earmarked for potential development for many decades but the lack of settlement of the Kenbi land claim has delayed that consideration. I understand that is now very close to being finalised and therefore it is very appropriate to include it in future strategic land use plans.

We are also doing strategic work in Tennant Creek and Alice Springs which will have relevance to your deliberations and we would be pleased to keep you abreast of that specific work.

The creation of the independent planning commission by the current NT government in 2012 has allowed a stronger focus on strategic land use planning in the Northern Territory. In many respects, we have been playing catch-up given the strong growth of the Northern Territory, particularly Darwin, over the past couple of years.

Demand for land has outstripped supply. The Northern Territory Planning Commission has worked closely with the Department of Lands, Planning and the Environment to identify land for future development and strategically plan where short-, medium- and long-term development can occur to turn around that demand-supply mismatch.

As your committee identifies, with the future opportunities for Northern Australia, the Northern Territory Planning Commission stands ready to work with you to ensure we get the strategy, at least with respect to the Northern Territory, correct. I am pleased to have this opportunity to address you today and am very happy to take any questions.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your submission.

Mr SNOWDON: Are you involved in looking at Ord stage 3? On our visit to Kununurra it was made very clear to us that it is an absolute priority for the Western Australian government, the regional governance and the local government in the Kimberley was the expansion of Ord stage 3 and its reliance upon getting the work done in the Northern Territory to make that an outcome. Have you been engaged in that process; and, if so, how?

Mr Nairn : Not specifically in as much as we are carrying out any particular planning work. We had a very detailed briefing, the full planning commission had a detailed briefing from the Northern Territory government on the negotiations that they have been having with the Western Australian government and also their proposals they are putting forward with respect to native title. So we have been kept abreast of that work. It is probably premature for us to do too much more at this point until I think a few more things occur but we have certainly kept that very much in mind, for instance, when we are doing the work around the Katherine strategic land use plan and that connection, I think, is an important one to keep in mind.

Mr SNOWDON: You have given us a good and very comprehensive view of Darwin and a bit about Tennant Creek. I live in Alice Springs, mate, and I have to say that the town is pretty flat in a number of ways, actually.

Mr Nairn : Not topographically, but as well as topographically.

Mr SNOWDON: Yes. But there is a great deal of interest in how we might further develop the Central Australian region in some ways like Darwin, as a gateway to a whole range of activity along the Tanami across to the west, the east, et cetera. We also heard a lot about how we might develop Alice Springs around knowledge industries. What are you doing currently around Central Australia; and how do you anticipate the future demand for land and land use in and around Central Australia?

Mr Nairn : The work that we have had done has certainly identified that your comment that Alice Springs is flat is absolutely correct, inasmuch as demand for land and other things is concerned. Its population has been flatlining for some time. So we have really had a close, strategic look at Alice Springs in a number of ways. There has been quite substantial planning work done around Alice—in fact, some might say it is too much—in the last decade. There are all sorts of documents that have been produced.

In considering all that work, the Planning Commission initially has been working on a discussion paper which I hope to release very shortly, which you, as the local federal member, will certainly get a copy of to comment on. I will be taking it to our Planning Commission meeting next week here in Darwin to, hopefully, get a tick off to get it out there in the public as early as possible. In this particular discussion paper, we are looking at the Alice Springs CBD. I think there is a relationship between what is going on in the CBD and what is happening in the rest of Alice Springs. A lot of people will say that we need to make the Alice Springs CBD a bit more welcoming, a bit more livable, and there are a number of issues that come together in that regard. We are looking at issues around some of the building heights, design criteria, car parking, streetscapes—those sorts of issues—which we think are something that has been missing in a lot of the other work. Once we do that, I think we are then in a very good position to effectively bring all this other work that has been done over the last decade together in a potentially more comprehensive land-use plan, similar to what we are doing in Darwin and the Darwin region.

Mr SNOWDON: Could I just ask one final question. In terms of Nhulunbuy, I am not sure, given the nature of the township lease, whether you have any capacity for planning responsibilities for that region. If you do, what is your view about what might be required in that community, given the changing economic circumstances in the community and the changing requirement of that infrastructure?

Mr Nairn : I think this is something that we are going to have to have a look at. We have not. We have not been asked by the government to specifically consider Nhulunbuy, but, given the changes that are taking place, I had an informal conversation with the Chief Minister some weeks ago, and he made the comment that it is something that we need to get onto the Planning Commission's radar. So, yes, I have certainly thought that there is a need, but I will need to work a bit with the government. And, as you know, there are some of the other limitations in the town about leased areas and various stuff as to what can and cannot actually happen. It is not an easy situation to deal with; it is quite complex.

CHAIR: Just following on from Warren's comment: it is important that we have to identify where we go in places like Nhulunbuy. There are other regional towns in the north that will be following similar fates if they go down the same track.

You are looking at Darwin to accommodate a significant population expansion, and you are looking for a port, airports, I assume water storage—all of the infrastructure. Warren raised the issue in relation to Alice Springs, but there are a number of other important regional towns—Katherine and Tennant Creek—that also will require some attention, because if we are going to be looking at capturing here we need to be looking at building in those regions as well. Are you looking at those as well?

Mr Nairn : As I said, we have actually completed a new strategic land-use plan for the Katherine region. We gave it to the minister some time ago. Under the Planning Act it is required to be exhibited, which it was. Submissions were received and a hearing was held, and I suspect that a recommendation from the reporting body to the minister to amend the NT Planning Scheme to incorporate that new land-use plan is almost imminent. We completed what we called a framework for Tennant Creek, very high level work. It was work that had been done by the previous NT government but had not been quite completed when the Planning Commission came into being. We effectively tidied that up and completed that. So all of these regional areas are on our radar.

You mentioned water supply. The document 'Towards a Darwin Regional Land Use Plan 2014' identifies a number of potential new water supplies for the Darwin regional area. That has come from the Power and Water Corporation. It is amazing how these things are around for a long time. I first came to Darwin in 1980, and one of the very first jobs I did was to digitise the contours for a dam on the Adelaide River, the Warrai Dam, as it was called. It was the early days of digital technology, and my firm was one of the ones that could do that sort of work. We digitised all the contours for that region to be able to calculate water storage volumes depending on the dam wall height. That was in 1980, and it is still in the planning process. It keeps getting pushed back for various other reasons, but fortunately Darwin has a number of opportunities.

An expansion of the bore fields is one of the opportunities in the Darwin regional area. An off-stream storage on the Adelaide River at Maraki is another one, as is bringing Manton Dam back into operation. It certainly served Darwin a long time ago, but it has not been part of the water supply for some time. There is a fairly high cost to do that because it is not a closed catchment like the Darwin River Dam is a closed catchment, where treatment is a lot easier. Manton would have to have additional treatment because it is not a closed catchment, and existing pipelines would have to be upgraded as well. Then there is certainly Mount Bennett and another Maraki dam and the Warrai or Adelaide River Dam, which are all proposals for future water supply for the region.

CHAIR: Do communications come into your brief as well?

Mr Nairn : It is one of the utilities that we have to allow for. Part of our work is that we look at all utility corridors to make those sorts of allowances. With the work that we are doing, particularly the Darwin regional work, we are not setting an actual population or a time to achieve a particular population. I think that in past times a lot of planning work was done around a particular year—getting to 2020 or 2030—or a particular population. As I say to people, I am yet to find an accurate crystal ball anywhere that can support some of those things. We are looking at the potential for the Darwin region, the appropriate locations for different land uses, whether it be residential, commercial or industrial et cetera. People think we have got a lot of land up here, but the constraints are huge. They are huge.

Mrs GRIGGS: That is my next question. From a planning point of view, what do you see as the three main constraints to developing north Australia?

Mr Nairn : There are many physical constraints as well as economic constraints, obviously. Physically, when you look at the Darwin region, we have a lot of wet and unusable land because of the nature of the tropics. Particularly around the harbour, there are large mangrove areas which breed biting midges, which reduces the capacity for other land to be used nearby because of that biting midge problem. The other constraint that a lot of people forget about a lot of the time is Defence and Commonwealth land. When I was Special Minister of State, one of my responsibilities was Commonwealth land. I started a project of identifying Commonwealth land that was not required anymore by the Commonwealth right around the country, not just here, so I am personally very aware of—

Mrs GRIGGS: I have identified some of that too.

Mr Nairn : I am very aware of those constraints. I have participated in conversations with the Department of Lands, Planning and the Environment and the Commonwealth government at both a Defence and a Department of Finance level around releasing some of that land.

CHAIR: Okay. Final questions, Senator Peris.

Senator PERIS: With regard to the focus on the Northern Territory being Asia's food bowl, there is so much talk about the agriculture, and then there is the live cattle export, and then you have got the Indigenous people across the Northern Territory showing, quite vocally, their objection to unconventional gas that is being talked about here in the Northern Territory—fracking. Prior to you guys coming in, the Chief Minister spoke about the amount of gas reserves we have here in the Northern Territory. What environmental impact studies are currently being done? Is this something that you guys are looking into?

Mr Nairn : Can I just comment first of all on the first part of your question, where you talked about the food bowl and agricultural land. In all the work that we have been doing, we have certainly had a very strong focus on suitable lands for both agriculture and horticulture. In the Katherine land use plan, we were under some pressure to allow some good horticultural and agricultural land to be included in rural residential zonings so that it could be subdivided into smaller lots. We resisted that pressure, because we felt that there was sufficient other land and because we did not want to lose that really good horticultural and agricultural land.

With regard to gas and fracking, I will take my Planning Commission hat off and put on my Environment Protection Authority hat—because as the chairman of the Northern Territory Planning Commission I am a statutory member of the Environment Protection Authority. The new EPA, which was established last year and which is truly independent to government, approached the government to initiate the inquiry that is currently taking place—Allan Hawke is the chairman of that inquiry into hydraulic fracturing—because we could see, as an EPA, that there was great potential throughout the Territory and that proposals would be starting to escalate for exploration and other work, and we felt that we needed to do that investigative work up-front. The Territory is very different geologically to Queensland and New South Wales, where there are quite emotional and other debates. I went overseas with the Minister for Lands, Planning and the Environment, Peter Chandler, last year, mainly looking at planning aspects, but as part of that process—as he is the minister for the environment as well—we visited some operations in the US to see firsthand some of that work. I cannot speak on behalf the government, but that Hawke inquiry is a very important inquiry for the Territory to have up-front rather than after the horse has bolted, one might say, in looking at this issue.

Senator PERIS: Yes. Will that report be made public?

Mr Nairn : I believe so. I would assume so. It was commissioned by the Northern Territory government, not by the EPA. It was the urging of the EPA that got them to do it, but you would have to check that with the government.

Mr SNOWDON: What is the time period?

Mr Nairn : I think Allan Hawke hopes to have a report to government before the end of this calendar year. The terms of reference are out there publicly. He is receiving submissions till June sometime, I think. I am not sure of the progress of the inquiry after that.

CHAIR: Thank you very much indeed, Gary, for your participation here. Planning, of course, is the key to all of these opportunities. We appreciate your submission as well. Thank you very much.

Mrs GRIGGS: And thank you for those pictures.

Senator PERIS: Chair, is it possible for me to put some questions on notice?

CHAIR: Absolutely.

Senator PERIS: I will write to you, Mr Nairn.

Mr Nairn : Sure. When do you want the answers by—4 June?

Senator PERIS: Next week!

CHAIR: By 4 June. We will do it through the secretariat. That was my next comment.

Mr Nairn : The sooner the better is probably good. I have both EPA and planning commission meetings next week.

CHAIR: Okay. Before we take a short break, there are two documents here. One is Developing the north, from the Northern Territory government. Can we have that included?

Mrs GRIGGS: Yes.

CHAIR: The other here is Towards a Darwin regional land use planfrom 2014.

Mr Teh : And the Katherine land use plan.

CHAIR: And beyond that is the Katherine land use plan. Thank you very much indeed. We will have those incorporated.

Senator PERIS: Just quickly, I would like to check: do you not include the Tiwi islands in this?

Mr Nairn : It has not been part of this particular proposal.

Senator PERIS: This is for Darwin?

Mr Nairn : Yes, this is for Darwin.

CHAIR: And Katherine. There is a second one, if you look behind it, on Katherine—on the second page.

Mr Nairn : We will provide you with the Alice Springs work we are doing as soon as it is available as well.

Mr SNOWDON: Why is Taranaki in it? What New Zealander has infiltrated?

Mr Nairn : That is an interesting question. It has been the cause of much debate. When we released this, I was attacked left, right and centre for having this Taranaki—'Who has heard of Taranaki?' et cetera. Rightly, it has never been formally adopted by the Place Names Committee, apparently. You would know Graham Bailey, who is a member of my Planning Commission. Graham has the corporate knowledge of strategic planning in the Northern Territory, having worked in that area for a long time. He assured me that all of the work was done. It is related to a ship that was sunk in the war, or something like that, and somebody on it who had a New Zealand connection. You are right about the New Zealand bit. This work was done and there are a lot of plans hanging around the department with 'Taranaki' on them, but it was never formally adopted under the Place Names Committee, apparently. So I suppose technically I should take that off.

Mr SNOWDON: No, you should leave it. It sounds lovely.

Mr Nairn : It is a good story.

CHAIR: Thanks very much indeed for your contribution.