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Community Affairs References Committee
Social and economic impact of rural wind farms

CHAIR —I welcome representatives of the Victorian Planning and Environment Law Association. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you, I understand.

Ms Sharp —It has; thank you.

CHAIR —Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Ms Sharp —I am one of the board members of the Victorian Planning and Environment Law Association and I am a barrister by practice.

Mr O’Farrell —I am in the same position as Ms Sharp.

CHAIR —We have your submission before us, which is No. 654. We invite you to make an opening statement and then we will ask you some questions.

Mr O’Farrell —Senators, in our written submission we have explained what VPELA is. It is a professional organisation which does not hold a position; it brings together professionals in the field and fosters debate on topical matters. It has various training arms—continual professional development and those sorts of things. It holds seminars. On the front page, the bullet points outline the range of professions that form the membership. We then set out the primary purposes of VPELA and go into the substance of the submission. We intended today just to go through three key topics: the relationship between the Victorian and Commonwealth systems for the assessment, the health impact of wind farms and then the social and economic impacts of wind farms. Since making the submission, amendment VC78 has been gazetted. That is now part of the planning system here in Victoria. I expect the committee has heard submissions about this recently. So we are in a position to assist you with that. When we get to it in the submission, we might point out the key parts of that amendment and how it affects the submission.

On page 2 there is discussion of the responsible authority, or the planning authority, which is the authority that assesses an application here in Victoria. Until amendment VC78, it was the minister for planning when a farm was above 30 megawatts. But that is now not the case. Councils, as you have probably heard, have that role now for all wind farm applications. One thing that you might find of use is the way the Planning and Environment Act works here. Even though the local councils now have the role as the responsible authority for all wind farms, the minister retains the ability under the act to call in applications. It is typically done if a project is of state significance. So that ability is still there. When amendment VC78 was gazetted, the government here introduced a paper which said to the councils that, if they wanted to put their hands up for a particular project and ask the minister to call in an application, the minister would be willing to do so if the councils indicated a lack of resources or a lack of expertise.

On page 3 there is a reference to the EPBC Act and the bilateral agreement. The bilateral agreement, as currently drafted, still deals with councils as the responsible authority; so nothing needs to be changed there. Throughout the submission we say how the majority of wind farms have been assessed by Planning Panels Victoria. That will now change. It is likely that, going forward, the majority of wind farms that are challenged will go for assessment to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, unless the minister calls the project in; in which case the minister will refer it off to an advisory committee, which is a similar body to Planning Panels Victoria. We then make some comment about public participation. VPELA’s position is that the process has extensive third-party rights of participation, both at the council level and on review. We have commented on the way the planning policy is set up in Victoria. Generally speaking, the policy encourages wind farm proposals, subject to a rigorous assessment process covering the sorts of topics that one would ordinarily expect to be assessed when talking about a wind farm.

Page 4 of the submission refers in the second last paragraph to a 2009 version of the policy and planning guidelines for the development of wind energy facilities in Victoria. That has now been overtaken by VC79, and the current document is dated March 2011. The next paragraph, at the bottom of page 4, comments on the 2009 version. So, where there is ‘2009’, update that to ‘March 2011’, but generally speaking the same concepts are captured.

Within the planning schemes in Victoria, there is a specific clause, known as 52.32, which relates to wind energy facilities. That has a number of assessment criteria. Page 5 sets out the key issues in terms of the assessment criteria and what matters need to be considered. We then do a commentary on the interaction with other Victorian acts—the Environment Effects Act, the National Parks Act, the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act—and then we go into a commentary on the interaction with the Commonwealth acts. The key one is the EPBC Act; discussion on that starts at page 7 of the submission. There is some commentary on the EPBC draft national wind farm guidelines. At the bottom of page 8 and the top of page 9 we observe that, because the guidelines have no statutory force here in Victoria, typically in planning panels or hearings both sides of the debate are conducted under the draft guidelines but, when it gets to the decision, the decision maker cannot attribute any weight to the guidelines because of their status. So the guidelines can tend to be unhelpful by lengthening hearings. But the subject matter sometimes fosters debate on topics that are otherwise covered within a relevant policy or a relevant guideline. So, although it sometimes increases the length of a hearing, the debate is sometimes prodded along by those sorts of guidelines.

In terms of emerging Victorian policy, this submission was written just before the election in Victoria; the Liberal-National coalition had made some policy comments about wind farms. That is now manifested in VC78, so there are some necessary changes required—through pages 9 and 10 of the written submission. In substance, the councils have now been given the responsible authority power. One change was that the policy seemed initially to be suggesting that turbines would be placed no less than two kilometres from the nearest home. As we understand the outcome of the amendment, proposals need to have a map that shows where homes are within two kilometres of those turbines; and that is just assessed. So it is not set up as a prohibition; it seems to be an assessment tool or criterion.

There was some discussion in the policy about a shared payment system, which we will come back to later, but that does not seem to have found its way into the current planning scheme. On page 10 we discuss health impacts of wind farms, primarily related to noise and vibrations. On pages 11 and 12, hopefully there is some useful information for the committee about the types of noise levels and how they manifest in terms of our common experiences as to what we can hear. There is a commentary on the debate about community noise concerns—infrasound, low-frequency noise—the concept of ‘wind turbine syndrome’. We hope we have assisted the senators with a summary of international and Australian studies into health effects. We have tried to pick out all the matters that are relevant and of use to you.

At page 16 we have done a summary of how planning panels and VCAT have approached complaints and potential health impacts associated with wind farms. There has been no evidence to date to disprove or prove that there is a health impact. That has put decision makers in the position of making their decision on that basis. A number of panels have observed that some form of independent study would assist their assessment of wind farms. VPELA notes that on page 17, and suggests that it would be desirable for an independent epidemiological study to be carried out in relation to proposed and operating wind farms to try to give the wind industry, regulators and the community a greater insight into, and certainty on, these issues. In hearings, the topic tends to take a lot of time. Both sides of the debate are presented, but VPELA suggests it would be desirable if there were a study to provide some evidence on the matter.

The submission then comments on both sides of the debate about the social and economic impacts of wind farms. One of the key things that come out of this is the debate that relates around social division. It is sometimes described as the ‘winners and losers debate’—there are those who get the turbines and those who do not. That social division can sometimes start the debate. There has been some discussion about whether some sort of fund should be set up to fund the community, rather than there being those who get the turbines and those who miss out. VPELA’s submission to you on that is that the consequences of it should be seriously considered, in the sense that wind energy facilities are a relatively new industry in this country. VPELA thinks there is some merit in the thought that the industry should not necessarily be separated from other industries or other developments that have amenity impacts. VPELA has some concern about what precedent that might set up for other industries. But, aside from encouraging the committee to consider the consequences if such a fund were set up, in terms of what it might do for wind farms and the industry, VPELA’s position is that it could be significant. In general terms, the impact on property values at the planning and assessment stage is rarely substantiated and is given very little weight in planning debates. VPELA’s position is that, until evidence can be produced to show a conclusive link between wind farms and a decrease in property values, that issue should not carry any weight in considering the merits of applications.

We then go into a discussion of broader economic benefits and social impacts. There is some comment on social perception studies. These studies indicate that the majority of the community, whether in the city, a regional area or a rural area, support wind farm development. Opponents of wind farms typically say that there is some bias in the perception studies, that they represent a minority community view, or that they do not reflect the people who are living next to the farm. VPELA’s position is that they tend to be an unhelpful exercise in hearings and should not be given considerable weight. There is then a discussion in the submission about whether wind farms should be considered as being different from other infrastructure projects. That is just a commentary on both sides of that debate. Stakeholder consultation is discussed in the submission. VPELA’s position is that the current framework allows extensive third-party participation in the process.

At page 24, there is a discussion about setbacks of wind farms; that is the two-kilometre issue, which has probably now been overtaken by VC78. Wind farm proponents need to put forward as part of their proposal where the two kilometres are. It is unknown how that will be assessed because it has not been done yet. But, presumably, because it is one of the assessment matters that need to be brought to the attention of the planning application, that will form part of the assessment criteria from now on. The issue of compensation I think I have touched on, but VPELA is concerned about whether that introduces a concept in the planning process that may just pick out the wind farm industry as compared to all other industries which might have an amenity or development impact. They are the matters that VPELA wants to bring to the committee’s attention.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Senator FIELDING —At this stage I would like to look at the health impacts of wind turbines. There is a range of issues in that regard to shade flicker and the lights that flash. The noise is the subject of huge concerns and question marks. There is some sort of theme revolving around the issue of whether or not there are adverse health impacts from wind turbines, but something we may all have in common is the desire to get a final study done to bring it to some conclusion that we can rely on. What are your thoughts about having such a study done that may be acceptable to both groups as a way of getting to the bottom of the issue?

Mr O’Farrell —If a conclusive, independent study can be done that will decide the debate, it is hard to resist the sense of that. If there is a health impact, it should be responded to through the assessment criteria. At the moment, we are in the position where there is no independent study. VPELA’s position is that it would be desirable for that to be done.

Senator FIELDING —Given that your organisation looks at a lot of issues where there is always a proponent for and someone against, how would we come up with such a study? It is the process of getting to where both sides could agree on a study. How would we go about doing that? It is one thing finding the funds for it; there is another issue about getting two opponents agreeing to the one sort of research and test. I thought that you may have some ideas about how to progress that process from here. We need to have this done in Australia to get to the bottom of it. I am not convinced that around the world enough may have been done so far, but I could be wrong. I am interested to know what your thoughts are.

Mr O’Farrell —I do not think either Ms Sharp or I am in a position to express VPELA’s position on it, so I will tell you my view on it and Ms Sharp might tell you her view on it. I understand that scientists have protocols in place by which to have work tendered out—people can bid on it. It is a question of who commissions the work. When you have two sides of the debate, the government—whoever that is—needs to be the one that commissions the work so as to avoid, ‘This side of the debate is paying for this work to be done.’ I know the government often gets handballed a lot of things, but my view is that that is the way criticism of this sort of study and this sort of work goes—‘such-and-such did this work; therefore it is biased’, and the other side of the debate says the same thing. However, if the government commissions the work from a body like CSIRO, that would overcome the perception of bias based on who is funding the work.

Senator FIELDING —I am not sure that would satisfy groups. I am not saying that this is the case, but the following claim could be made on the basis that the government is such a big driver of renewable energy, and there is a belief even by CSIRO—I do not want to put words in its mouth—that 30 per cent of renewable energy by 2020 will be from wind. There may not be much incentive for the government to say that it is not safe to live close to wind turbines because that may mean there would be fewer of them around and it could influence heavily that 2020 target.

Senator MOORE —In that case, no-one is going to fund it.

Ms Sharp —I agree with Mr O’Farrell. Any party—for example, a government body—that might suggest that a study be done could say that the study is, in itself, biased. There may be some merit in ‘hot tubbing’ experts. It is a horrible term we use in planning. It is a terrible expression. But, when you get opposing experts in a planning panel or a VCAT hearing, they can sit with each other and at least come up with areas of agreement and areas of disagreement. If you can get parties or experts who perhaps work for either side of the debate talking to each other and working out exactly what the points of disagreement are, at least then both sides of the debate feel that they have become involved in the process.

CHAIR —I think we might have come up with the name of the report—‘The Hot Tub’!

Senator ADAMS —I noticed that when you were going through your summary you did not mention the NHMRC publication, but you certainly have a lot about it in your submission. NHMRC are going to give evidence to the committee, so I am a bit worried. We have had people call NHMRC and ask them about the authors of their rapid response document and, unfortunately, they have not been forthcoming with the authors of the document. It is a bit difficult, but it is getting late in the day and we have had a pretty good argument on that, so I will leave it. My question to you, because you have quite a lot about it in your submission, is: why didn’t you mention it when doing your summary?

Mr O’Farrell —No reason; it was just for the sake of brevity. I did not mean to exclude it. We have tried to write this submission in a way that does not put a position forward but that hopefully is of assistance to the committee as to both sides of the debate.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you.

Senator MOORE —In your report you talk about the role your organisation has in terms of information sessions and newsletters. Have you had information sessions or newsletters on this topic for your members? If you have, particularly newsletters, can we get copies of them?

Ms Sharp —We did have a seminar last year. We run regular seminars about once a month and they are published, I think, in our newsletter. I can certainly get a copy of the submissions made to that seminar and forward them to you.

Senator BOYCE —Getting back to the changes in planning processes in Victoria, yesterday councils gave evidence that they do not have the resources to go about the approvals processes they are now being asked to undertake unless they are given extra resources. You have basically echoed that view in your submission. What do you think is required there if this is going to not be a David and Goliath situation?

Mr O’Farrell —Often at these hearings the independence of the experts that are presented by both sides of the debate is questioned and that applies in nearly all proceedings where expert evidence comes forward. It becomes a task for the assessor—the panel member or the VCAT member—to attribute weight. So they might think that a person is truly independent or they might form the view that they are part of the project team, effectively, and give their evidence less weight. But absent of there being a central government body which has expertise in all of these fields, in the assessment process both sides of the debate need to lock horns and bring forward their expert evidence. Then it becomes a question for the decision maker as to what weight is given to a particular expert over another. I am not sure whether that answers your question.

Senator BOYCE —That answers probably the stage 2 question. The stage 1 question was about the councils saying, ‘We do not have resident experts or the funds to get outside experts to properly assess what the proponents are telling us.’ What is your response to that?

Ms Sharp —It is true that many of the rural councils run on a shoestring. They often have three or four planners who are assessing big applications and doing a lot of work.

Senator BOYCE —I suspect some of them would say it would be a luxury to have three or four planners.

Ms Sharp —I agree. Some rural councils also experience quite a turnover of staff. Local councils are well positioned to do the community consultation side, given that they have accessibility to the local community and are a good meeting point.

Senator BOYCE —Who should fund that, in your view?

Ms Sharp —In my view?

Senator BOYCE —Or the organisation’s view—whichever.

Ms Sharp —I cannot say. Certainly in the planning process generally, the consultation process could be funded by the council. It is not funded by the developer. A planning panel process and a VCAT process are public processes and obviously are funded by the state government. There is also the opportunity for people to make submissions. VCAT at the moment, for example, have introduced an extensive sort of mediation process, so the funding is now, as well, with the state government. I am not aware of situations where developers are funding the consultation process. Peter, are you aware of any?

Mr O’Farrell —No, other than a standard permit application. If, say, 1,000 letters have to be sent out, the council can send the bill to the developer for that. But, in terms of the time and labour resources of dealing with the public, that is not funded other than through the council budget.

CHAIR —That is what we were told yesterday. They make very little money from the wind farms.

Senator BOYCE —If anything.

CHAIR —If anything, and yet it costs them a lot of money to do the assessment process.

Mr O’Farrell —There is some commentary in the written submission about the rate revenue over the life of the project, which the committee might find of use or interest in relation to this topic, and whether that balances out over the life of a project in terms of the intensity up front.

Senator BOYCE —That suggests that you need numerous wind farms to keep your cash flow going.

Mr O’Farrell —With the referral authority process in the state, bodies like the Department of Sustainability and Environment, the Country Fire Authority and other power authorities are given status above other objectors. So, if DSE comes forward in a permit application and objects to a proposal, the act says that it has to be refused. That can be challenged, but other expert bodies are part of the planning process as well.

Senator BOYCE —I think the Municipal Association of Victoria is the local government body. This issue only arose yesterday. Are you aware of any moves by your membership or by the municipal association to talk to the state government about resourcing councils to undertake this planning appeals process?

Mr O’Farrell —Yes. Last June or July, the MAV, in connection with a number of the councils, particularly those throughout western Victoria, as I understand it, met with the government of the time with a view to coming up with a funding pool—additional funding for councils to resource the assessment process. But I do not know how far that has progressed.

Senator BOYCE —I have asked this question in a couple of areas where I thought there might be some expertise on the topic. Does the association have a view or any information about what might look like an ideal ownership structure for the wind power industry in Australia? We have had comments around community ownership and corporate ownership. Is there a balance between those ownership structures that make one better than another?

Ms Sharp —We do not have any view as to the association’s opinion about that. We have not thought about it.

Senator BOYCE —The reason for asking that question is that we are told that the Danish industry is basically community owned; in other places it is not. I am interested in anything that might have come out of planning research in Australia on the topic.

Mr O’Farrell —I am not aware of any research or any paper.

CHAIR —I want to follow up on the comment you made about local government being able to refer it back to the state government. What process would trigger that?

Mr O’Farrell —We could send it into the committee. A paper was released with the amendment—I think it was called a practice note or something like that. There are a couple of paragraphs saying that the minister maintains his or her ability to call in permit applications. If a council does have concerns about resourcing a particular project, it can put its hand up to ask the minister to call in a proposal. From there it would be referred off to an advisory committee to the minister.

CHAIR —Is it correct that the panel system, which seems like a fairly rigorous process of 14 or 15 days—and that is a new thing for us from Western Australia because we do not have the same sort of process—and which a lot of people talked about yesterday, is not going to happen any more?

Mr O’Farrell —Unless the minister calls in a proposal.

CHAIR —When you say it goes up to the advisory panel, is that a similar sort of process or the same process?

Mr O’Farrell —Basically the same, except that a panel is where you have a planning scheme amendment where you need to change the zoning. An advisory committee is where the minister has called it in and referred it off to what is effectively Planning Panels Victoria to advise him or her about how the proposal should be assessed, or make a recommendation to the minister.

CHAIR —But that will be dependent on the minister or the local government calling it in. If it is a big one, for example, local government could say: ‘This is a really big proposal. We don’t have the resources. We want to send it off to the minister.’ The minister would then set up a panel.

Ms Sharp —Yes. The trigger would always be that there is a planning permit required. At the moment, the trigger is a planning permit or a planning scheme amendment. There are two different processes. Through the planning permit process, which is the council process, that then goes on to VCAT has elements of public consultation, evidence et cetera. The panel process is a different process but it still has a level of public consultation, evidence et cetera.

CHAIR —It is different in each state and that panel process seems to be quite rigorous. I am not saying that the community has been happy with the outcomes, but at least it is a process that people have been able to access. Are you aware whether concern has been expressed that people are not going to be able to access that process any more or that it is going to be more difficult potentially?

Mr O’Farrell —I am not aware of that. Aside from the trigger point above the 30, that was automatic. People will now have to go to VCAT for the assessment. In Victoria, since the Planning and Environment Act came into place, projects of state significance have nearly all been called in by the minister. So, when projects get to a certain size and significance, generally speaking, they are called in by the minister for planning.

CHAIR —Are we talking about any project here?

Mr O’Farrell —Yes.

CHAIR —Not just a wind farm?

Mr O’Farrell —Yes—a desalination plan, the Nowingi waste facility—

Ms Sharp —Channel deepening.

Mr O’Farrell —Yes, and large towers around town—that sort of significance.

CHAIR —The new government has made this change to the approach, handing it all over now to local government. Is that an indication of an intention that even the big projects will now be handled by local government, seeing that that is what has been handed over?

Mr O’Farrell —I do not know. The only observation I can make is that there have still been a number of call-ins since the change of government—not of wind farms but of other projects.

CHAIR —I am specifically focused on wind farms now. I appreciate that approach still happens for other projects. But on this issue, they have now made a decision to hand it over to local government. On the face of it people like having local control, but we have now had a lot of feedback from local government expressing concern that they do not have the resources to do it.

Senator BOYCE —You make the comment in your submission that local government might be less able to resist ‘irrational’ community concerns—I am trying to think of the right word there. I am not suggesting that local government should not react to very rational community concerns but that they might be more the hostage of popular sentiment than a state body would be.

CHAIR —That comment has been made in a number of the submissions.

Mr O’Farrell —With both forums—the advisory committee or VCAT—there will always be a debate available to people by an independent decision maker.

Senator BOYCE —When you say ‘people’, do you mean individuals?

Mr O’Farrell —Yes. There is ability for third-party participation. One individual could take an enormous project to VCAT, for example.

Ms Sharp —The planning process in Victoria is open to individuals. It is not one where you need—for want of a better word—high standing to become involved in the process; you just have to be somehow affected by the application or the project. I understand that sometimes in other states you have to have a direct interest. In Victoria, it is open a lot more broadly than that.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. Your appearance is very much appreciated.

[4.55 pm]