PARK WATCH March 2018 |

The marine and coastal bill is a missed opportunity to reform marine and coastal planning in Victoria, writes Chris Smyth.

Victoria is awash with statutory authorities. We’ve got them for ports, channels, transport ticketing, planning, curriculum, teaching, environment protection, fisheries, game management, emergency services, catchment management, business licensing, north east link, western distributor, fires and tenancy bonds – and these are just the ones that have the word ‘authority’ in their name.

With so many, you would think it wouldn’t be too hard to establish one for marine and coastal planning. But the Victorian Government’s marine and coastal bill 2017 ignores it, even though such reform is needed to establish an integrated marine and coastal planning framework that sets a new course appropriate for the 21st century.

When enacted, the marine and coastal bill will replace the Coastal Management Act 1995, which was a significant reform championed by former environment minister Mark Birrell. The new legislation retains some of his vision, including the Victorian Coastal Council, the Victorian Coastal Strategy and coastal management plans (all with marine added to their titles), and consent processes for coastal use and development. Environmental management plans, currently prepared under State Environment Protection Policy (Waters of Victoria) will now be under the new legislation.

New positive features in the legislation are the preparation of an overarching statewide marine and coastal policy, five-yearly state of the marine environment reports (an extension of the state of the bays reporting), and reference to the development of a marine spatial planning framework. Another new feature is regional and strategic partnerships, i.e. interdepartmental agencies brought together on a ‘needs’ basis to help resolve regional marine and coastal issues.

But there are significant negative features:

  • Gutting the Victorian Coastal Council by turning it into an advisory body only. It will no longer prepare the marine and coastal strategy, which will now be done by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP). Over the past 20 years, the strategies have been forward looking and innovative documents that have greatly influenced coastal planning and management in the state. That is unlikely under the department’s heavy hand.
  • Abolishing the regional coastal boards, transferring their role to existing catchment management authorities with coastal boundaries. Even though the boards were starved of resources, they played an important role in developing local community engagement in coastal planning and management. The catchment management authorities have shown little interest in marine and coastal environments, maintaining an agricultural focus, and with boards that have little or no expertise in marine and coastal matters.
  • Port Phillip Bay is the initial focus of the environment management plans and largely about water quality, while the marine and coastal management plans are very localised and the work of the regional and strategic partnership likely ad-hoc responses to ‘problems’ emerging. There appears to be no pathway to develop the proactive, long-term and integrated regional marine and coastal planning that should be the cornerstone of a marine spatial planning framework and implement the new marine and coastal policies and strategies.
  • There is no clear public process for public comment on changes to the use of coastal and marine areas, whereas development projects are covered by the Planning and Environment Act. Racehorse training on public beaches, brought to us by DELWP, is one such use that has avoided scrutiny under consent processes.
  • And from the outset of consultation on the new legislation, ports and fisheries were excluded from consideration, and there is nothing in the bill that should worry those sectors even though their impacts are significant (the new environment management plan for Port Phillip Bay also excluded them).

The marine and coastal bill is a missed opportunity to reform marine and coastal planning in Victoria. It fails to rise to the ambition of the Andrews Government’s 2014 pre-election commitment and will substantially reduce meaningful community engagement.

VNPA will work to strengthen the provisions of the bill over the coming months.