Melbourne Strategic Assessment (Environment Mitigation Levy) Bill 2019 | Speaking on a Bill

Ms VAGHELA (Western Metropolitan) (15:41): I too rise to speak on the Melbourne Strategic Assessment (Environment Mitigation Levy) Bill 2019. The bill establishes a Victorian head of power and legislative framework for the Melbourne strategic assessment (MSA) program. In December 2008 the Victorian government announced a review of the urban growth boundary. It was identified early in the review process that urban expansion on the scale envisaged would have a significant impact on biodiversity values in the investigation area. The MSA program was developed in parallel with the report Melbourne 2030: A Planning Update—Melbourne @ 5 Million, which identified areas to be considered for new urban development, and the subsequent report, Delivering Melbourne’s Newest Sustainable Communities, which recommended an expansion of Melbourne’s urban growth boundary to include 60 000 hectares of new land for urban development.
This expansion to the urban growth boundary was given effect in 2010 by planning scheme amendment VC68. The MSA program applies to all areas included in the expanded urban growth boundary as well as to 16 precincts within the previous 2005 urban growth boundary where development had not yet commenced in 2010. The MSA program provides a combined environmental impact assessment of urban development in Melbourne’s growth areas under both the commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and the Victorian native vegetation controls. The commonwealth government has approved urban development in Melbourne’s growth areas under the EPBC act to be undertaken in accordance with the MSA program. Under the program, developers pay habitat compensation levies primarily at the point of subdivision based on impact on protected vegetation and habitat. The levies fund the cost of implementing the delivery of the commitments required by the commonwealth approvals.
The overall objective of the bill is to resolve any key legal and financial risks affecting the MSA program; simplify the MSA program’s levy structure and administrative processes, reducing costs and improving compliance; reduce the risk of the Victorian government not fully mitigating the impacts of urban development in Melbourne’s growth areas and thus not meeting its environmental commitments to the commonwealth government; improve the MSA program’s operational and financial transparency; secure and embed the MSA program and its economic, environmental and social benefits for Melbourne’s growth areas and Victorians generally.
There are various benefits of the MSA program. The MSA program provides significant reductions in holding costs for developers compared to the usual project-by-project assessment and offset approach to environmental approvals. Cost reductions are estimated at about $25 million to $28 million annually. It provides improved certainty in planning for the regulatory cost of the projects before beginning the development process. As project-by-project assessments are not required, the fees are consistent and known. It also provides improved certainty to Victorians that the environmental impacts of Melbourne’s development will be offset through plans for the development of an integrated network of large conservation reserves. These reserves will be important environmental assets for future Victorians and will make significant contributions to reducing extinction risk for threatened species and ecological communities. The network of reserves to be established under the MSA program will not only provide important habitat for endangered species but also leave an important legacy in terms of the benefits of providing access to open space, particularly to the west of Melbourne.
Why is the MSA program needed? The MSA program ensures that urban development within Melbourne’s growth areas complies with commonwealth and Victorian environmental laws in an efficient and effective way. The MSA program does this by streamlining the assessment and approval processes while delivering important and necessary conservation outcomes. Biodiversity regulation is complex. It includes overlapping and intersecting Victorian and commonwealth laws regulating the impacts of development projects on threatened species and native vegetation. The ongoing urban expansion of Melbourne is a large and complex development project with significant impacts on biodiversity values.
What are the conservation commitments of the MSA program? The primary conservation commitments which make up the MSA program are the protection and management of 36 areas of high biodiversity value within the urban growth boundary—these areas cover over 4000 hectares in total; the creation and management of a 15 000-hectare grassland reserve to Melbourne’s west, the western grassland reserve, outside the urban growth boundary between Little River and Bacchus Marsh, primarily for the conservation of the critically endangered ecological community of natural temperate grasslands of Victoria’s volcanic plain; the creation and management of a 1200-hectare grassy eucalypt woodland reserve in Melbourne’s north outside the urban growth boundary; the protection and enhancement of habitat for the growling grass frog in creek corridors within the MSA program area, including the construction of new constructed wetland habitat; the protection of habitat connectivity corridors for the southern brown bandicoot, connecting important populations and habitat to Melbourne’s south-east; the creation and management of further reserves outside the urban growth boundary to protect and improve habitat for the golden sun moth, matted flax lily and spiny rice flower.
The program is a long-term endeavour. The commitments are to be fully delivered by 2060, when urban development in the MSA program area is expected to be completed and by which time all the associated impacts will have occurred. The full details of the conservation commitments can be found within the Delivering Melbourne’s Newest Sustainable Communities program report.
The bill does not propose any measure which is likely to add administrative burden or delays to developers who pay their levies by the applicable due date. Developers value the simplicity of the MSA program in its current form and this simplicity is retained under the bill. The efficiency of the MSA program’s habitat compensation scheme and the reduced administrative burden of the streamlined approval system are estimated to deliver considerable savings.
The legislative proposal is not imposing new legal requirements on developers and landowners. Developers and landowners in the MSA program area are already subject to the requirement of the commonwealth EPBC act approvals. The proposal establishes a Victorian head of power for the collection of MSA levies, provides greater clarity around the imposition and discharge of liability, and includes a range of measures to support the administration of and compliance with the levy framework.
Developers will still have the option to defer payments by entering into staged payment arrangements. These payment arrangements typically align payment terms with the stages of multistage subdivisions but also have the flexibility to be used in a number of other ways. The bill does not propose any measure which is likely to add administrative burden or delays to the construction of infrastructure. Infrastructure construction providers value the simplicity of the MSA program in its current form, and this simplicity is retained under the bill.
The bill imposes MSA levies on infrastructure works only when those works are on Crown land. This is a further reduction of administrative burden when compared to the MSA program in its current form, under which fees are charged for infrastructure projects on private land as well. The bill deliberately creates no additional barriers to acquisition of land by acquiring authorities seeking to deliver infrastructure.
The impacts of MSA levy costs on housing affordability are low when considered in the context of overall house and land costs. The increases to MSA levy rates are unlikely to deter a prospective homebuyer from purchasing a home in the growth areas over an equivalent home in the established suburbs of Melbourne. To ensure that the levy does not impact directly on homebuyers, there are a range of exclusions included in the legislation.
It should also be remembered that the levy is in place of the more expensive, time consuming and unpredictable project-by-project environmental approvals process under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Protection Act 1999 and the Victorian native vegetation controls.
The program overall is aimed at contributing to the regular supply of residential land available in Melbourne’s growth corridors, keeping houses affordable and accessible for Victorians. The Victorian government recognises the impact of owning a home and has a range of initiatives in place to improve housing affordability.
As well as the large reserves created through the MSA outside the urban growth boundary, there are 36 conservation areas within growth areas. These reserves interconnect with regional parks and local parks to form a connected network that protects important species while providing plenty of open space. These 36 reserves protect 2500 hectares of high-quality endangered species habitat within Melbourne’s new suburbs. They also include an additional 2500 hectares of conservation areas for the growling grass frog. These form wide corridors along 145 kilometres of creeks and rivers in Melbourne’s new suburbs.
Western Metropolitan Region has been home to strong growth. The western growth corridor and north-western growth corridor are in Western Metropolitan Region. A large connected network of growling grass frog conservation areas along the Werribee River and Lollypop, Davis and Kororoit creeks will be managed by Melbourne Water for the primary purpose of protecting and creating growling grass frog habitat to make sure the frog remains a resident in these waterways. A large connected network of growling grass frog conservation area along Jacksons and Emu creeks will be managed by Melbourne Water for the primary purpose of protecting and creating growling grass frog habitat to make sure the frog remains a resident in these waterways. There is also a series of conservation areas focused on the protection of woodlands and endangered species. I commend the bill to the house.