I rise to make a contribution on the Planning and Environment Amendment (Distinctive Areas and Landscapes) Bill 2017.
This is a bill that will establish a policy setting for the management of peri-urban areas around metropolitan Melbourne and Victoria’s regional cities.
It aims to protect valued assets of state significance located in these areas and provide greater certainty about the long-term sustainability of areas that contain distinctive areas — areas that may have features of state or national significance.
I note this bill includes the protection of the Macedon Ranges, specifically in relation to its environmental, agricultural and heritage values, and in the context of anticipated continued peri-urban growth, but the bill enables protection of an environmental nature of particular landscapes, of natural resources, cultural heritage and areas of infrastructure also of state significance. This arises when it is apparent that there is pressure, as a result of urban growth, being placed on those areas.
The electorate of Shepparton district is located in the Goulburn Valley and is part of the larger Murray and Goulburn Valley region, a highly productive agricultural area of great significance — in my opinion, of state significance. So while we are here today talking about areas within close proximity to urban areas, peri-urban encroachment and the like, I think it is really important to note that right across the state there are areas very worthy of a level of acknowledgement of being of state significance and steps being taken to recognise that. The Goulburn-Murray region is a highly productive agricultural area, primarily the dairy industry has dominated. Back in 2002 our region produced 3.2 billion litres of milk, while 1.8 billion litres was produced last year, so we have seen some very significant change in our region. That is as a result firstly of the millennium drought because that period in the first decade of this century led to massive social change and loss of dairy farm enterprises and income.
We face a situation as a result of loss of water where the 450 gigalitres of water that is contemplated as possibly going to South Australia out of productive agriculture could result in a situation where our dairy industries are producing something like 1.2 billion litres of milk. That is a massive reduction from what we were doing back in 2002 at a time when we thought growth would not stop, when we thought that our irrigation areas, our agricultural areas were just blossoming.
We were hit by a drought, we were hit by buybacks of water from a federal Labor government. We then had the Murray-Darling Basin plan imposed upon us, and we now find ourselves in a situation of considerable angst in relation to our future. It raises a question about what we should do about areas that are of great value, and this region that I live in is an area of great value for many reasons, not least that we have had up to $2 billion being invested in the modernisation of our irrigation system.
This leads me now to talk about a proposal across our area that equates to the issues we are discussing today — that is, the location of solar farms. We welcome government policy on renewable energy and certainly in our area we welcome the opportunity for the massive investment that will come from solar farms, but currently in Victoria there are no guidelines in place in relation to where solar farms can be located. We have four applications currently across the Greater Shepparton area to establish very large solar farms — massive investment for our region, jobs, really a whole range of positive things — but there is a serious concern that these solar farms not necessarily be located on highly productive agricultural land that has recently been modernised, has recently had new lined channels that are delivering water to the door of these farms and has had highly valuable meters placed on channels along these farms. To move to a situation where you change land that has been so invested in for the purposes of promoting agriculture to then turn it into solar farms certainly seems like a bit of an anomaly.
This is an issue that I am very pleased to say the government is taking some notice of now and has called in those applications. I understand that a planning panel will be put in place to consider not only those applications but to consider the need for and to produce guidelines about what is suitable land for these solar farms to be placed on. Certainly dry area land, less productive land is the ideal location for those sorts of enterprises, and there remains plenty of that within our region. It is the footprint of that massive investment in irrigation that needs to be considered when decisions like these are being made. I would urge the government to ensure that its department of agriculture contributes to these panel hearings by producing the sort of expert evidence we need to see from government, which has the resources to do it, to ensure that the latest science, the best thinking around the location of these sorts of enterprises and where they are located is taken into account.
There is talk about heat wells being established, and that could affect orchard land. There is talk of distances from roads, distances from residences, distances from town boundaries — all of these things are really important issues for which guidelines need to be put in place. Not only would I urge the department of agriculture to take an interest in this, but similarly it is very important that all our local government agencies, Goulburn Murray Water, our catchment management authorities, and of course the community and irrigators and other farmers who have an interest in many ways in this project do the work, be heard before this panel and assist in those sorts of guidelines being put in place. I understand those panel hearings will endeavour to come to Shepparton so that people have the chance to make their own submissions and be represented.
I think legislation like this also in a rural context raises issues like the right to farm. We have had instances of farming enterprises being challenged when they were there first operating a farming business, but residential encroachment has occurred on the borders of towns and there has been considerable dispute and angst around how those issues are dealt with. While this legislation in particular is dealing with the Macedon Ranges and maybe one day the Bellarine Peninsula and one day the Mornington Peninsula, I want people to start thinking about the value of other areas and the value of our agricultural land that has been invested in to such an extent. Not only is it the land, but it is the water, and water of itself has incredible value and values attached to it. So the way that land and water operate together to make an area a particular area of state significance is I think something that we need to think a lot about. While I am only talking about my own region here, it obviously extends to many other areas across the state.
Having said all that, I think this is a bill that is clearly designed to take into account and try to protect the sorts of values that we see on the edges of our cities and towns. I believe that it is contributing to the sort of planning, development and legislation that we need to consider and put in place as our populations grow. So on that basis I support the bill.