More than a decade since local environment groups first began voicing concerns about the ballooning intensive horticulture industry in the Coffs – Clarence area, the Natural Resource Access Regulator decides to clamp down on non-compliance. So why has it taken so long?
About five years ago, in response to a deluge of complaints about the industry, an inter-agency advisory committee was finally formed, which seemingly included virtually every government agency and Council on the north coast.
By 2017 the committee had reported widespread illegal land-clearing, including repeat offenders, and the conclusion that “growers are prepared to pay fines as a business cost”. Complaints about water use, pesticide use and spray drift, poor worker accommodation and site safety, along with observations that erosion control was virtually non-existent, were also reported in committee minutes.
That committee was only able to support planning and promote best practice, with no regulatory power to enforce it. That was apparently against government policy at the time. In fact the then Minister wrote to one environment group in the Clarence Valley saying he was opposed to regulation because it “might encourage non-compliance”.
In 2017, Water NSW, the then regulatory authority, was so determined that problems relating to water use by blueberry growers not be aired, that they employed a lawyer at tax-payers' expense to prevent one local environment group from giving evidence to a tribunal hearing over a water licence application.
Despite no real compliance monitoring or enforcement throughout the past decade, this latest “crack down” has been widely reported in the media, seemingly used as some sort of a public relations coup!
Last week The Sydney Morning Herald reported Coffs Harbour's former deputy Mayor making the point that many of the current problems have arisen as a result of intensive horticulture not being required to present a development application (DA). However, all that would be needed is to add that activity to the existing list of developments that already require a DA on rural zoned land. All it takes is political will, but there is little evidence of that at this time.
- John Edwards
This article was originally published in the VOICES FOR THE EARTH column in The Daily Examiner on September 28 , 2020.