Second Reading Debate – Planning and Building Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability and Other Matters) Bill 2017

I rise to speak on the Planning and Building Legislation Amendment (Housing Affordability and Other Matters) Bill 2017, which deals with several matters, including some changes to how certain wind farm planning permits can be amended — a key issue for my electorate. The bill also looks at facilitating affordable housing supply and makes several building-related amendments, but I will be focusing my contribution on the wind farm planning permit amendments. I note that I am reserving my position on this part of the bill while not opposing housing affordability measures and supporting amendments to the Building Act 1993.

I have deep concerns that the changes to called-in planning permits will take away the opportunity for communities to have their objections to amended wind farm permits heard. Renewable energy is an important part of the energy generation mix, and I am supportive of that, but this proposal simply aims to reduce time for developers and ensures the government will reach its unrealistic renewable energy targets. Renewable energy supports jobs in my community, and it is good to know that there is some use for the prevailing winds we get — we certainly get a lot of them and, let me tell you, they are not welcome in the dairy at 5 o’clock in the morning — but we cannot rush the shift to renewable energy. As AGL put it:

We can’t just switch off today or things won’t switch on tomorrow.

They are taking a responsible approach to changing their energy generation mix, and we as a state should be doing the same. Energy needs to be affordable and reliable. At the moment renewables cannot offer that alone, but as technology changes, the capabilities of renewables may too. But at the moment we have to be able to keep the lights on, keep warm and ensure we have enough baseload power to do business, manufacturing and farming. A whole range of other industries need reliable and affordable power to ensure sustainable economies which can then afford reasonable environmental management that is responsible.

These proposed amendments will be applicable to three wind farm developments in my electorate — Ryan Corner, Woolsthorpe and Hawkesdale. Permits for these wind farms were issued up to 10 years ago. Amendments have recently been lodged to decrease the number of towers but to make them much bigger, making them stand between 126 metres and 180 metres tall and have red flashing lights on top.

I will disclose now that the Woolsthorpe wind farm will have towers on the boundary of my farm, the closest one being 1.75 kilometres from my home. Turbines will also be adjacent to other land that we lease, but I have not objected to wind farms in the past. My concerns are not about the wind farms themselves; my concerns are around the changes to permit amendment processes that would not be the case for other building permit processes. The changes proposed for the Hawkesdale wind farm will mean much taller towers, with the closest tower just over 1 kilometre from the Hawkesdale township boundary.

This is a town with a kindergarten, swimming pool, P–12 college, shops and a pub. The wind farm will not just be in the backyard of one or two people; it will be in the whole town’s backyard. Just for reference, the clearance between the West Gate Bridge and the Yarra River is 58 metres. These towers will be almost three times that in size. There will be 31 of them dotted around the landscape, with red lights flashing on top of them. That is just one of the farms. There are three, and they are all starting to line up. I am not going to get involved in the discussions around infrasound and noise that people have been talking about for some time, but I will say while there is conjecture over this issue there is some fear within the community.

The Woolsthorpe wind farm, which will be next to the Hawkesdale wind farm, also has requested amendments to have fewer towers but increase their size, and the same at Ryan Corner, not far down the road. At the moment any objection to an application to amend a permit that has been called in must go to a planning panel. That panel gave interested parties the opportunity to be heard. What this government wants to do is skip that process for called-in wind farms; rather, any objections will be sent to a standing committee. Essentially this will mean proper planning processes will not apply. Community voices are essentially being ignored. The government is setting up a process to make it easier for the wind farms, which may be contentious for whatever reason, to be built. The panel process for the Hawkesdale wind farm began this week, with community members and other interested parties being able to have their say. In terms of the Hawkesdale wind farm, what happens if these changes are legislated before the process is finalised? Will it just stop? Are these changes retrospective? Will the community’s objections be ignored?

If this happens for regional Victoria for wind farms, why cannot it be the same for developments in the city? If the developer of a new apartment building has a permit for the approval of, say, a 30-storey building, they cannot just go back and change the plans to make it 80 storeys; they have to reapply. It should be the same for wind farms. According to the Melbourne City Council, a developer would have to apply for a section 72 amendment to change the permit preamble or permit conditions or make significant changes to the endorsed plans that may have an impact on other properties. Melbourne City Council states the decision-making process and appeal rights for a section 72 amendment are the same as those for a new planning permit application with one exception — sometimes VCAT decides that a permit or part of a permit issued cannot be amended by the responsible authority. This restriction will be on the permit, and that means the permit or part of it can only be amended by VCAT.

Why would this process be any different in the country? I would consider a 50-metre change in tower height to be a significant change, so why would it not be treated as a new permit application? Why shouldn’t the community get to have their say? These are permits that were issued almost 10 years ago, and suddenly the companies want to make a significant change to their plans. To me the fair and reasonable thing for them to do would be to apply for a new permit and let the process begin again.

I have had constituents visit my office concerned about the amendments to the Hawkesdale wind farm. Many of them did not object originally; they were okay with it. Then a second application was made, and then a third, and suddenly the town was surrounded. One farmhouse will have wind towers on three sides. Two are proposed to be right on their boundary, meaning access tracks to their farm will be impacted. They have been offered trees to help negate the visual impact, but they would have to plant the trees right at the house to block the view of a structure 180 metres tall. People live in the country to have open space; they do not want their homes to be surrounded by trees metres from their door, blocking them in. One constituent feels the approach to wind farm planning is haphazard, with no real consideration given to where turbines are being built.

As I said from the outset, my contribution is not about the value or worth of wind farms; it is about a balance, ensuring communities and other interested parties have the opportunity to make their case and have their concerns heard.

Consideration in Detail:

Ms BRITNELL (South-West Coast) — Minister, if these changes are legislated, what happens to called-in permits where the planning panel process has already begun, like with the Woolsthorpe, Ryan Corner and Hawkesdale wind farms in my electorate, particularly given these towers are significantly higher than were permitted originally? Also, what guarantees can the minister give that developers will not deliberately put forward plans that are favourable to communities, only to have them called in at a later date and have amendments made that are unfavourable to the community, with minimal consultation?

Mr WYNNE — I thank the member for South-West Coast for the clarification that she is seeking. As she is aware, there is a significant appetite for wind farms, as we know, and it is very clear that with changed technologies there are opportunities for modification of some of these wind farms going forward. What is important is that with many of these applications it actually means, as the member for South-West Coast knows, that because of changed technologies, changed heights of the turbines and the wingtips themselves, they are significantly bigger structures than may have been previously permitted but often less of them are required to generate the same amount of electricity. Going specifically to the amendment, the amendment allows the planning scheme to specify a different determination pathway for applications to amend wind farm permits that have been called in. There will be no change to the right of people to object to the application. The minister will still advertise an application, and people can submit objections. All objections will be considered before the matter is determined. The amendment to the act will allow the planning scheme to specify whether objections to amend a called-in wind farm permit are referred to a full panel hearing or an advisory hearing or not referred to a public hearing at all, and I will come to that question. Matters with a medium to large degree of change will be referred to a public hearing, and we understand the normal process for that, whether that be a panel or indeed an advisory committee. Only minor matters will be exempt from a public hearing — for example, the relocation of a substation, the change of an internal road layout or something else of a minor nature. Both the panel hearing process and the advisory committee process are obviously public hearings where objectors can make verbal submissions to the panel, and I am sure the member for South-West Coast is very aware of the process for that. The main difference between the two hearing types is that the advisory committee process will operate in accordance with the terms of reference, which means it will be approved by the minister of the day, whereas a panel will not. This will help, in our view, to streamline the process and save time in processing applications. As the member knows, we took a very strategic position as a government because we have very ambitious targets in relation to renewable energy — 25 per cent by 2020 and 40 per cent by 2025. These are significant renewable targets, and we see that wind has a very significant role to play in that. That is why we have indicated that the Minister for Planning is now in effect the one-stop shop in terms of applications for and consideration of wind farm proposals. In the past, as you know, there has been a bit of a disjointed situation whereby sometimes wind turbines may have been part of my considerations but other ancillary aspects of an application — for example, substations and other ancillary activities — have not been. These are now brought together in a holistic way to become, I think, a much more coherent process and one that is understood both by industry and indeed by communities. As the member for South-West Coast knows, people are making significant investments in wind farms — in the many hundreds of millions of dollars — but by the same token we have to ensure that there is always the opportunity made available for communities and councils to have their say in the process as well. Hopefully that satisfies the question.

Ms BRITNELL — Minister, if the owner of an apartment building in Melbourne wanted to add an extra 50 metres in height, would they have to apply for a new permit? If so, why do wind farm developers not have to reapply when they want to significantly increase the size of their towers, as has happened at the Woolsthorpe, Ryan Corner and Hawkesdale wind farms in my electorate?

Mr WYNNE — I thank the member again for her contribution, and I think I have indicated clearly what the process is. Where there is a substantial change to an existing permitted application — and I have indicated why, as you well know, there have been substantial changes made, where there have been changes in technology or in turbine technology in particular, which have often meant a significant increase in the height of some of these turbines and indeed the blades — that is a matter that ought to be properly considered through the process that I have already articulated.

Ms BRITNELL (South-West Coast) (By leave) — Just for clarification on the last question, I was actually asking if an apartment building developer wanted to add an extra 50 metres in height, would they have to apply for a new permit, and if so, why then do wind developers not have to reapply when they want to significantly increase the size of towers, like has happened with the Woolsthorpe, Ryans Corner and Hawkesdale wind farms?

Mr WYNNE — I say again to the member for South-West Coast that it is not as if where you have such a significant change it would be dealt with on the papers. It would have to be dealt with through a public process, and that is what we are articulating here. I again reiterate what the position of the government is. Yes, we fully support wind farm development; of course we do. We think that is, as I have indicated, a very significant contribution that is going to be made to the renewable energy target that Victoria has got. In that context those applications will be dealt with through a public process. The analogy you make is that if somebody had an existing permit for a building in the CBD of Melbourne and they wanted to substantially change that permit, it would also go through a public process. Obviously if it is over

Mr WYNNE — You may need a new planning and environment assessment or a modified permit. If it is below 25 000 square metres, it would go to the City of Melbourne. If it is above that, it would come to me, but even if it was coming to me it would go to the City of Melbourne as a referral authority in the first instance for their input to it. So it is analogous in some ways, but the important aspect of this is the public process that remains in place and the confidence that I think the community can have that their voice will be heard through that process, whether it be by advisory committee or a panel process.

Ms BRITNELL (South-West Coast) (By leave) — Minister, I am just wanting to clarify your words from before. You said in response to the member for Gippsland South’s question that if there is significant change, then they would have to go through the full process. To me, that means the full process is reapplying for a permit. Given that some of these were nine years ago in my electorate, is that what you mean? Going through the full process means they reapply for a permit?

Mr WYNNE — No, not necessarily. You cannot always be that definitive. It is going to depend on the nature of the applications. The Bald Hills one is a good example. Bald Hills is being constructed, it is on its way — Mr D. O’Brien — No, it is operating.

Mr WYNNE — I beg your pardon. Bald Hills is in fact operating, but if Bald Hills comes along again and says, ‘This is all going fantastically well, but by the way we actually have seen now new technologies and new opportunities to further expand the Bald Hills wind farm’, clearly that would be subject to a further application process.