The rollout of renewable energy infrastructure in Victoria must be carefully planned to ensure that projects are delivered in the right locations, a leader in the state’s planning industry says.

Following the Victorian Government’s announcement last month of its intention to fast-track development approval for renewable energy projects, Planning Institute of Australia Victoria President Patrick Fensham voiced support for the state’s renewable energy rollout.

But he cautioned that there is a need for careful planning to ensure that new generation and transmission is constructed in suitable locations.

He says current processes for planning reform provide an opportunity to integrate policies regarding delivery of renewable energy infrastructure with other policy objectives.

This includes recently commenced work to develop a blueprint to guide Victoria’s development between now and 2050.

“Renewable energy projects are a critical piece of the puzzle in reaching our net zero target,” Fensham said.

“Any fast-tracking process for renewables needs to be supported by clear policy and plans in the planning schemes, indicating where renewable energy facilities (and supporting infrastructure such as transmission lines) will be prioritised.

“Current planning reform processes, including the development of a Plan for Victoria provide a prime opportunity to integrate renewable energy infrastructure policy direction with other competing policy objectives, such as the protection of agricultural land.”

The calls come as the Victorian Government last month announced its intention to use special powers which are afforded under the state’s planning laws to speed up the approval process for renewable energy development from more than four years to just four months.

The powers are afforded under the state’s Development Facilitation Program (DFP), which aims to support projects which are of high importance for Victoria’s economy.

Under the changes, all renewable projects in Victoria will be treated as ‘significant economic development’.

As a result these projects eligible to be assessed an accelerated approval process through the DFP.

Under this process, decision making rests with the Minister for Planning using the s20(4) of the Planning and Environment Act 1987 (Vic).

Decisions are made in as little as four months and will be handled by a dedicated facilitation team within the planning department.

This process removes the requirement for independent planning panels.

Controversially, the process also removes the right of third parties such as farmers, community members or others to appeal planning decisions to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).

Instead, those wishing to appeal will be forced to take the matter to the Supreme Court. Such appeals will only be available on points of law and there will be no grounds for appeal on policy or planning basis.

In a statement announcing its decision last month, the Victorian Government said that accelerated approvals are necessary in order to guarantee reliable and affordable energy at an affordable price as the state’s old coal fired generators close down.

As things stand, it says that the state currently has around $90 billion worth of investments value in the renewable energy project pipeline.

These are expected to generate around 15,000 jobs for the state.

Yet since 2015, more than one in five applications for renewable projects have ended up being stuck in VCAT.

Asked about the opportunities which farmers, community members and others would have to raise objections, a Victorian Government spokesperson told Sourceable that the changes would bring renewable energy project approvals in line with other significant economic projects in Victoria such as affordable housing and hospitals.

Consultation would continue to form part of the renewable planning processes, the spokesperson said.

There will be no changes to public notice processes and anyone will still be able to make submissions.

Objections and feedback will be considered as part of the usual assessment for any application.

Nevertheless, the move has drawn ire from the state’s farming industry, which fears that farmers and regional communities will be steamrolled as renewable projects are rammed through by the Government.

Victorian Farmers Federation President Emma Germano described the move as a ‘slap in the face’ which is taking place after ‘years of sham contracting with farming communities’.

Germano stresses that the VFF is not opposed to renewable energy or the transition to a renewable future.

However, she says that the process of delivering upon this has suffered from a failure of adequate planning to ensure that the right assets are being delivered within the right locations.

The Federation has also been frustrated by a lack of regulatory safeguards for both landholders who host renewable energy assets along with those who reside or operate within close proximity to such assets.

Germano says that the Federation has for years lobbied the government to introduce a framework that will guide the transition in a manner which affords adequate protections to farmers and regional communities.

“The Victorian Government has decided to steam roll Victorian farmers and regional communities, with little regard to how it impacts their livelihoods and countless generational family farms,” Germano said.

“We’ve heard that vast parts of Victoria’s farmland will be needed to reach our renewable energy targets. If we can’t get this right now, our ability to produce the food and fibre needed to feed people will be severely inhibited.

“For the government to say they are genuinely listening to the concerns of these communities and then completely ignore them and fast-track the process smacks of arrogance and them being completely tone-deaf.

“For years the VFF has been pleading with the government to introduce a fair framework that guides the transition to our renewable energy future. Not only have they failed to do this, they’ve now hit the accelerator and it’s farmers and our regional communities that are set to pay the price.”

“We’ve already seen farmers take to the streets of Melbourne in pure desperation as a last resort to have their voices heard.

“Decisions like this one leave us shaking our heads.”


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