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SA Government planning to scrap Natural Resources Management Act

Natural resources management (NRM) in South Australia is going “back to basics”, with the State Government planning to scrap the existing Natural Resources Management Act in favour of one it says will be “simpler, flexible and accessible”.

The Liberal Party took NRM reform to the state election in March this year, proposing to overhaul the current model and replace it with the Landscape South Australia Act.

NRM encompasses the protection and improvement of environmental assets including water, soil, vegetation and biodiversity, and then Shadow Environment Minister David Speirs said reform was necessary because bureaucracy had “overrun the system, distancing natural resource management from the environments it aims to nurture and preserve”.

The proposed reform included: replacing SA’s existing eight NRM Boards with nine Landscape Boards, which would develop five-year landscape plans for their regions; capping annual land and water levies; and establishing a $2 million grassroots grants fund for community and not-for-profit groups.

After winning the election, the Liberal Government released a discussion paper outlining its proposed Landscape South Australia Act, which Speirs, now Minister for Environment and Water, said would put a focus on water management, soil quality and pest control.

The paper laid out five principles guiding the plan: decentralised decision making; creating a simple and accessible system; putting community and landowners at the centre; going back to basics; and taking a whole-of-landscape approach.

It stated benefits for water management could include streamlining water allocation planning, transparency of decision making and greater protection for security interests in water licences.

“Over time natural resources management has become too centralised, overly complex and has not been delivering for the people of this state,” Speirs said.

“We want to empower local communities, ensuring they are part of the solution to the way in which our natural resources are managed.”

As part of its aim to put communities at the heart of NRM, the State Government said the new Act would be more regionally focused and make local land managers directly responsible for managing their region’s natural resources.

However Shadow Minister for Environment and Water Susan Close said she is concerned the changes will take NRM backwards.

“While local input is of great importance in managing our natural resources, not including protecting natural habitats, revegetation and sustainable agricultural practices as priorities in the reform should ring alarm bells for landowners and land carers alike,” Close said.

Naturallogic Director and Water Resource Management Consultant Karla Billington has worked in catchment management for the past 20 years. She said the feeling among catchment managers in SA is there is little wrong with the existing Act itself, but there have been issues with implementation, particularly when it comes to balancing centralised versus regional management.

“While the majority of the Act is well designed, practical and effective, there are of course some elements that could be revised based on experience,” Billington said.

“I believe community dissatisfaction comes less from the legislation and more from the way the relevant agencies administer it, with centralised control of agendas, funding and resources. This delivery model can constrain the ability of the regions to focus on NRM delivery and leads to a loss of empowerment.”

As SA moves towards a regional approach, Billington said it is important not to forget the benefits that come with a more centralised model, such as planning and management standards and the delivery of scientific knowledge.

“The new Landscape Boards and community will need to be supported by knowledgeable and professional staff across the relevant disciplines, bringing together the best SA has to offer in science and technology with regional experience and localised empowerment,” Billington said.

Although Billington said she believes the Landscape Boards won’t differ greatly from the existing structure, the change of name could lead to greater understanding of what NRM involves.

“While the work of natural resources management is unlikely to change, if a greater understanding of this work can be provided via a name change then this would be beneficial,” Billington said.

The SA Government is currently compiling community feedback it has received on the proposed reform. It will then begin drafting the new legislation, with the aim of introducing the Landscape South Australia Act to Parliament in the first quarter of 2019.