Strategic Cropping Land - proceed with caution
8 June 2011
Compared with the previous policy announcements, the resources sector has welcomed some elements of the revised framework for “Strategic Cropping Land”, (SCL), released by the state Government last month.
That may be because the revised maps now break the affected areas of the State into 'management areas' and 'protection areas' with scaled back levels of restriction, particularly in the management areas.
With legislation still to come before parliament and the regulatory assessment yet to be completed, there is still much more detail to be uncovered before either landowners in affected areas or the resource industry operators can be completely certain about the impacts of the policy.
So what has changed?
The initial discussion paper and framework released in February and October 2010 respectively, afforded protection to SCL throughout an area covering a significant portion of Queensland, including some of the most prospective resources regions in the State.
Under the amended framework released on 31 May, the trigger maps now identify land in Southern Queensland and the Emerald-Springsure region in two areas defined as ’protection areas’, which are afforded the same protection as was set out under the initial policy framework.
There is also a much larger area mapped as a ‘management area’ – covering a significant portion of the east coast of Queensland stretching inland for example just past Roma.
What’s the difference?
Land in management areas will be protected from development only where there is a history of cropping and where the proposed SCL criteria are met.
In order to be protected within the management area land will need to have had a ‘history of cropping’ (which is open for interpretation), and meet all eight of the incremental SCL criteria (slope, rockiness, Gilgai microrelief, soil depth, wetness and pH, salinity and soil water storage).
The criteria and thresholds differ for each region - Western, Eastern Darling Downs, Central Queensland, Wet Tropics and Granite Belt.
Land that meets the SCL criteria in the two protection areas are almost completely protected from ‘development’. The new maps released on 31 May identify 1.84 million hectares where SCL is expected to exist, subject to on-ground assessment using the SCL criteria.
Where the SCL would be permanently alienated or diminished, development will not proceed except in limited exceptional circumstances.
Allowances will be made for proposed resource projects that are already well advanced and have met certain milestones in the assessment process. These ‘transitional projects’ may be allowed to proceed but final environmental approvals will still include the requirement to avoid, minimise and mitigate any impact on SCL.
Project proponents should consider the guidelines carefully to determine their eligibility as ‘transitional’, and indeed, consider their options should a proposed project fall outside the given parameters.
Can landowners decide for themselves?
Can agriculturists and proponents of developments (including, for example resources projects) agree on the terms under which land which may be SCL is dealt with? Can they reach agreements which are mutually beneficial and which may benefit the community and the economy? For example, in circumstances where a landowner no longer wants to or is no longer able to farm or crop land which may have a long history of cropping?
Under the current policy that doesn’t appear to be possible, as control and management has been taken out of the landowner’s hands once an area is categorised as SCL.
The way the policy is currently written, even if a landowner wanted to sell some or all of their own existing cropping land to other interests or develop infrastructure themselves, they are unable to do so.
The Strategic Cropping Land – Protection Areas and Management Areas Fact sheet states:
'Under the new legislation, land that is confirmed as SCL against the criteria in Strategic Cropping Protection Areas will not be able to be permanently alienated by development, except in limited exceptional circumstances.'
It appears that the Government’s long-term goal here is ‘once SCL, always SCL’. If this is included in the legislation, it won’t be possible for anyone – farmers included – to permanently alienate that land for any other use.
Is there a middle ground?
Perhaps. Perhaps farmers consent should be needed for an area of their land to become SCL, or have the power to apply to have the protection lifted. This may allow resource companies with high hopes for an SCL area to reach an arrangement with the farmer if both parties agree the area would be better used for resources (or other development).
Or, perhaps highly prospective resources should be a consideration in assessing land against the SCL criteria.
For more information contact: Kristie Fankhauser on +61 7 3233 8876.