Legislative Council: Wednesday, November 01, 2023


Parliamentary Committees

Environment, Resources and Development Committee: Inquiry into the Urban Forest

The Hon. E.S. BOURKE (15:54): I move:

That the interim report of the committee on its inquiry into the urban forest be noted.

As a member of the Environment, Resources and Development Committee, I am pleased today to speak on the committee's interim report on its inquiry into the urban forest. The committee was inspired to look into this topic due to community concerns around effects of urban infill.

Higher density living and residential subdivisions being created have created many challenges. One of the typical flow-on effects of urban infill is the phenomenon of declining tree canopy, which we are seeing right across metropolitan Adelaide. As we experience rising temperatures associated with climate change, tree canopy loss continues to become an increasingly relevant and persistent concern for us to be considering as a government.

Following advertising in South Australia's newspapers and on social media, the committee received 229 submissions. So far, we have had 21 witnesses appear before the committee, many providing a range of technical evidence that they put a great of work into preparing. I would like to sincerely thank each and every one of our witnesses we have heard from, for the contributions they have made and the amount of time they have committed to making this possible.

My experience as a member of the committee during this inquiry has reinforced to me how much passion and how much experience we have in the South Australian community about urban trees and, in particular, tree canopy loss. As the canopy declines, the livability of urban areas is also affected. Preserving the livability of our cities requires a healthy balance of vegetation and greenery.

In a hot, dry climate like ours, trees are critically important tools in providing a comfortable, livable environment for humans and, equally, for animals. Trees and tree canopy are critical to sustaining a healthy and happy community, and a healthy and sustainable environment. A recent report from the Conservation Council of SA estimates that Greater Adelaide is losing 75,000 trees a year. A recent study into tree canopy for the whole of Adelaide, based on the 2018 data, estimated that tree canopy covers just 23.37 per cent of the metropolitan area; of this canopy, 51.9 per cent is on private land.

In 2017, the 30-year plan document—setting out the ways in which Greater Adelaide should grow to become more livable, more competitive and more sustainable over the next 30 years—laid out the target that council areas with less than 30 per cent of tree canopy needed to increase urban tree canopy cover by over 20 per cent by 2045.

The Environment, Resources and Development Committee is exploring past practices and best practices to increase our urban tree canopy, and also ways to facilitate improved tree species selection to ensure our trees have the best chance of surviving and thriving amid our challenging climate. Science tells us we need to diversify our urban forest, making it more resilient to climate as well as less vulnerable to pests and diseases. The committee is also investigating legislative and regulatory options that may offer potential to improve the resilience of new and existing trees within our urban forest.

I want to stress that this is just an interim report. The inquiry will continue and the committee will continue to hear from witnesses. The report details 13 interim recommendations plus two subrecommendations that focus on regulatory change to protect existing trees, as well as to facilitate the planting of more trees with a view to ensuring the right trees are being selected for areas in which they are being planted.

I will not go through all the recommendations now, but they are centred around the following themes:

exemptions to distance for removal of a tree;

species exemptions;

minimum trunk size for tree removal;

canopy cover;

fees for tree removal;

funding for increased research; and

the establishment of an urban forest fund initiative to grow our urban canopy.

The recommendations seek to ensure that established trees are appropriately valued and preserved and that new trees are planted to expand the existing urban canopy. This will require action on both private and public land. In making these recommendations, the committee aims to do a range of things. We want to:

respond to the community call for urgent action on addressing the decline of the urban tree canopy;

provide timely feedback and recommendations to government without unnecessary delay;

provide transparency to the public about the committee's progress and thinking on key issues, and provide accountability to those people and organisations who have made submissions to the inquiry so far; and

stimulate community debate on a topic covered by these interim recommendations.

The committee welcomes feedback and engagement on these recommendations. It is the committee's view that recommendations of this interim report relate to matters which are pressing in nature and are relevant to the whole community of greater Adelaide.

In closing, I would like to thank the committee's research officer, Dr Amy Mead, and secretary, Patrick Dupont, who have undertaken this research in a quality and professional way. I would also like to thank our committee members—most of all our Presiding Member, the member for Badcoe from the other place, Jayne Stinson, who has made sure that this committee's findings and recommendations so far have had lots of community engagement. I thank the member for MacKillop, Nick McBride; the member for Davenport, Erin Thompson; and, of course, from our chamber the Hon. Tammy Franks and the Hon. Michelle Lensink for the amount of time that they have committed to this report so far. I commend the report to the chamber.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (16:01): I rise to also make some remarks in relation to the interim report of the Environment, Resources and Development Committee into tree canopy. This is an area that I have long had an interest in. I have managed to find an old bill folder which is stuffed full of information going back many, many years, including matters such as the Development (Regulated Trees) Amendment Bill. It would be called a code amendment now, but is the old DPA for significant and regulated trees.

I would also like to add my remarks to the preceding speaker, the Hon. Emily Bourke, in thanking and acknowledging all the people that she has, which I will not run through. Suffice to say, I think there has not been much appetite to amend these rules for some time. They initially came in in probably late 2009 or 2010. The rules sit within the planning system and they are something that a number of members of parliament have long railed against.

The origin, I think, was well intended and was a bill moved by the Hon. Diana Laidlaw, as the then planning minister in the Olsen government. There had been a specific tree—I think it was probably a river red gum—which had a significant trunk size. It was cut down through a development process and everybody was saddened and outraged. That is a very long time ago now; that was in the 1990s.

Trunk size has been used as an indicator for determining significant and regulated trees, and that has continued to follow through. That has been a source for a lot of stakeholders, particularly arborists and people in the conservation sector who acknowledge that there are a number of trees that might reach maturity more slowly or have some sort of biodiversity benefit that is not recognised through the way that the laws have been drafted up and repromulgated time and time again.

There are a lot of issues within our current significant tree laws, particularly the proximity to builds and to existing dwellings and those sorts of things, which enables them to be removed fairly easily. The species list that exists also certainly needs to be reviewed and that is something that I have spoken about in this parliament before because some of the trees that are on there certainly are pests but there are some that I do not think deserve to be on there.

With the increasing densification in Greater Adelaide, we have seen a great loss of the tree canopy and a number of trees. I think the Hon. Emily Bourke quoted from the Conservation Council. A large reason for that has been the urban infill policy, which was thought firstly to have 75 per cent of new dwellings come from urban infill and was then increased to 85 per cent in 2017. That has put pressure on our tree canopy.

It always is a balance and for that reason I think the committee, having come out with an interim report to reflect the evidence that we have received, is a way to promote conversations. There are certainly a lot of very varied views within this space. I think everybody acknowledges that and that is probably why the regulations have stayed the way they are for some time.

I am pleased there is an appetite amongst this current parliament, which is probably reflective of age. No disrespect to any baby boomers who might be reading or listening to this, but I always struggled with trying to convince them in the parliament that trees should have more value, although I never had an argument with the Hon. Dr Bob Such or the Hon. Mark Parnell on that one. In fact, I think we all co-penned a letter at one stage to complain about the current tree laws and that they needed a decent look at. So it is good that we are embarking on this.

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and we certainly need to preserve as many mature trees as possible. We look forward to stakeholders further engaging in this debate. Now that we have drawn a few lines in the sand about where we might be going, we would like to promote some further discussion, so I look forward to the ongoing deliberations of the committee and thank everybody who has made contributions and been through the evidence with us thus far.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:06): I also rise to speak to this interim report of the inquiry into the urban forest undertaken by the Environment, Resources and Development Committee. I echo my colleagues the Hon. Emily Bourke and the Hon. Michelle Lensink's sentiment, with thanks to both our researchers and secretariat as well as the chair of the committee, the member for Badcoe, and other members in both places.

It is actually a pleasure to come to this parliament with an interim report. There is more work to be done, but we have an interim report that we have all agreed on and with some recommendations that we hope the government will soon take up with regard to exemption distances, species exemptions, trunk size, canopy cover, fees for legal tree removal and fees for illegal tree removal, as well as a tree removal fund and community-based tree protection, including a call for bringing back Arbor Day and the celebration of all things trees.

Trees form the backdrop to our lives. They mark our crossroads, house our wildlife, shade our children and cool our air. They outgrow us in height and age and have witnessed events and centuries before our time. Trees help improve our mood, reduce our power bills, increase the value of our houses and, in a warming climate, they are the single best investment we can make to keep our cities cool, beautiful and liveable.

Despite all that trees give and do for us, we are cutting down more trees across Adelaide suburbs than we are replacing. The State Planning Commission's most recent report card assessing our progress against the 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide found that Adelaide is not on track to meet our canopy goals. When compared with other jurisdictions, metropolitan Adelaide has the worst tree protection in Australia. There is an astounding difference between our protections and those of the vast majority of other Australian jurisdictions.

While our state continues to focus on protecting individual large trees, the focus interstate has turned to protecting the urban forest. Local governments across New South Wales, Victoria and WA protect trees based on trunk circumference and protect trees of significantly smaller size than we do here in South Australia. Many now also protect trees based on the canopy they provide or their height. The ACT is the only jurisdiction other than South Australia where the protection of trees and vegetation is not delegated to local councils. While South Australian councils are left with the responsibility for maintaining tree canopy cover, they do not set the rules, and so they are unable to ensure that these protections meet the expectations of their local communities.

Our tree protections were fundamentally undermined by myriad regulation exemptions introduced in 2011, which permitted the unnecessary removal of large trees based on their proximity to a dwelling. Only three out of the 40 interstate jurisdictions that protect trees on private land allow for such removals without application.

Adelaide is the capital of the driest state on the driest inhabited continent in the world. We also have some of the lowest levels of tree canopy coverage of any metropolitan city in our nation. Compared with other capital cities, Adelaide also has the lowest percentage of parkland, approximately 10 per cent, compared with 57 per cent in Sydney, 40 per cent in Perth, 22 per cent in Hobart and 20 per cent in Melbourne. The significant decline comes from subdivisions and urban infill replacing gardens, trees and brownfield sites with hard surfaces such as paving, concrete, driveways, parking and roads to support higher density living. This significantly limits our ability to increase tree canopy using public land.

A report from the Conservation Council of South Australia estimates that greater Adelaide is losing 75,000 trees per year—75,000 trees per year—an extraordinary figure. With rising temperatures and smaller backyards further increasing the difficulty of replacing large trees and growing new urban forest, the protection of what remains of our current urban forest on private land becomes more important. Many of the current species of trees that make up our urban forests may be unable to thrive in a hotter, drier climate and will need to be replaced with native or more resilient species fitted with water-sensitive urban design infrastructure to support tree health and survival.

Urban trees have also had positive strong impacts on our social, physical, and mental health and wellbeing, and they help mitigate some of the negative impacts of urbanisation. Scientific evidence shows spending time in green space provided by trees can strongly protect against depression, anxiety and stress-related issues. In fact, trees help people feel happier and more relaxed.

The Urban Forest Inquiry interim report contains our committee's initial recommendations based on the evidence and submissions received to date. These recommendations encompass those areas that I spoke of at the start of this: exemption distances, species exemptions, trunk size, canopy cover, fees for both legal and illegal removal, a tree removal fund, and community-based tree protections through increased government funding, as well as funding from community and non-government groups. We think this is a good first step that the Malinauskas government should urgently take and we look forward to a positive response to our interim report.

There is an urgent need for South Australia to adopt best practice tree protections, not only for our own personal enjoyment, but also of course for improving our natural environment and biodiversity. To quote Professor Chris Daniels, the Chair of the Green Adelaide Landscape Board:

Cities grow. Cultures change. When we lose our urban forest, we lose the biodiversity that makes our region special.

Adelaide is a special region, and I do look forward to the Malinauskas government implementing these recommendations from this report and preserving what it is that makes Adelaide such an extraordinary place. With that, I commend the report.

The Hon. E.S. BOURKE (16:13): I thank all members who have spoken today, who are also all members of the committee, and I look forward to seeing where the next chapter of our interim report goes.

Motion carried.