“Great risk to Hawkesbury" as bureaucrats can’t decide on fire hazard clearing rules
Bilpin landowner Martin Tebbutt has been trying to get permission to clear a small firebreak on some of the fence lines around his property since the bushfires of 2019-20 in an effort to protect his home, but he keeps coming up against a bureaucratic brick wall.
Mr Tebbutt and wife Marion own 100 acres in Bilpin, almost all of it backing onto National Parks land and he says if the rules around land clearing are not sorted out before the next bushfire season there is a “great risk to the Hawkesbury”.
“It’s not just me,” says Mr Tebbutt, “it’s presumably anyone up here who is in a fire risk area and we are in the highest risk area in the state, Category One. We are also amongst the hardest hit regions, surely if anything is going to be protected, it would be us.”
What isn’t in any doubt is anyone with land in the Hawkesbury who needs a firebreak on their property, faces a confusing and sometimes frustrating struggle with officialdom.
During the 2019-20 bushfire period the Tebbutts managed to save most of their property.
“We have extensive sprinklers and big water supply but it was still touch and go,” Mr Tebbutt said.
“We have 25 acres over the road, no rear boundary, and it backs onto National Park,” Mr Tebbutt says.
“We want to build a fence over there. We’d do it ourselves. It’s just scrub, there’s no koalas, no biodiversity.”
Mr Tebbutt first approached government land body, Local Land Services because they levy anyone with more than 25 acres. The levies are largely based on how many cattle they estimate you can run.
Martin Tebbutt - asking for some common sense when it comes to vegetation clearing
“But we can’t run cattle even if we wanted to, “ says Mr Tebbutt, “because we don’t have a fence. We approached them and after a long and prolonged procrastinated answer they said, ‘you have to get development consent from council’. They said we had to approach council and put in a development application.
“I thought, this is not right. I don’t want to start a DA. That is going to take me a lot of time and cost me a lot of money and I’ve got to pay a load of experts a lot of money in order to tell me what I can do to protect myself and improve my property. There has got to be another way.”
But as Mr Tebbutt was soon to find out, he’d entered something of a bureaucratic maze.
He approached the RFS and made a formal application to get the strip cleared. He wanted to clear five to 10 metres, wide enough for a tractor or an RFS truck, which would potentially make his property better protected in the event of another bushfire emergency. “We made no mention of the fence in the application but verbally said we want to build a new fence, but this is hazard reduction for the entire property. They [RFS] did not come out and inspect, did not look at it. The officer reported back to us and said, this is not for the purpose of hazard reduction, you will have to go to the Council.
“This situation went on and relations between us and the RFS administration soured – the volunteers, we think they are wonderful and we know a lot of them here, so it’s not them – but the administration, I had cause to take out a FOI [Freedom of Information request]. And at the same time as they were refusing, they sent an email to Council dobbing me in on the basis that I was going to clear without permission.
“It seems to me – during the last three years since I’ve been chasing this – the RFS administration has been responsible for preventing hazard reduction. Our experience is they have aggravated it.
“A couple of months went by and I made a second application. They sent an officer out from the Blue Mountains. He came without my knowledge and inspected the place and he refused it and said, we can’t find any evidence of an original fence there so we cannot give you a hazard reduction certificate.
“It’s gone on and on. It’s unbelievable. The have taken away my rights to protect myself from bush fires.”
Further complicating the situation, is the Rural Boundary Clearing Code (RBCC) which seeks to bring some clarity to the issues surrounding clearing – giving guidance on when clearing can be carried out by landowners and potentially allowing them to clear land where there is a potential fire danger. But there’s a big catch – the RBCC still hasn’t been signed off by ministers, despite a very long discussion period with local councils. Mr Tebbutt says he doesn’t believe landowners have been consulted at all.
Then there’s the State Environmental Planning Policy (Vegetation in Non-Rural Areas) 2017 (Vegetation SEPP), which is administered by local government – in this case Hawkesbury City Council – which governs the clearing of vegetation on properties.
“As such, Local Land Services does not have the legal authority to grant permission to clear vegetation on properties in the Hawkesbury Local Government Area,” Sharon Elliott, Greater Sydney Local Land Services General Manager told the Post.
Hawkesbury Council’s Linda Perrine, Director City Planning told us the RFS could carry out hazard reduction work, “on any land without Council approval, but if a landowner wanted to clear vegetation for this purpose (of their own volition), that would require a Development Application”.
Mr Tebbutt has also written to all 12 Hawkesbury councillors asking for help, saying ‘we are seeking your contribution to assist us, and others, to be allowed to legally hazard reduce along our rural boundaries without the unreasonable consent requirements that are maintaining our area at great risk’.
The email resulted in a handful of individual councillors replying, essentially saying they would bring it up. This was followed by a council motion put up by Mayor Patrick Conolly agreeing to write to the State government asking when the RBCC would be finalised.
Ms Perrine told us there have also been amendments to the Rural Fires Act, which had been foreshadowed by Emergency Services Minister David Elliott, “which makes provision for vegetation clearing for the purpose of bush fire hazard reduction within 25 metres of a boundary with adjoining land,” Ms Perrine said.
“We also understand that clearing needs to comply with the Rural Boundary Clearing Code when that is in force.”
And as we’ve seen, the RBCC can’t be activated until Ministers sign off on it.
Which leaves the Tebbutts and countless other Hawkesbury residents with similar issues - having to either wait for the RBCC to be signed – and there is no indication when that will be – or to apply to Council and go through a potentially long-drawn out Development Application process, and even that doesn’t guarantee success.
“This overall situation is pathetic and alarming to us and in our opinion is dangerous to our community as a whole,” Mr Tebbutt says.
“For years the RFS website has advised that ‘it is every landholder’s responsibility to manage the bushfire hazards on their property’ and ‘the simple rule is – if it’s your property, its your hazard and your responsibility’. Unfortunately the current red and green tape regulations restrict our ability to follow this excellent advice.
“Meanwhile fuel for the next fire is growing at an incredible rate due to the wonderful rain.”
Council say their understanding is that the Rural Boundary Clearing Code does not come into effect until the written agreement of the relevant ministers has been obtained and the Code has been published.
“At this stage,” said Ms Perrine, “Council has not been informed of the timing for publication of the code by the Department of Planning Industry and Environment or the Ministers’ agreement. Council will continue to work with the Department of Planning Industry and Environment with respect to the provision of data to inform the preparation of the new code.”
Meanwhile, nervous residents watch the extremely fast growth of vegetation brought on by the wet year we’ve been having, fully aware that come the next fire season, most of that could well be dry as tinder, providing fuel for yet another potential fire emergency.
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