Whose SEQ Regional Plan?

Quite a few people from the community groups Lockyer Community Action Inc. and Lockyer Uplands Catchments Inc. went to the consultation meeting on the draft SEQ Regional Plan last month.

The first surprise was that there was not to be any presentation about the background, objectives, structure or process leading up to the production of the draft.  Instead, the public were to be provided with “consultations” with individual planners.  A novel idea, but it would have been much more useful had we been provided with an overview of the draft from the planner responsible for preparing the document.

The second surprise came when we were led into the meeting room and introduced to a planner by one of the “ushers” who had been issuing numbers to the public in the foyer – she told us that we had a limit of 10 minutes with the planner.

Despite the planner my partner and I were paired up with doing her best, many of our questions were outside of her field of involvement in the preparation of the draft plan, so we didn’t really get satisfactory answers to our questions and certainly did not have a usefully informative discussion on the topics of concern to us.

The others in our group came away from their meetings with very similar feelings.

It was with some delight that I came across the article below in today’s issue of The Conversation – it pretty much sums up my misgivings about the consultation process, the preparation of the plan, and the general thrust of its content.

Overall, the issues below are illustrative of my general impression from a number of exchanges with different arms of the State government in the last year that we are not being well served by this government, and that their priorities are much more aligned with those of developers and industry.

Here’s the article:

ShapingSEQ regional plan gives ‘stakeholders’ a bigger say than citizens

Brian Feeney, The University of Queensland

Special interest groups have had much more influence than the wider community on the new regional plan for Southeast Queensland. A draft of the plan, ShapingSEQ, was recently released for comment. Prior input from the wider community was limited to submitting “thought bubbles” about the region without having the benefit of any report card on how the previous plan had performed.

This process did not accurately gauge community concerns and submitters were not a representative sample. Perhaps it gave people the feeling they’d “had a say”. The process just as likely reinforced cynicism about government consultation.

Regional planning in Southeast Queensland began in the early 1990s when councils in the region signed up to the Regional Framework for Growth Management. This was a non-binding set of guidelines promoted by the state government to manage land-use change.

Subsequently, this framework evolved into a statutory regional plan in 2005. It is noteworthy that consultation in the lead-up to the 2005 plan included the public release of discussion papers with options for the region’s future.

The initial focus was very much on getting southeast Queensland councils to accept the need for regional planning. At that time, the role of the wider community was relatively minor.

A 1990 meeting of representatives from government, business, trade unions, professional groups and community organisations was an important impetus for starting the regional planning process. This “stakeholder” model of community engagement has been the dominant form of consultation ever since.

Stakeholders or citizens?

Stakeholders have particular vested interests – such as protecting the environment, promoting a business sector, or advancing a government agency’s agenda.

Preparation of the 2016 draft plan involved several of these stakeholder “reference groups”. Participants in these groups were there to advocate for the organisation they represent, often making it more difficult to find “outside-the-box” solutions.

Consultation by negotiating with stakeholders is consistent with the dominant view that explicitly pursuing the public interest is less important than growing the economy. Consequently, an “issue management” approach has been taken, with stakeholders “competing” for influence over which development regulations are put in place. Within this worldview, trade-offs between stakeholders usually take place in a “growth first” framework.

An alternative is to promote informed deliberation by citizens who don’t represent particular interests. The Perth Dialogue with the City process shows how this “citizen” approach can work.

This was a process of engagement with a large group of demographically representative Perth citizens. They were provided with relevant in-depth information before their deliberations about the city’s future.

Wide consultation overdue

It has been at least ten years since there was either an open performance review of southeast Queensland regional planning, or consultation with the wider community on options for the region’s future. Engagement with the wider community is particularly important now for a couple of reasons.

First, the 2016 draft plan claims to have a 50-year vision horizon, compared to the previous plan’s 20 years. Because of this change, the wider community should have been engaged in developing this new vision rather than being presented with a fait accompli in the draft plan.

The ShapingSEQ draft plan seems to have more of a ‘growth first’ approach than the 2009 regional plan.
Queensland Government

Second, the draft plan represents a significant change of focus from the previous 2009 plan. That plan aimed to reduce the region’s ecological footprint and mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast, the 2016 draft seems to be adopting a more “growth first” approach.

It is noteworthy that virtually all references to climate change in this new draft are about adapting to change rather than reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These significant changes should have been widely debated before the draft plan was prepared.

Independent report card needed

For a debate on future directions to be genuine, the community needs an independent, comprehensive report card on how things are tracking.

The draft plan has ten indicators, some of which show modest improvement. However, other indicators, such as housing affordability and loss of biodiversity, have gone backwards. And koala numbers continue to decline.

The report card should also acknowledge that Australia (including southeast Queensland) has one of the worst records for resource use and greenhouse gas emissions per unit of economic output of any developed country.

Moving beyond ‘predict and provide’

The draft plan largely takes a basic “provide land for the predicted demand” approach, which assumes that regional planning is a type of technical process best left to the experts.

However, regional planning always involves trade-offs between different economic, social and environmental values. These should be openly discussed through genuine community engagement.

By not providing opportunities for such engagement, the draft plan has failed to give the community a real say in the region’s future.

ShapingSEQ is open for community feedback by formal submission until midnight, Friday, March 3 2017.

The Conversation

Brian Feeney, Urban Planning Researcher, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

City farms and small producers at threat from trade agreements

Last night I was reading something about the Australian Government’s new trade agreement with China and thinking about the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement that the Abbott government has been salivating over in recent times.  That started a train of thought that went via Greece (the degree of resilience that connections many in the population still have with farms) and then to the opening up of Cuba to the US (and how that might impact their low input, small-scale farming).

This morning I opened up The Conversation and there’s an article on the way that better relations with the US might threaten Cuba’s “sophisticated urban and suburban food system [that is] producing healthy food, improving the environment and providing employment.” But what is under threat is more than that – the organic urban production model is being taken up in the countryside as well.


The world still has many lessons to learn from urban and peri-urban agriculture in Cuba. Javier Ignacio Acuña Ditzel/Flickr, CC BY

The Cuban example has been an inspiration to many in both the developing and developed worlds, with two-way sharing of approaches to sustainable agriculture on pretty much a global basis.

The article paints a fairly detailed picture of the background and significance of Cuba’s current agricultural system, and the way that it has developed over more than 20 years, initially responding to the cut-off of Russian aid, including particularly fossil fuels.

Well worth reading, both for the detail on the Cuban approach and as material to think about in terms of the free trade arrangements that are proliferating internationally.  You might also want to check out the much more detailed background to Cuban agriculture in the 340 page publication Sustainable Agricultural Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba published jointly by Food First Books, ACTAF (Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians) and CEAS (Center for the Study of Sustainable Agriculture, Agrarian University of Havana)

Sustainability and resilience is also about your pension

You probably didn’t expect to see a post on pension funds in this blog, but if you think about it we all want to be able to get through our “third age” without having to think too much about where the money is coming from, and without being forced into unsustainable options just because of a lack of funds.

On Tuesday in attended the  one-day ‘Economic Growth, Climate Change and the G20’, conference hosted by the Asia Pacific Centre for Sustainable Enterprise at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre.  One of the best conferences I’ve ever been to for a lot of reasons.  Everyone was “on message”, the facilities were fantastic, the room held 250 people without being crowded or anyone not being able to see or hear the speakers.  But what really made it great were the members of the four panels and their moderators.  I’ve never been at a panel-type conference where the panel members were so knowledgeable and lucid in relevant fields.

One of the panelists in the session that addressed the question of how capital markets address un-burnable carbon (think “stranded assets”) was Dr John Hewson.

Dr. Hewson’s business career before entering politics in 1987, was as a company director and business consultant and included roles as Foundation Executive Director, Macquarie Bank Limited and as a Trustee of the IBM Superannuation Fund.  Dr. Hewson’s political career included 7 years as a ministerial advisor (to two successive Federal Treasurers and the Prime Minister) and a further 8 years as the Federal Member for Wentworth in the Federal Parliament. He was Shadow Finance Minister, Shadow Treasurer and Shadow Minister for Industry and Commerce, then Leader of the Liberal Party and Federal Coalition in Opposition for 4 years.  He has worked as an economist for the Australian Treasury, the Reserve Bank, the IMF.

And, most relevant to the topic of his panel at Tuesday’s conference, Dr Hewson is also the chair of the Asset Owners Disclosure Project (AODP), an independent global not-for-profit organisation whose objective is to protect members’ retirement savings from the risks posed by climate change.

A key activity of the AODP is an annual survey and assessment of the world’s 1000 largest pension funds, pertaining to their management of climate change risks and opportunities.  This results in published rankings to allow members, stakeholders and industry to see which funds are better than others at managing climate risk.  These funds currently manage in excess of US$52 trillion and of this high-carbon assets often constitute 50-60% portfolios, with low-carbon assets typically representing less than 2% (DB Climate Change Advisors, January 2010).

You can look up the AODP Climate Index of pension funds to see whether your super/pension fund is there and how it rates.  You can use the drop-down box at the top of the page to restrict the range of funds shown (e.g. Australia, or Asia-Pacific).  It’s interesting to see that six Australian funds are in the top-20 globally.

As a footnote, Australia’s Local Government Super (for local government employees and Councillors) ranked top of the 1,000 funds assessed last year, and second this year, for their climate-change-ready investment portfolio – while our Lockyer Valley Regional Council is still developing a climate change policy.


Nicole Foss in Laidley, talking about threats and options

Went to the talk by Nicole Foss (the person behind The AutomaticEarth website) in Laidley on Saturday afternoon on the threats to Australia from the combination of excessive personal debt, over-leveraged banks, the approaching global limits to growth (including peak oil) and climate change.

This wasn’t some gloom-and-doom hand-wringing session.  Foss takes a solution-oriented approach and explored a range of choices available to people at the individual, family and community levels. She covered the alternatives, ranging across urban, rural, suburban retrofit, intentional community, eco-village – and summarised the advantages and disadvantages of each option. 

Along the way she offered Australia an outline of a “Plan-B”: stop basing the economy on feeding the Chinese demand for resources; stop trying to feed 60 million people (and destroying Australia’s soils in the process) instead focussing on food security for Australia into the long term; and replace the sense of complacency with a sense of urgency.

The talk was a logical follow-up to the presentation she gave at the Queensland Institute of Technology in early July, on her speaking tour with David Holmgren.

Nicole Foss, who sometimes writes under the name of ‘Stoneleigh’, is a Canadian sustainability, energy, and finance expert. She is best known for her works on her website, The Automatic Earth.  She was editor of the Oil Drum Canada website where she wrote on the connections between energy and finance.  She now lives in New Zealand.

The event was organised by SavourSoil Permaculture (a Laidley-based small business), and in my opinion made an important contribution to local understanding of the most significant issues facing us and the Earth and, most important, provided a window into the approaches we will need to adopt to ensure personal and community resilience. Thanks Michael, good to see people wiling to make such a contribution to the community.

Rafaele Joudry from Atamai Eco-Village in the north of New Zealand’s South Island (where Foss now lives) gave an overview of Atamai and its philosophy.

Living with and understanding fire risk

Why do we live here?  What are the risks?

Why do we live here, and how does that relate to the key fire risks and our perception of those risks?

Those of us who live on rural properties face varying degrees of fire risk.  Most of us are aware of the risk in a general sort of way, and many of us take active precautions to reduce the risk to some extent.  Few of us, however, think about how the reasons for living where we do and the things we value about our surroundings affect both the degree of fire risk we face and, often, the extent to which we act to mitigate risk.

Continually reviewing the values that lead us to live where we do, and the risks we face (whether from fire, flood, or just failures in our food production activities), is a part of ensuring sustainability and resilience in both our lifestyle / habitation  the communities in which we live.

The connection between bushfires and our landscape and community values is highlighted in the latest Fire Note (Life on the Edge – Living with Risk) from the Bushfire CRC (Cooperative Research Centre).  This Fire Note summarises some outcomes from the Social construct of fuels in the interface project 1 which was conducted by the Bushfire CRC uner one or their activity themes, Understanding Risk.

Part of the research involved working with property owners to understand what they value in their surroundings, how they perceive their fire risks, and whether these are related. It used the technique of “social-ecological place mapping” to assist landowners to understand what it is that they relate to their landscape

The second part of the research applied a model of factors affecting house losses in NSW bushfires (in much milder weather conditions than those leading to Victoria’s Black Saturday losses) to the 65 properties of the residents who did the place mapping, to calculate a relative estimate of their risk of loss to bushfire.

According to the model, the risk of loss increased: with increasing steepness of slope; where houses were closer together (seven metres apart – but this effect was minimal where houses were further (50 metres) apart (and of course this applies to the buildings on your property too); as the distance to the nearest water body (swimming pools, ponds, dams) increased; and when vegetation cover within the garden (within 20 metres of the house) was high.

The mean predicted probability of house loss for the 65 houses was 0.43, indicating a substantial potential risk should a fire occur (there was considerable variation among the levels of risk of the various properties).  Community and lifestyle values identified by the participants were found to be possible key factors influencing the relative risk of house loss.

There’s a lot more in the report than I can summarise in this short blog post, and I encourage you to read it and the associated reports which are linked here under the heading Key Resources You Should Know About.

This is the 129th Fire Note that the Bushfire CRC has produced. They make informative and compelling reading.  They can be downloaded here, from a list of titles with brief summaries of contents.

And on the home front, it’s time to review and update our fire strategies, and to make sure that they are well documented.  I’ll do a separate post on our strategies in a few weeks.

Is a 100% renewable electricity supply possible in Australia right now?

Mark Diesendorf, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales, has posted a detailed and convincing article in The Conversation this morning about the potential for a 100% renewable electricity supply in Australia.

His conclusion (with my underlining):

The renewable scenarios would be economically competitive with the fossil system either with a carbon price of A$50 per tonne of CO2 (reflecting part of the environmental and health damage from fossil fuels) or, in the absence of a carbon price, by removing the existing subsidies to the production and use of fossil fuels and transferring them temporarily to renewable energy.

That’s right: we could start implementing 100% renewable electricity generation RIGHT NOW, and with no financial burden on the economy, just a temporary shift of the political sacred cow of hydrocarbon fuel subsidies to the renewable energy sector.  In fact Diesendorf doesn’t say it, but there would be a significant positive impact on the economy from very significant increases in both temporary and long-term employment in the renewables sector.  And, you never know, when the renewable sector no longer needs the subsidy the government of the day may decide not to reinstate it for the hydrocarbon fuel sector.  Very big win for the economy and possibly the climate if that happened.

Could we do this with current renewable technologies, or would we have to wait for the development of some currently unproven approach?  It’s can all be done with today’s technology.  Here’s Diesendorf again:

“Using conservative projections to 2030 for the costs of renewable energy by the federal government’s Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE), we found an optimal mix of renewable electricity sources. The mix looks like this:

  • Wind 46%;
  • Concentrated solar thermal (electricity generated by the heat of the sun) with thermal storage 22%;
  • Photovoltaic solar 20% (electricity generated directly from sunlight);
  • Biofuelled gas turbines 6%; and
  • Existing hydro 6%.

So two-thirds of annual energy can be supplied by wind and solar photovoltaic — energy sources that vary depending on the weather — while maintaining reliability of the generating system at the required level. How is this possible?

It turns out that wind and solar photovoltaic are only unable to meet electricity demand a few times a year. These periods occur during peak demand on winter evenings following overcast days that also happen to have low wind speeds across the region.

Since the gaps are few in number and none exceeds two hours in duration, there only needs to be a small amount of generation from the so-called flexible renewables (those that don’t depend on the vagaries of weather): hydro and biofuelled gas turbines. Concentrated solar thermal is also flexible while it has energy in its thermal storage.

The gas turbines have low capital cost and, when operated infrequently and briefly, low fuel costs, so they play the role of reliability insurance with a low premium.”

“BASELOAD POWER!  You’ll need baseload power!”, I hear the coal and gas industries shouting.  Well, clearly such a system would NOT require baseload power in the form that they understand.

I like it too that he has addressed the bogie inherent in the use of biofuel powered gas turbines: the possibility that they will require unacceptable volumes of timber from forests or the allocation of unacceptable areas of food-producing farmland to grow the fuel to run them.  Keeping the gas turbines in reserve, to be used only for periods of a few hours a few times per year would mean that not only would fuel demand be low, but the fuel could be sourced from wastes over a longer period and stockpiled for later use.

Do we know whether it would work in reality?  How about on hot summer evenings, or on those cold, windless winter nights?  Diesendorf’s team used real figures from the National Energy Market (presumably the ones published daily by the Australian Energy Market Operator), to model many different mixes of current renewable energy technologies to come up with the proportions set out above.

 “Ben Elliston, Iain MacGill and I at UNSW have performed thousands of computer simulations of the hour-by-hour operation of the NEM with different mixes of 100% commercially available renewable energy technologies scaled up to meet demand reliably.

We use actual hourly electricity demand and actual hourly solar and wind power data for 2010 and balance supply and demand for almost every hour, while maintaining the required reliability of supply. The relevant papers, published in peer-reviewed international journals, can be downloaded from my UNSW website.”

 Read the full article on The Conversation.

Urban Farming

There are a lot of people in the world without access to land or good soil.  And I’m not talking only about landless people in developing countries.  Given the high level of urbanization in most countries and particularly in the developed world, urban farming ideas are applicable just about anywhere.

I’ve come across two great and proven ideas for “landless” farming lately.  The last was from the Accessible Edibles Project run by the Rotary Club of Rochdale, and uses recycled plastic bags (or other forms of container that can be hung from something.

from the Rochdale Rotary Club website

The method is very clearly set out in their manual and has been used successfully in many countries and at different latitudes.  The frames shown in the photos don’t need to be used – the bags can be hung from anything handy.

The other effective “landless” farming technique I’ve come across recently was developed by Roman and Janna Spur, who live in a flat in New Farm, an inner city suburb of Brisbane.  They have a great website which catalogues their approaches to sustainable living in a rental situation.

We went to their place last Sunday for a workshop on making a self-watering planter box from recycled materials (a broccoli box from the local fruit and vege shop, some 40 or 50mm PVC pipe, and a wooden skewer).  You can find an illustrated step-by-step guide here

a self-watering planter box in use [from Spurtopia website]

The planter-box workshop was followed by a fascinating presentation on the ways the family has developed an increasingly sustainable lifestyle in their rented accommodation, bearing in mind that there are limits on their ability to modify structures and systems, and that they want to be able to take their sustainable “infrastructure” with them if they move.

These guys are truly inspirational and I highly recommend their website and workshops.


The Foss and Holmgren Presentation

We went to the presentation by Nicole Foss and David Holmgren in Brisbane on Friday last week.

Very well attended, with a main lecture theatre pretty well packed – maybe 200 people.  There were eight people there from the Lockyer Valley whom I recognised and quite possibly more whom I didn’t recognise.  Pretty impressive, considering the massive disparity between the population of Brisbane and that of the Lockyer Valley.

Nicole Foss’s talk was absolutely riveting, starting with an overview of the history of money and the way that it has been expanded by the incorporation of debt/credit into the “money supply” and the risks that this poses.  She moved on to energy resource issues and linked this to the money supply (debt) through the cost of finding and producing the remaining “difficult” fossil energy sources, concluding that most of the hard to access fossil fuels will not be economic to produce.  The thread running through the presentation was the cyclical nature of the economy and the fact that massive levels of debt, coupled with the interconnectedness of the globalised economy and energy shortages/high energy prices, mean that sooner or later (and very likely sooner) there will be a depression cycle from which the global economy will not be able to recover.

Not all of it was as gloom-and-doomish as that may sound.  Foss gave examples of broad strategies for weathering the storm.

Of course this summary cannot possibly do justice to what was one of the most well delivered, highly informed, logical, well structured and thought provoking presentations that I have ever had the pleasure of listening to.  We came away with a lot of food for thought, and a resolve to review our sustainability planning.

She set the scene perfectly for David Holmgren to step in and elaborate the ways in which permaculture can contribute to creating a way through the economic (and social) breakdown that is coming.

What he started with were a series of bland generalisations, some of which touched on areas Foss had already covered, though some of what he said seemed strangely at odds with what she had presented.

The major part of his presentation though was an attempt to breathe life into his Aussie Street  scenario.  For those who haven’t seen it, this is a series of morphing diagrams tracing the evolution of households on four house blocks in an Australian suburban street.  It is long, barely entertaining, and the ratio of stimulating ideas to slightly cute waffle is very low.  We first saw it about eight years ago, and neither of us could decide whether there was actually any new material in Friday’s presentation.  As an illustration of the application of permaculture principles to suburban planning and lifestyle it can only be described as weak.  As a follow-up to the opportunity that Nicole Foss had set up for someone to highlight the role that permaculture can play in dealing with the coming disastrous wind-down of the economy and associated resource issues, Holmgren’s presentation was a massive lost opportunity.

We kept thinking, there’s got to be more.  A friend of ours said later, “I just wanted to throw things at him to wake him up to what he needed to be saying”.

But if you can get to the the Melbourne presentation on July 15, don’t miss it.  This is a chance to hear Nicole Foss give a truly remarkable overview of where we are headed and why.  If you are thinking of going to the Hobart presentation (Holmgren without Foss) on July 19, my advice is don’t bother.

An urban agriculture website that has lessons for us all.

Urban agriculture is receiving growing attention in permaculture circles, whether it is highly productive permaculture backyards (or balconies!) or rooftop farms on city buildings.

Urban agriculture can take many forms (click on the image to read the article on the importance of urban agriculture in developing countries)

I know that the Lockyer Valley isn’t exactly “urban”, but in fact there is a significant proportion of the population of the Lockyer Valley Region living in urban or suburban environments – and there are followers of this blog who live in urban areas outside the Lockyer.  And if we are concerned about food security, whether at present or under more difficult circumstances in the future, urban agriculture is, and will continue to be, an important element in maintaining food security and social resilience.

All of which is a long-winded way of introducing the website of the RUAF (Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security).

If you check out their home page it’s likely you’ll find something of interest, whether it’s in their publications, Urban Agriculture Magazine or bibliographic database on urban agriculture, or in the Hot News section on the home page.  Take a look – one of the things I’ve learned about implementing permaculture is that lessons come from the most unexpected places.

Bioregionalism – and a taste of Italy

A rather bland definition of bioregionalism is “the belief that social organization and environmental policies should be based on the bioregion rather than on a region determined by political or economic boundaries.”

Others would describe it more practically as “a fancy name for living a rooted life. Sometimes called “living in place,” bioregionalism means you are aware of the ecology, economy and culture of the place where you live, and are committed to making choices that enhance them.”

It’s a concept I have been vaguely aware of without really thinking about it, even though it clearly links to my recognition of “connectedness with place” as a significant factor in the mental health of many people, including (but definitely not restricted to) the original Australians and families living for many generations in the one location.  I’m sure many of us in the Lockyer can recognise this.

Now a friend has brought the latest edition of the journal PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature to my attention, for its focus on fungi, and it happened also to contain a report on the Italian bioregional movement.  I can’t think of a better way to “get” the concept of bioregionalism than to read this delightful report – and at the same time to soak up the mood of Italian enjoyment of life and place.  Enjoy.