Planning law and sustainability in Australia: achievements and challenges

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In 1992 the Australian Government published its National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, a policy document representing Australia’s response to the World Commission on Environment and Development 1987 report Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report). Through the auspices of Australia’s federal system of government, it was envisaged that the sustainability principles in this national policy document would progressively be implemented, through both policy and law, at the national, state and local levels of government. Beginning with a description of the Australian concept of ‘ecologically sustainable development’ (ESD), this paper first examines the implementation of ESD through both policy and legislation at the Commonwealth level. The State of New South Wales (NSW) is then selected for more detailed assessment, with, examples of key State government legislation and court decisions considered. Equal emphasis is placed on both the achievements in ESD policy development and implementation through legislation, statutory planning procedures and litigation, as well as the challenges that have confronted the pursuit of ESD in NSW. Noteworthy amongst these challenges has been a failed recent attempt by the NSW Government to introduce new planning legislation which sought to replace ESD with the arguably weaker concept of ‘sustainable development’ as one of its objectives. Apparent from this episode is strong community and institutional support for robust sustainability provisions within the State’s statutory planning system.
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