Landmark changes to Queensland’s regional planning laws introduced by the Newman Government last week have been applauded by major landholder groups.
The Land and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 establishes a new framework for pastoral lease renewals and for the conversion from leasehold to freehold tenure.
(See below for explanation on what some of the changes include and what they mean from Brisbane legal firm Thynne and McCartney)
In addressing Parliament before the bill was passed, Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney also raised the possibility that a case could be made for increased legislative protections of prime grazing land from high-impact resource projects, in much the same way legislation in Queensland currently protects strategic cropping land (more on this below).
Mr Seeney said the legislation introduced to Parliament last week establishes a clear and equitable process to assess mining and gas developments in regional Queensland, using planning mechanisms that have been successfully used to resolve land use conflicts in urban settings for years.
The changes meant that a resource or other regulated activity could only occur in regional areas if the proponents reached agreement with a landholder, or if a Regional Interest Development Approval is granted.
Resource companies can no longer proceed directly to the Land Court after 40 days should a landholder not agree to a proposed activity. Equally, a resources company may receive an exemption from the Regional Interest Development Application process simply by reaching a recognised legal agreement with a landholder.
The new Act also introduces specific plans each region of Queensland which establish over-arching principles to be considered when future development proposals are being assessed. The regional plans recognise and protect four areas of ‘regional interest’: Priority Agricultural Areas; Priority Living Areas; Strategic Environmental Areas and, Strategic Cropping Areas (formerly Strategic Cropping Land).
Mr Seeney said the newly established assessment process restored the balance of power between rural producers and resource companies when new mining or gas developments are proposed, and offered greater incentive for resource companies to reach mutually beneficial agreements with landholders.
“I have watched for years as rural producers felt threatened, resource companies felt constrained and local councils were caught in the crossfire of disputes that needn’t have happened,” Mr Seeney said.
“Before our election we promised to fix up this mess and ease land use conflicts in regional Queensland, and these new laws will do just that.”
'Once in a generation reforms'
AgForce Queensland described the changes as the “most substantial land reform measures in Queensland in a generation”, saying they will substantially improve lease security, and would help to drive growth in the Queensland agricultural sector.
AgForce said the main question of interest now is how much annual rent lessees will be required to pay and what the cost of free holding will be. “These figures will prove to be the true test of how effective the reforms ultimately are,” AgForce president Ian Burnett said.
Queensland Farmers Federation chief executive officer Dan Galligan said the laws put at the forefront of resource development “the very sensible notion” that landholders in priority agricultural areas should have their say on how coexistence might occur.
“It begins to address the power imbalance between farmers and resource proponents and quite rightly prioritises agricultural activity on what is a finite and critical resource for Queensland,” Mr Galligan said.
“Importantly these new laws do not stop resource developments, but provide an opportunity for farmers and resources companies to be responsible for determining how these two critical industries might coexist at a property and regional level.”
Greater protection for Prime Grazing Land?
In a speech to Parliament last Wednesday Mr Seeney also raise the possibility that a case may be made to provide protections for prime grazing land from resource industry development, in much the same way as existing legislation provides additional protections for strategic cropping land.
He said all stakeholders will have the opportunity over the next two months to discuss whether the various elements of the strategic cropping land legislation introduced by the previous Labor Government remain appropriate.
For example, he said, the location of existing trigger maps and the soil criteria used to determine where strategic cropping land actually exists as introduced by the previous Government were 'blunt instruments' and would be open for discussion.
In this context he added that a case may also be made to provide protections to prime grazing land in future.
“There has always been the proposition put by a range of agricultural peak industry bodies that the regulatory environment should extend beyond cropping land, and I have some sympathy for that argument,” he told Parliament.
“I have some sympathy for the suggestion that the best of our grazing land should also be part of the area that is regulated.”
Brisbane based legal firm Thynne McCartney has provided the following summary to explain what some of the reforms will mean to Queensland landholders.
Rolling leases introduced
A concept of “rolling leases” has been introduced, allowing a simpler renewal process for certain term leases, i.e. most pastoral holdings, pastoral development holdings and term leases used for primary production where the area is over 100 hectares.
The concept does not apply to leases of reserves, i.e. state forests, camping and water reserves etc.
Where the concept applies, and an extension application is made at any time in the last 20 years of the term (or earlier if special circumstances exist), the Minister must automatically grant an extension (subject to limited exclusions).
The length of the extension will generally be the original term of the lease but does not include any subsequent extension.
There is no limit to the number of times a lease may be “rolled over”.
Land Management Agreements no longer required on renewal
Under the “rolling lease” concept, Land Management Agreements will no longer be required.
Existing Land Management Agreements can be cancelled with the approval of the Minister.
Land Management Agreements will still be used where the lease is at risk of degradation or the lessee is not complying with the lessee’s duty of care.
Removal of corporate and aggregation restrictions
The current restrictions on corporations holding perpetual leases, grazing homestead perpetual leases, grazing homestead freeholding leases and subleases of any of those leases are to be removed.
Similarly, the requirement restricting an individual from holding two or more of those leases if the aggregation would be “substantially more than 2 living areas” is also to be removed.
These restrictions have been in place for decades and were designed to protect “family farms”.
The State Government takes the view that these provisions are “outdated, inflexible, anti-competitive and a financial impost for both lessees and governments”.
This is one of the more radical reforms with long-ranging implications for the future of agribusiness in Australia.
Protection of state forest products on land being freeholded
The concepts of “forest consent areas” and “forest consent agreements” are being introduced which, in time, will replace the use of “forest entitlement areas”.
The intention is to allow the State to retain its ownership of the forest products when leases are converted to freehold.
The forest consent agreement will be registered on the title to the land as a “profit à prendre” resulting in a cleaner, more efficient and modern tenure.
The changes are designed to avoid perceived problems with the current system when the State no longer requires forest entitlement areas and wishes to have the affected land acquired by the land holder.
More flexibility for lease amalgamations
Currently lessees holding adjoining term leases and perpetual leases issued for the same purpose cannot amalgamate their leases into a single tenure as of right.
This restriction is to be removed to allow the lessee to consolidate multiple adjoining leases as long as the leases are held by the same lessee, have been issued for the same purpose and native title has been addressed.
The latter requirement may mean that the proposed reform has little application in practice.
The need for term leases to be converted to perpetual leases before being allowed to be converted to freehold is also to be removed. While potentially this offers lessees greater flexibility, the need to address native title again means that this change may have limited application. Furthermore, the introduction of the concept of “rolling leases” and the resulting increased security may render conversion to freehold less appealing.
The State Government states that there has been no community or stakeholder consultation on the specific provisions of the Bill relating to the reforms but that they reflect stakeholder aspirations and the Government’s response to the Parliamentary Inquiry.
For further information visit the Thynne & McCartney website here
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