The former Commonwealth attorney-general said Hornsby Shire – one of the most at-risk areas for bushfires in the Sydney area – had its own thoroughly prepared strategy for dealing with fires that was done in collaboration with the Rural Fire Service and NSW Parks and Wildlife.
“We don’t want to see any of that work undermined by essentially random and very often measures that may not have been very properly thought through, that take out substantial vegetation which we think is very special to the bushland shire,” he said.
Community activist Ross Walker said he backed Cr Ruddock’s position and feared the new policy would have similar impacts to the 10/50 rule, which allows for vegetation clearing in fire-prone areas without approval and has been the subject of local criticism.
“I am concerned about the loss of bushland in the shire. It’s the bushland that makes the suburbs,” Mr Walker said.
Last month, the NSW Parliament passed amendments to the Rural Fires Act that opened the way for people in fire-prone land to be permitted to clear swaths of bushland 25 metres from their fences to aid in fire protection.
Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott said in October land clearing would be able to occur without “onerous” approvals, and the RFS would also be given “stronger and clearer powers” to audit and address bushfire risks.
“This is not only the most landowner friendly legislation, but it is putting public safety above all else,” Mr Elliott said at the time.
Boundary clearing was not one of 76 recommendations of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry. Instead, it was the cause of a stoush between some Nationals and Liberals within cabinet, with the former wanting landowners to have more access to national parks for hazard reduction.
The new legislation, though, requires codes to be agreed on before it can be implemented. Cabinet is due to debate those rules, with Mr Kean and Planning Minister Rob Stokes understood to be among those pushing for curbs to avoid the destruction of endangered ecosystems, including koala habitat.
Mr Elliott, who was one of the ministers Hornsby Shire council resolved to write to, declined to comment when contacted by the Herald on Thursday, as did Mr Kean.
However political sources say Mr Kean holds similar environmental concerns over the boundary clearing policy to that of Cr Ruddock. When asked whether he had spoken to Mr Kean on the issue, Cr Ruddock said he did not disclose conversations with other people.
Nationals Leader John Barilaro also declined to comment.
Independent upper house MP Justin Field said the 25-metre clearing had no scientific or risk management basis.
“The [NSW Bushfire Inquiry] report did recommend more research into effective hazard reduction and to target hazard reduction in proximity to assets. It also called on the NSW government to support local councils to plan and implement locally targeted hazard reduction,” Mr Field said.
“This policy fails to consider local council involvement.”
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Angus Thompson is an Urban Affairs reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.