Proposed Solar Farms – Shepparton District

The Greater Shepparton Planning Scheme clearly identifies areas of strategic agricultural value that should be protected from loss. As there is no locational reason as to why these applications cannot be facilitated outside strategic agricultural / irrigated land, planning permission for the 4 sites should not be granted. 

The Goulburn Valley and the Northern Irrigation District is known as the Food Bowl of Victoria. The area is prime agricultural land which is serviced by irrigation infrastructure that has seen a $2 billion modernisation investment that requires a ‘critical mass’ of users for the full benefits to be realised. 

The VFF believe that good planning for Victorian agriculture should support sustainable agriculture and government infrastructure investments. 

The principal purpose of the Farming Zone is agriculture. Any ‘section 2’ or discretionary use in a Farming Zone should be strategically supported, provide a net community benefit and not be detrimental to agricultural production. Council has erred in comparing each application to the entire food bowl. Each site is clearly identified as strategic agricultural land to be protected from loss. 

The 1997 Report on the VPPs highlighted this issue on page 10 of its report. 

Greater Shepparton has undertaken such strategic plans which talk to the impact that even a dwelling on 2ha can have on agriculture in these strategic areas. The officers have made no attempt to factor in the value of agricultural production on this land over 25 years, impacts on the viability and price of water in the irrigation district, the impact on flow on jobs in agriculture and processing industries which would be required to consider net community benefit. 

As there are no planning guidelines for solar energy installations it is critical that the precautionary principle be applied to the detailed consideration of any potential impact on agriculture and the viability of the Northern Irrigation District (GMID). 

Solar installations are different from wind energy installations in several ways. They generally do not ‘co-exist’ with agriculture, there are less ‘locational’ issues, there is a greater potential for microclimate impact on high value crops and there is the opportunity for smaller scale installations using roofing of existing structures. 

Strategic Assessment 

The VFF believe that good planning for Victorian agriculture should support sustainable agriculture and government infrastructure investments. 

The SPPF and LPPF have many clauses that support the protection of agricultural land from loss or from incompatible use. This support is more extensive than that for ‘renewable energy’, especially solar energy installations which do not have the same locational restraints than those relying on winning a resource or wind / tidal/hydro. 

The proposals seem to be contrary to: 

Clause 11 – Settlement in relation to impacts on economic viability, protection of natural resources by avoiding development impact on land for food production and avoidance of incompatible land uses.

Clause 11.12 – Hume reinforced the importance of supporting and protecting agricultural production, especially strategic agricultural land, which all four sites are.

State Policy on agriculture (14.01) reinforces the need to protect productive farmland which is of a strategic significance.iii This requires actions to protect from ‘unplanned’ loss of productive agricultural land due to permanent changes of land use. ‘Unplanned’ means not subject to a rezoning proposal that has fully weighed up the consequences of the change of use. 

There is no support for the proposals in Clause 14.01 and limited support in clause 19 Infrastructure(facilitate efficient use of existing infrastructure) and 19.01 Provision of Renewable energy. Renewable energy should be in appropriate locations that minimise the impacts on the local community and environment. There is no statement that solar energy is dependent on locational factors. 

A large proportion of the key influences and issues for Greater Shepparton (Clause 21.01) relate to agriculture and the need to protect and expand productive capacity.vii This even extends to best practice land management (21.05-3) that stresses the need to be “ mindful of potential impact of external factors such as reconfiguration of irrigation delivery and drainage infrastructure arising from irrigation water reforms. ..” 

Agriculture and food processing are the first named economic development industries in Greater Shepparton. This is expanded upon in 21.-6-1 Agriculture that stresses national significance and the workforce dependence on the agriculture sector. It even addresses the issue of inflated land price due to non agricultural uses being facilitated. 

The clause then outlines the regional rural land use strategy regarding growth areas and consolidation areas. The objectives are:

  • To ensure that agriculture is and remains the major economic driver in the region. 
  • To facilitate growth of existing farm businesses. 
  • To facilitate growth of new agricultural investment. 

As the strategies to meet these objectives is to: 

  • Encourage growth and expansion of existing farm businesses and new investment in ‘growth’ and ‘consolidation’ areas 
  • Discourage land uses and development in the Farming Zone, Schedule 1 that would compromise the future agricultural use of the land, including farm related tourism. 

These strategic considerations have been underplayed by Council in its assessment of the proposals.

Right to Farm Policy

The strategic issues that Greater Shepparton addresses in their Municipal Strategic Statement are the issues at the heart of the VFFs Right to Farm Policy Statement. While the policy as a whole is relevant to the consideration of this matter the following are critical issues: 

  • The impact of environmental policy and controls on agricultural production must be taken into account in strategic planning for farming areas. 
  • The Victorian Planning Provisions must give strong direction to local councils that farming must take precedence over other land uses in rural and agricultural zones. 
  • That State and local government policy be balanced to ensure growth of the Victorian agricultural sector. 
  • Planning schemes must limit non-agricultural land uses and subdivisions that are likely to have an adverse impact on existing farming enterprise or future growth of a farming enterprise. 
  • The State Government publish industry guidelines in consultation with the agricultural sector to inform planning decisions over agricultural uses. 
  • The Minister for Planning / Standing Advisory Committee prepare a suite of planning practice notes to address use and development considerations for industrial development in agricultural zones 

Conclusion 

The Greater Shepparton Planning Scheme clearly identifies areas of strategic agricultural value that should be protected from loss. Agricultural production is critical to the region’s economy. As there is no locational reason as to why these applications cannot be facilitated outside strategic agricultural / irrigated land there is no net community benefit from taking nearly 1000 hectares of land out of production, planning permission for the 4 sites should not be granted.