Technical report

File type: PDF

Dale A, Sheppard M, Burrows D, and Williams Y (2022). Supporting regional planning in northern Australia: A scoping study. Report to the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, Cairns, Queensland.



The development of northern Australia is a national priority, creating both challenges and opportunities for public and private sector decision-makers. Sustainable development decision-making seeks to balance the short and long-term impacts of development on the environment, the economy and society. Ongoing economic, social and environmental challenges facing northern Australia, however, and limits within the current frameworks for regional planning, have led to calls for more sophisticated sustainable development planning at the regional scale. Doing so would mean integrating global sustainable development goals, with national, state and territory concepts of ecologically sustainable development, and more local and corporate environmental, social and governance concepts.

This report explores and assesses the current regional planning frameworks across Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia through literature review, interviews and a number of brief case studies. Our results demonstrate that there is significant value in taking regional, place-based approaches to sustainable development planning, assessment and approval. The work indicates that there is potential for leveraging existing bilateral relationships between counterpart agencies in the Commonwealth and state/territory governments and local governments to enable the progressive expansion and refinement of regional planning effort. Barriers to progress, however, include the capacity of governments and northern stakeholders to engage in meaningful decision-making (particularly local councils, various industries, the environment sector, Traditional Owners and research bodies). There is also a limited focus on building durable, adaptive and purposeful partnerships at regional scale between these parties. Planning and development assessment laws are also not always fit for purpose. They can be siloed and duplicative, disadvantaging economic, social, environmental and cultural outcomes. Moreover, there are large data gaps in northern datasets for the environment, economy and society. Much existing data is not adequately informing decision-making, and there can be limited data sharing between agencies, and trust issues between agencies and stakeholders. Building regional scale planning partnerships and knowledge management frameworks could help overcome these limitations.

The report further explores the preconditions of success to supporting increasingly Commonwealth-inspired regional planning agenda. These particularly include the need to refine proposed outcome standards supporting regional planning effort, while developing novel process standards to support coordinated and integrated decision-making that collectively: (i) halts and reverses the decline of Australia’s environmental condition; (ii) limits the stagnation of economic development in northern Australia; and (iii) better enables Indigenous people to achieve their aspirations. Such standards must go beyond the biophysical aspects of desired outcomes, and better incorporate social, cultural and economic considerations in accordance with the principles of sustainable development decision-making.

Further, as state and territory governments hold most of the statutory power for regional and land use planning, any Commonwealth initiatives to support regional planning will require strong bilateral (or even trilateral) partnerships. This will enable the positive negotiation of shared priorities, the development of outcome and process standards, and the resolution of resourcing requirements. Moreover, governments will need to actively seek to build stable, long-term planning and delivery partnerships at the regional scale, and considerable effort will be needed to develop collaborative knowledge systems and decision-support tools that create a trusted evidence-base to inform negotiated decision-making at that scale. Overall, these approaches should be underpinned by independent and long term monitoring of the health of the regional planning governance systems being established. This will require reporting frameworks for any agreed process and outcome standards, and could be evaluated using newly emerging, theoretically-informed approaches such as Governance Systems Analysis.

The report proposes that next step research efforts should involve building a stronger, evidence-based, inclusive and engaged community of practice for regional planning in northern Australia, and undertaking sentinel case studies in Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia. Cohesive stakeholder networks have now been established through this research, in addition to the aligned research agenda of the NESP Marine and Coastal and Resilient Landscape Hubs and the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia. A future research focus that uses these networks can be uniquely placed to facilitate the development of a strong community of practice and to support future case studies. The opportunities for sentinel case studies include research partnerships that can help analyse the impact of regional planning, and further identify the strengths and limitations of regional planning contributing to such impact. Future case studies would need to be negotiated among the Commonwealth, the States/Territories and potential regions.