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Speech: Inquiry into the Urban Forest

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:06): I also rise to speak to this interim report of the inquiry into the urban forest undertaken by the Environment, Resources and Development Committee. I echo my colleagues the Hon. Emily Bourke and the Hon. Michelle Lensink's sentiment, with thanks to both our researchers and secretariat as well as the chair of the committee, the member for Badcoe, and other members in both places.

It is actually a pleasure to come to this parliament with an interim report. There is more work to be done, but we have an interim report that we have all agreed on and with some recommendations that we hope the government will soon take up with regard to exemption distances, species exemptions, trunk size, canopy cover, fees for legal tree removal and fees for illegal tree removal, as well as a tree removal fund and community-based tree protection, including a call for bringing back Arbor Day and the celebration of all things trees.

Trees form the backdrop to our lives. They mark our crossroads, house our wildlife, shade our children and cool our air. They outgrow us in height and age and have witnessed events and centuries before our time. Trees help improve our mood, reduce our power bills, increase the value of our houses and, in a warming climate, they are the single best investment we can make to keep our cities cool, beautiful and liveable.

Despite all that trees give and do for us, we are cutting down more trees across Adelaide suburbs than we are replacing. The State Planning Commission's most recent report card assessing our progress against the 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide found that Adelaide is not on track to meet our canopy goals. When compared with other jurisdictions, metropolitan Adelaide has the worst tree protection in Australia. There is an astounding difference between our protections and those of the vast majority of other Australian jurisdictions.

While our state continues to focus on protecting individual large trees, the focus interstate has turned to protecting the urban forest. Local governments across New South Wales, Victoria and WA protect trees based on trunk circumference and protect trees of significantly smaller size than we do here in South Australia. Many now also protect trees based on the canopy they provide or their height. The ACT is the only jurisdiction other than South Australia where the protection of trees and vegetation is not delegated to local councils. While South Australian councils are left with the responsibility for maintaining tree canopy cover, they do not set the rules, and so they are unable to ensure that these protections meet the expectations of their local communities.

Our tree protections were fundamentally undermined by myriad regulation exemptions introduced in 2011, which permitted the unnecessary removal of large trees based on their proximity to a dwelling. Only three out of the 40 interstate jurisdictions that protect trees on private land allow for such removals without application.

Adelaide is the capital of the driest state on the driest inhabited continent in the world. We also have some of the lowest levels of tree canopy coverage of any metropolitan city in our nation. Compared with other capital cities, Adelaide also has the lowest percentage of parkland, approximately 10 per cent, compared with 57 per cent in Sydney, 40 per cent in Perth, 22 per cent in Hobart and 20 per cent in Melbourne. The significant decline comes from subdivisions and urban infill replacing gardens, trees and brownfield sites with hard surfaces such as paving, concrete, driveways, parking and roads to support higher density living. This significantly limits our ability to increase tree canopy using public land.

A report from the Conservation Council of South Australia estimates that greater Adelaide is losing 75,000 trees per year—75,000 trees per year—an extraordinary figure. With rising temperatures and smaller backyards further increasing the difficulty of replacing large trees and growing new urban forest, the protection of what remains of our current urban forest on private land becomes more important. Many of the current species of trees that make up our urban forests may be unable to thrive in a hotter, drier climate and will need to be replaced with native or more resilient species fitted with water-sensitive urban design infrastructure to support tree health and survival.

Urban trees have also had positive strong impacts on our social, physical, and mental health and wellbeing, and they help mitigate some of the negative impacts of urbanisation. Scientific evidence shows spending time in green space provided by trees can strongly protect against depression, anxiety and stress-related issues. In fact, trees help people feel happier and more relaxed.

The Urban Forest Inquiry interim report contains our committee's initial recommendations based on the evidence and submissions received to date. These recommendations encompass those areas that I spoke of at the start of this: exemption distances, species exemptions, trunk size, canopy cover, fees for both legal and illegal removal, a tree removal fund, and community-based tree protections through increased government funding, as well as funding from community and non-government groups. We think this is a good first step that the Malinauskas government should urgently take and we look forward to a positive response to our interim report.

There is an urgent need for South Australia to adopt best practice tree protections, not only for our own personal enjoyment, but also of course for improving our natural environment and biodiversity. To quote Professor Chris Daniels, the Chair of the Green Adelaide Landscape Board:

Cities grow. Cultures change. When we lose our urban forest, we lose the biodiversity that makes our region special.

Adelaide is a special region, and I do look forward to the Malinauskas government implementing these recommendations from this report and preserving what it is that makes Adelaide such an extraordinary place. With that, I commend the report.

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