In late 2010, the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) released a report on the state of planning law in NSW. It suggested that detailed analysis "revealed a failure of the current system to balance social and environmental considerations against the Government's desired economic and statistical outcoms" (1). In 2012, responding to widespread community opposition to coal seam gas (CSG) mining in rural and regional NSW, the O'Farrell government drew on such critiques when announcing its proposed suite of law reforms to address what it saw as flaws in the planning process (2). The Strategic Regional Land Use (SRLU) Policy (regarding multiple geographically-specific Strategic Regional Land Use Plans (SRLUP)) is a key component of these proposed reforms (3). The Draft SRLUP for the Upper Hunter region ("the Plan") was one of the first two plans (4) for the state. It represented "the government's proposed framework to support growth, protect the environment and respond to competing land uses, while preserving key regional values over the next 20 years" (5).
This article contends that there are gaps in both the logic and detail of the Plan's mechanisms that disconnect people from place. These gaps indicate that the necessary tools for the Plan's key functions - information and evaluation - belie its claimed neutrality. There are substantial knowledge gaps and substantial imbalances in the assessment process. Scientific and economic research indicates that the known disruption to land approved for CSG mining is potentially harmful to both the hydrological and geological systems on which local communities and economies depend.6 Given that the policy disregards the physical and cultural connections between communities living in the Upper Hunter and the lands, waters or "places" on which they depend, this is a major concern.
The first section of this article outlines the claims and objectives of the policy in general terms before drilling down into its detail in the second section to explore the conceptual framework of the policy and the gap between the vision the NSW government has for the Upper Hunter region as presented in the Plan, and that of regional communities themselves. The third section questions the meaning of "protection" used in the SRLUP with regard to environmental sustainability and compliance.