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Practical help towards implementing sustainability

Damian Closs,

Nillumbik Shire Council


This paper discusses Nillumbik Shire Council’s approach to environmental sustainability by specifically focusing on two environmental incentive programs that aim to encourage sustainable land management practices and conservation on private land.

The Shire of Nillumbik, located 25 kilometres from Melbourne is a green wedge shire with high environmental values. Key to protecting and enhancing the natural environment is to work in partnership with private landowners to encourage the retention of remnant vegetation, the protection of waterways, the control of pest plants and animals, and encouragement of revegetation using indigenous species.

Two programs that specifically assist land owners in undertaking environmentally sustainable practices is the Sustainable Agricultural Rebate Program and the Biodiversity Enhancement Program. Both programs are designed to complement and reinforce other key strategies and policies including the local planning scheme. The Sustainable Agricultural Rebate with over 100 participants, specifically focuses on encouraging larger agricultural properties (properties over 30 hectares) to undertake sustainable practices such as control of soil erosion and revegetation using indigenous species. The Biodiversity Enhancement Program a recent initiative, is aimed at land owners wishing to protect and enhance environmental values on their properties and provides rate relief for properties with a conservation covenant and a grants program to undertake revegetation works, weed control and/or protection of remnant vegetation.


The Shire of Nillumbik comprising 430 square kilometres is located 25 kilometres from Melbourne and has a population of approximately 58,000. The municipality forms a large part of the north eastern green wedge and Council places a strong emphasis on containing urban expansion and supporting the protection of the natural environment and rural landscape. The Shire is a typical urban fringe municipality where the majority of the population is concentrated in the south in urban areas such as Greensborough and Eltham and the majority of the Shire comprises larger bush blocks, small hobby farms and a number of commercial agricultural enterprises.

Due to the presence of large areas of remnant vegetation, significant waterways including the Yarra River and large conservation reserves such as Kinglake Ranges National Park, the Shire plays a major role in protecting the region’s biodiversity. In a comprehensive faunal study of north east Melbourne, Beardsell (1997) identified 322 native terrestrial vertebrate species and 14 species of native freshwater fish, most of which occur within the Shire. The Shire is also floristically diverse, particularly in native orchids where 82 species occur. The contribution private land makes towards the protection of biodiversity is considerable.

Key initiatives undertaken by the Shire of Nillumbik aimed at protecting biodiversity on private land include:

  • supporting strong planning controls that retain the non urban zones of the municipality;
  • providing assistance to community environmental groups including Landcare groups; and
  • providing a range of financial incentives for landowners to manage their properties sustainably.

This paper specifically focuses on two financial incentive programs, the Sustainable Agricultural Rebate Program and a recently introduced program called the Biodiversity Enhancement Program. Both programs were developed following community consultation, which identified key environmental issues and practical ways to address them.

Sustainable Agricultural Rebate Program

One of the council’s major initiatives to encourage sustainable land management practices on broad hectare farms is the Sustainable Agricultural Rebate (SAR). This program was established in 1996 and revised in 2000 (refer to Nillumbik Shire Council, 2000). The program provides a 20% rebate of the Farm Rate payable on the property and this rebate is in addition to the discount provided for being classified as Farm Land which is currently worth 6 per cent of the general rate. The average combined Farm Rate/SAR rebate is approximately $500. While this amount does not fully compensate the SAR requirements, it is designed to acknowledge the works undertaken by the landowner and is thought to be substantial enough to encourage participation in the program. There are currently 113 properties on the SAR and the annual cost of the program, excluding administration costs is $53,000.

The objectives of the program focus on protecting the natural resource base and natural ecosystems and include:

1. to encourage sustainable land management practices;

2. to protect and enhance the natural environment;

3. to protect and enhance the rural landscape character; and

4. to encourage the retention of larger rural land holdings.

To be eligible for the SAR, a property must first be classified as Farm Land as set out under the Valuation of Land Act 1960 and be at least 30 hectares. Landowners are also required to work towards the following environmental performance criteria:

1. noxious and environmental weed control;

2. control of pest animals;

3. control of soil erosion;

4. protection of remnant vegetation;

5. revegetation using indigenous vegetation; and

6. protection and enhancement of waterways and wetlands.

Monitoring and reporting

At the end of each year, landowners are required to provide information demonstrating how they have satisfied the SAR environmental performance criteria. In relation to monitoring the program, each landowner’s submitted information is desk audited and if not satisfactory, a site inspection is undertaken. In addition, 10 per cent of properties are randomly inspected to ensure compliance to the program.

Issues regarding the SAR program

The 2000 review of the program raised a number of issues. While a majority of the recipients were undertaking what may be described as sustainable agricultural practices such as weed and erosion control, there were fewer properties protecting existing remnant vegetation or undertaking revegetation projects. This led to the review recommending additional environmental performance criteria that requires revegetation and protection of existing remnant vegetation. The revised SAR is in the process of implementation and there are a number of properties that will be required to undertake further revegetation works and protection of existing remnant vegetation.

Another issue raised during the review was the eligibility criteria, requiring properties to be at least 30 hectares. During the review process, a number of landowners argued that the SAR should be available regardless of property size. While there are potential benefits in expanding such a program, there are a number of issues that need to be considered. These include the cost in terms of foregone revenue and the administration required in running such a program. While there was no fundamental reason why the SAR program chose 30 hectares as a cut off point, it has meant that the program is manageable given the available resources, the actual rebate provided is reasonable and the program supports the retention of comparatively larger rural properties, which is also a planning objective of Council. If, for example, properties 5 hectares and over were included in the program, the potential number of eligible properties would expand from 160 to over 1500 and the cost of the program could potentially cost in excess of $500,000 if the same rebate was to be offered.

Biodiversity Enhancement Program

With the assistance of Natural Heritage Trust funding, Nillumbik Shire Council has recently introduced a Biodiversity Enhancement Program. This program was a priority action identified in the Nillumbik Environment Strategy (2000) which involved considerable community consultation in its development. The program provides a rate rebate for properties with a Trust For Nature (TFN) conservation covenant and a separate grants program for properties to undertake environmental improvement works. The rebate component is $50 per hectare of land covenanted with a minimum of $200 and a maximum of $500. Nineteen properties currently receive the rebate at a total cost of $5400. The grants program provides landowners up to $500 to undertake works such as revegetation, protection of remnant vegetation, and/or environmental weed control. To extend the coverage of the funding, the grants program excludes landowners who already receive the SAR and TFN rate rebates. To date 50 properties have received grants. Projects range from restoration of gullies, removal of Pinus radiata, fencing to protect remnant vegetation and creation of habitat corridors. Several of the projects involve a number of adjoining properties which has allowed wider catchment issues to be addressed.

Eligibility criteria

To assist in prioritising funds towards areas of greater environmental significance the following eligibility criteria was developed:

  • properties with Land for Wildlife status;
  • sites within the Environmental Significance Overlay 1 Sites of Faunal and Habitat Significance;
  • properties with good quality native vegetation;
  • properties abutting National Parks, State Parks and environmental reserves;
  • sites that help to link significant areas of native vegetation or habitat for fauna.

What the program offers

The table below summarises what is funding is available.


Funds available

Fencing to protect remnant vegetation/revegetation sites

$4.00 per metre


Purchase of indigenous plants

Purchase of materials for propagation of indigenous plants

$3.00 per plant

amount not specified

Environmental Weed control (contribution towards hiring a qualified contractor)

$15.00 per hour

Issues regarding the Biodiversity Enhancement Program

Despite strong community interest and wide publicity of the program, there has been a relatively slow uptake, particularly in the more environmentally significant parts of the Shire. This is a factor to consider when developing selection criteria as it is important not to be too restrictive by only targeting the most pristine areas, as only a few properties may in fact apply. To overcome this issue and to ensure a high level of participation, particularly in the first year of the program, the selection criteria should be developed to give higher priority to the more environmentally significant areas, but also allow properties in less significant areas to apply.


The two programs described above provide practical assistance for landowners wishing to protect and enhance the environment and undertake a range of sustainable land management practices. They have been developed to cater for a range of property types. The SAR is specifically focused at larger agricultural properties, the Trust for Nature rebate is designed to assist properties dedicated solely for conservation and the grants component of the Biodiversity Enhancement Program provides general assistance to hobby farms and lifestyle properties. These programs also complement other Council incentive programs such as support to Landcare and policies including the local planning scheme, which encourages the retention of the non urban parts of the Shire.

From the experiences of Nillumbik, the grants program is easier to manage than the SAR program. This is due to the fact that the SAR program requires a more complicated assessment and monitoring process as it is measured against a set of performance criteria. The rebate cannot be specifically targeted to agreed outcomes such as metres of fencing or number of plants in the ground, as is the case of the grants program. A rebate program associated with a Trust for Nature conservation covenant is not expected to be as difficult to manage as the SAR, as monitoring is largely undertaken through the Trust for Nature stewardship program.

In summary, the success of an incentive program is determined by a number of key factors, which include:

  • the program should be well targeted and reflect identified community and environmental needs;
  • ensure maximum participation by making the program user friendly and offer something worthwhile;
  • develop a program that is simple to administer with clear objectives and clear selection criteria;
  • rate rebate programs while popular are more difficult to administer and measure outcomes; and
  • ensure rate rebate program performance criteria are measurable and clear.


Beardsell C. (1997) Sites of Faunal and Habitat Significance in North East Melbourne (NEROC Study), Nillumbik Shire Council, North East Regional Organisation of Councils.

Nillumbik Shire Council (2000) Sustainable Agricultural Rebate Review.

Nillumbik Environment Strategy: Actions for a Sustainable Future (2000). Nillumbik Shire Council.

About the author

Damian Closs is currently the Environmental Planning Coordinator at the Shire of Nillumbik. He has been at the Shire for over 4 years and has a background in Agricultural Science and is currently completing a Masters in Social Science (Environment and Planning) at RMIT. Damian is responsible for managing the Shire’s environmental incentive programs.

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