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Interview with IPWEA Sustainability Director, Stephen Lees

By pwpro posted 30-01-2014 15:46


IPWEA's Director of Sustainability Stephen Lees acts as the Institute’s conduit and advocate for sustainability issues, and is on the organising committee for the 2014 Sustainability in Public Works Conference

by Gemma Black

Stephen Lees IPWEA Sustainability


Have you always been interested in sustainability? 

It’s been a progression through my career, from technical roles in water resources and flood plain management, to a more holistic approach. As time goes on, I’ve realised you can’t just have a narrow specialisation, you have to deal with all those other considerations and come up with more holistic solutions that address multiple objectives. 

What does sustainability really mean?

There’s a formal definition of sustainability as using resources in a way that doesn’t deny opportunities to future generations. But more than that, sustainability is multidimensional; not just financial or technical, but also social and environmental and even taking into account governance, which is about having appropriate procedures in the rule of law and ethics and equity, and those sorts of things. 

In reality, sustainability means different things to different people and I think that’s the challenge – people have different ideas about what it means to them, so they’re not always using the same language. 

What are some examples of sustainability initiatives in local government? 

Local councils around Australia did some wonderful things a few years ago (and are continuing to do so!) in water conservation. We had a drought in eastern Australia between 2003 and 2009 and a lot of councils were very short of water, Goulburn Council in southern NSW for example closed all its sporting fields and the swimming pool. In response, a lot of councils came up with clever ways to sustain their parks and gardens, using stormwater harvesting and those sorts of things. In South Australia, councils were really involved in aquifer storage and re-use, pumping rainwater into aquifers and pumping it back later when required. 

Also in terms of energy conservation, particularly during the period when energy prices were rising at double-digit rates, a lot of councils looked at things they could do both passively and actively to reduce their energy bills.

What challenges do councils face in achieving their sustainability goals?

I think headwinds coming from conservative state governments, which are often pulling away support policies that previously encouraged and supported councils on their sustainability initiatives. 

For example, in New South Wales and Queensland there used to be sea level rise planning benchmarks that said when planning coastal developments you should assume the sea level will rise by about a metre by the end of the century. That provided a reference that councils could use to say no to coastal developments that were likely to end up underwater, but most state governments have pulled that back now, so the onus is on councils to justify any restriction on development.

It makes it difficult, because I think councils have the responsibility to take the long-term view. They may be elected for three or four years, but we’re looking after the interests of rate payers decades into the future, and councils are making decisions that are going to have long-term, maybe even multi-generational, implications. 

In many ways councils can often do things faster than state and federal government. With things like climate change adaptation and preparing our communities to cope with the more demanding climatic conditions of the future, local governments have been at the forefront, because they’re getting on and doing things, they’re not just talking about it, they’re building things and actually making a difference. 

How do the fields of sustainability and asset management interact? 

I would like to see those two fields come together, to see that, as part of managing your assets, you also look at sustainability. The two fields have been separate in the past, but I think they are now coming together, which is a trend I’ve noticed over the course of my career – things are becoming more integrated. You can’t just focus on asset management or sustainability, it all has to merge together.

What will be the main objectives of the IPWEA’s 2014 Sustainability in Public Works Conference?

The main aim will be to come up with practical measures that people can take away and implement.

Conferences can sometimes become talkfests, where people talk about pie-in-the-sky stuff that often doesn’t get us anywhere. So, it’s a matter of coming back to reality and talking about what local government practitioners can do, day to day. They can’t change the world, but there are things they can do within their power and capability that can make a cumulative difference. If the councils around Australia all took similar measures, they could be very powerful. 

The conference is going to be a great opportunity to raise the profile of sustainability in local government and act as a sort of focal point. Sustainability is one of those issues that can drift in and out of our consciousness; to have a conference with all of the main players together will bring the issue to the forefront, while giving IPWEA members an opportunity to network and support each other. 

The 2014 IPWEA Sustainability in Public Works Conference is on at Tweed Heads, NSW on 27–29 July 2014. For more information or to register, visit


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