THE latest in a series of government announcements seems to sideline the intent of the ACT planning and leasehold systems by flagrantly by-passing normal planning practices.
The result is to allow short-term economic imperatives to outweigh the long-term interests of the ACT.
Who is Canberra’s planning minister? An invitation to meet the planners at Woden and Southlands to discuss development would suggest Mick Gentleman. However, announcements by the government about the University of Canberra, the light rail and heritage in Northbourne Avenue suggest that the traditional planning protections are being ripped from his hands.
Gentleman’s role is to keep in mind the long-term interests of the Territory. The challenge for him is whether he is allowed to get on with the job or be overridden by Cabinet or the Chief Minister.
On the one hand, the Minister is making an effort on broad consultation and involving the community as indicated in one of his press releases. On the other, in an outrageous attack on the Territory’s planning leasehold and economic sustainability, the University of Canberra is being given a free hand by the ACT government to commercialise its land.
Are planning restrictions being lifted? What is being done to protect the leasehold system? Even a deserving organisation ought not to breach the broad community interest.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the University of Canberra Amendment Bill 2015, amongst other things, would allow the university to develop additional sources of income, for example from commercialising property and developing its campus.
In introducing the Bill, he indicated that this is just the start.
“This Bill will be the first in a suite of legislative amendments planned over the next six months to enable wider uses and greater development of the Bruce campus, including more commercial development of university property,” he said.
The lease of this gigantic parcel of land was not assigned to the university to develop. It was provided at very low cost for its use as a university.
Allowing the lease to be used for commercial purposes increases its value astronomically. Under our leasehold system the increased value of the land belongs with the community – not with the University of Canberra.
This legislation also puts the planners on the back foot. The development is primarily in the financial interests of the university rather than fitting into the overarching intention of planning. If planners had determined the area was appropriate for development then less land should have been leased to the university in the first place. The leftover leases could have then been sold at commercial rates.
It is not too late. If the planners have now determined that there is an increased need for development in the Bruce precinct, they do have the option of allowing development. However, the windfall gain belongs with the community as a whole. The difference in the value of a community lease should be calculated. It should then be compared to the value of the land as a commercial lease. The difference in value should go into consolidated revenue.
This type of abuse of the leasehold system is not new. Attempts to undermine it have been going on since before self-government. The 1980s Uniting Church development on the corner of Northbourne Avenue and Barry Drive should have taught us to protect the community interest.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Canberra.