Opinion / Say goodbye to the undermined garden city

THERE has been a series of malpractices by the Barr government throughout the whole of its four-year term of office that have been fundamentally destructive, not only in terms of meeting designated social and economic needs but also in terms of respecting and maintaining the planned “garden city” character for which Canberra is famous.

Tony Powell.

However, there is also another chain of activity that needs to be repaired, namely the electoral inertia that is peculiar to Canberra and which I think has to be overcome before better public administration becomes possible.

The Barr government has established a number of land-development agencies with implied “town planning” obligations, however, none of which seem to base their planning and development operations on explicit or published needs assessments.

The determinative factor in this regard is that, from the outset in 1989, the first Legislative Assembly evaded the statutory obligation contained in the Commonwealth legislation to the effect that “there will be a statutory town-planning system and a responsible statutory planning and development authority”.

It managed to do so by enacting territory legislation that established an ACT Planning and Land Authority (ACTPLA) as a “corporation sole”, but without any resources, in other words, with no funding and no staff. The deep-seated objection underlying this stance has been, and continues to be, incompetent town planning, which will continue as long as there is not an independent, expert, statutory planning authority rather the sole prerogative of territory governments.

The fundamental underlying problem of this attitude is that both chief ministers and Assembly members are prone to undermine statutory town-planning procedures in order to achieve personal or political party benefits and objectives, to the detriment of, in Canberra’s case, that “garden city” character.

The ACT now has a multiplicity of town-planning agencies, following the dramatic failure of the Land Development Agency because of its suspect land acquisition practices that the Barr government has declined to investigate or justify, that may be summarised as follows:

  • Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate, which reports to three ministers (Berry, Gentleman, Rattenbury).
  • ACT Planning and Land Authority (ACTPLA).
  • ACT Chief Planner – The 1988 statutory position responsible for the administration of the Territory Plan, including the assessment of development applications.
  • City Renewal Authority, responsible for the redevelopment of the Northbourne Avenue corridor.
  • Suburban Land Agency, responsible for the delivery of “greenfield” residential estates and with a focus on urban renewal projects in town centres and suburbs.
  • Chief Minister’s Department, affordable land and housing provision.

The Chief Minister is regularly banging on about the need for high-rise residential development, on the grounds that the availability of urban land is diminishing at a significant rate which, generally speaking, his planning department, if there was one that was adequately funded, would be able to demonstrate, is simply not true.

The ultimate urban capacity of the ACT was considered by the NCDC to be somewhere in the range of 800,000 to one million population, including the Kowen Plateau.

The truth is that Andrew Barr thinks that higher densities will be cheaper for the government to fund from an infrastructure and land bank viewpoint, as do both the NSW and Victorian premiers.

In the last few weeks, two typical intensification projects have been announced. Geocon has lodged a development application for a 16-storey hotel in the CBD between Garema Place and Bunda Street, which will rise above 50 metres and will dwarf the Canberra Centre and block sunlight over a significant area of Garema Place.

There are three other development projects for hotel and apartment projects in Civic already in the pipeline that collectively will raise difficult car, public transport and overshadowing issues beyond the professional capacity of ACTPLA to assess and evaluate.

Further afield in Manuka a seven-storey hotel, modelled on the LeGrand Hotel in Paris, is the subject of a development application in the business area that unfortunately has a two-storey building height limit specified in the Territory Plan partly for heritage reasons, a development that would significantly block sunlight over cherished footpath eating areas in Franklin Street and Canberra Avenue, also a project that ACTPLA does not have funding or the knowhow to reliably evaluate.

It’s clear that the Barr government has not made available a sufficient amount of residential land as a quantum of lot types and at affordable prices, also that it has “gamed” the selling of land by auction so as to maximise budget profitability.

It’s a ridiculous fact that Canberra, 200 kilometres away from the Pacific coast in the NSW hinterland, has the second most expensive land and housing in Australia.

This is an edited version of Mr Powell’s prepared address to the recent IGPA Canberra Conversation Public Lecture Series. The full version is at the-southern-cross.com/TP/TP.pdf

Tony Powell is a former head of the National Capital Development Commission (1974-1985), the precursor to the National Capital Authority.

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