Chief planner’s quotes come home to haunt him

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CANBERRA has an honour role of blokes who did good things in designing and planning for the city’s future. The result of their collective efforts is a city not like other major cities.

Paul Costigan.

Canberra was envied nationally and internationally and was known affectionately as the bush capital or a garden city. What residents now fear is that the current blokes’ club is not delivering much to be celebrated by future generations.

One way to judge where things are going is to assess statements made by someone holding down what should be the most important position in shaping this city for future generations.

Just over two years ago the ACT government named Ben Ponton as the new head of ACT’s Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development directorate. This also meant that he has the title of ACT chief planner.

Ponton went on the record in the daily paper with a statement that can be used to assess whether he has met his own key performance indicators (KPIs).

Chief planner Ben Ponton… “It’s about being genuine, listening, engaging with key groups.”

The points published in that April 19, 2017, article have been edited below to 10 points in italics, short comments added and a score out of 10 has been allocated to each. Let’s see how the chief and his directorate are going based on things said often by residents at community meetings over the past two years.

  1. Pursue a “citizen focus”: Residents constantly talk about and witness how planning and development is not about residents but about so-called economic development. Score 2 (out of 10).
  2. High quality public spaces and improved environmental management: Trees are disappearing, public spaces used for developments, West Basin as a suburb is still being pursued, heritage ignored, proposed Northbourne apartments are not anything to rave about. Score 2.
  3. Build up trust in the planning process: No need for comment on the obvious beyond there remains absolutely no trust from residents in planning and development. Score a zero.
  4. It’s about being genuine, listening, engaging with key groups: Are his key groups the developers or the residents? So many community groups spend heaps of time on submissions and they then see their work either ignored or misrepresented. Score 3.
  5. New ways to loop more Canberrans into the planning process earlier: Being looped in early is meaningless if any involvement is meaningless. ACT’s planning remains complex, dubious variations are sneakily introduced and then used inappropriately, and all the old tricks and marketing spin keep being employed. Score 1.
  6. Engage with the local residents because they know the area better than anyone: No matter how engaged people are brought into the process, sadly what they say is largely sidelined because the politicians and the bureaucracy know better (everyone knows that!). Score 1.
  7. Those worried about developments need not fear being lambasted for speaking up. True – because they will be ignored. Score 3.
  8. Building of trust early in the process: Doesn’t happen – residents do not see any trust being built. Score 2.
  9. Deal with people feeling like they haven’t been engaged early enough and they’re surprised at what they’re reading about and what they’re seeing: Surprises remain normal. Score 3.
  10. If you have people joining you on the journey early as you work up the proposal, you’re going to have a smoother ride: Oh dear! If it was a smooth ride, why are residents continually raising objections to almost every major development? Score 2.

That’s a total score of 19 points out of a possible 100. Anyone receiving such a dreadful low ranking would be counselled and asked to rethink their future.

Given the influence the chief planner has on the city’s future, maybe residents should get to vote on who gets this high ranking planning and sustainability position. The score applies to the whole planning directorate with Ponton as the boss who answers to Mick Gentleman, the Minister. Anyone wish to estimate his score?

Paul Costigan is an independent commentator and consultant on the visual arts, photography, urban design, environmental issues and everyday matters.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. What a great article and how true. Personally I think a rating of 19 out of 100 is on the high side. It’s hard to see anything positive that has occurred in relation to Canberra’s development over the last two years that has actually been influenced by the planning directorate, and I’m guessing anyone dragged off the street could have done a better job.

  2. Either Mr Ponton has learnt to speak just like his Labor bosses, or they picked him because he already knew how: say all the right things, then do whatever the hell you want.

  3. I think the author needs to partake in the teachings of stoicism, meditate more often and take a deep deep breath, because a storm is about to hit…..

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