Grumpy / How Canberra was ‘sold’ to developers

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West Basin. Photo: Paul Costigan

Prominent architect JACK KERSHAW, of Kambah, is grumpy about the way town planning is being overlooked in the nation’s capital. 

THE apparent demise of ordered planning in Canberra can be traced to a paradigm shift: development is now largely being “sold” to government.

Architect Jack Kershaw.

For example, the scope and scale of New Acton wasn’t in any town plan. It’s persuasive, cashed-up developers, boasting their long-term commitment, engaged, high-profile, private-sector planners, architects, engineers, heritage experts, etcetera to put together an “irrefutable” scheme for the precinct. 

It was even presented by the developer to an invited audience at the National Gallery theatre. Of course, the authorities couldn’t say no, especially to the money being offered for the land.

However, a close examination of New Acton as-built, reveals major shortcomings, including excessive building bulk at the western end, and traffic issues, which a predetermined government precinct plan would have prevented. 

Now New Acton has now been reportedly on-sold; with its original developer apparently now embarking on a similar approach on cheap land at Dairy Road, Fyshwick, for development never envisaged in any town plan.

Similar forces and processes are involved on the airport land, City Hill, in some new suburbs, and on innumerable “have-a-go” private development projects; as well as in the activities of the City Renewal Authority (developers are even running their own “public” consultation – that’s got a lot of integrity…not!). 

The CRA is removed from the normal planning processes, and is headed up by a largely faceless board with connections to developers and unions. 

It has strong political links, hopefully not like those in the NSW property development scandals of the ’80s and ’90s that ended up in the ICAC. The private-sector-like CRA is mainly looking after the highly significant precincts of Northbourne Avenue and West Basin – not going at all well (to put it mildly), especially in the context of the national capital.

Commercially attractive and innovative as they may be, such privatised methodologies clearly cannot be relied on and (as with building quality) we need to return to normal, professional, public-sector town planning and urban design – however, with perhaps, or even definitely, more creativity and cultural/heritage-awareness. This is the national capital.

Grumpy is an occasional column dedicated to things that get up your nose. Readers are invited to vent (typically around 300 words, please) at


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