What’s hidden behind secret land-swap values?

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The Curtin Horse Paddocks… a soft target. Photo: Paul Costigan

“I cannot recall the ACT government consulting the Hughes community, of its intention to convert urban open space, in a prominent, elevated position in Hughes, into a housing estate for foreign missions as the price for reclaiming two acres of lake bottom,” writes columnist JON STANHOPE.

IN the last month or so, I’ve lodged a few Freedom of Information requests. 

Jon Stanhope.

I have made requests of the ACT and Commonwealth governments in relation to the West Basin/Curtin Horse Paddocks land swap having been provoked into doing so following a request that one of my “CityNews” journalist colleagues had made of both governments for the valuation of the parcels of land involved in the deal. 

The NCA refused, peremptorily and in a supercilious fashion, to provide any information to my colleague while the ACT government simply refused to respond at all.

Both the NCA and the Chief Minister’s Department have now responded to my FOI requests, but disappointingly if not surprisingly, have declined to provide any information of any substance. 

I found the basis of the decisions to deny to release the sought after information unconvincing. In my view the decisions were neither consistent with either the intent or substance of the respective Freedom of Information Acts. I have asked the ombudsman to review the decisions.

The ACT government based its refusal on a claim that to release the valuation would damage its relationship with the Commonwealth. 

While I find it hard to believe that Scomo could give two hoots about anything that the ACT government might do or say it is, I guess, heartening to know that Andrew Barr has decided to work on his relationship with the Prime Minister.

Having said that, documents that were released under the FOI Act a couple of years ago to the Lake Burley Griffin Guardians provide an insight into what the Chief Minister thinks of Scomo and the Commonwealth government. 

The documents contain this gem from a response which Barr made, in February, 2019, to a question from a journalist about the land swap negotiations with the Commonwealth: “Instability in the federal government has been hampering discussions. The constant changing of priorities, leadership and ministers within the federal government makes negotiating a challenge. It is clear that a federal Labor government provides the best opportunity for these matters to progress.”

So much for worrying that the release of the valuation of two blocks of land involved in the land swap would endanger relations between the two governments.

Unless, of course, the valuations or costs otherwise associated with the land swap raise tricky questions. In that regard the documents released to LBG Guardians contain snippets of information that, while interesting, raise a myriad of questions.

For example, it is revealed that in May, 2017, Andrew Barr advised Senator Fiona Nash, Minister for Territories that: “The ACT government is in the process of constructing the first stage of the public realm at a cost of $17 million and has committed a further $37.74 million as part of the 2017-18 Budget to progress Stage 2. It is this work that requires the acquisition of the lake bed. Overall, the cost of building the public realm is around $100 million.”

This admission begs the question where, at the end of the day, will the $100 million come from? Will it be passed on to those that purchase an apartment at West Basin, thus assuring its status as an enclave of privilege? Or will the much-put-upon ratepayer be expected to foot the bill?

One other quite fascinating aspect of the deal is that from the commencement of negotiations in 2015 up until 2018 the land that it was proposed be transferred to the Commonwealth was in fact in Hughes not Curtin.

In a brief prepared for the Chief Minister on May 26, 2017, preparatory to a meeting with the then-Minister for Territories Fiona Nash, he is advised that the NCA was insisting that the Commonwealth would require a letter from the ACT supporting the gazettal of the land in Hughes for Commonwealth purposes. 

The Chief Minister was further advised that any support from the ACT for the use by the Commonwealth of the land “is likely to draw criticism from adjacent landholders, which are primarily residential homes, as it is currently zoned Urban Open Space and is in a prominent, elevated position.”

The Chief Minister was accordingly further advised that: “The issue of the lake bed reclamation and the Hughes land need to be decoupled.”

I may be wrong, but I cannot recall the ACT government consulting the Hughes community, let alone the broader Canberra community, of its intention to convert urban open space, in a prominent, elevated position in Hughes, into a housing estate for foreign missions as the price for reclaiming two acres of lake bottom.

As we now know, the City Renewal Authority, having clearly developed cold feet, turned its attention to what it perceived a softer target – namely the Curtin Horse Paddocks.

Hughes has apparently dodged a bullet. Well, at least until next time. Pity about the horse paddocks.

 

 

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Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Mr Stanhope,

    I always seek out your articles, which are invariably informative and topical, but this one really caught my attention.

    As a Hughes resident living in a street adjoining the Hughes public open space, former Secretary of the Hughes Residents’ Association, and current member of local landcare groups, the Friends of Hughes Grassy Woodland and the Red Hill Regenerators, it is news to me that this public open space was being considered for diplomatic housing in May 2017, and possibly later. I am certainly not aware of any residents or local community organisations being informed or consulted.

    This area is part of the ACT Government’s Draft Integrated Plan for Red Hill Nature Reserve and Surrounds, the subject of a 2017 petition with over 3,000 signatures, a support motion passed in the ACT Legislative Assembly in late 2017, and two years of work by a dedicated Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate team, including several meetings with community organisations and public consultations last year.

    While we hope that Hughes has “dodged a bullet”, as you say, the lack of consultation on the Curtin Horse Paddocks land-swap indicates that nothing has changed.

    If you have more information about the proposed Hughes land-swap, particularly if you could confirm which Section/s of Hughes was/were involved and during which timeframe it was being considered, I would be very grateful.

    The public open space on the Deakin side of Hughes, next to the current embassy area in Deakin, comprises Section 57 (above Kent Street and adjoining Red Hill Nature Reserve) and Section 58 (below Kent Street, bounded by Carruthers Street). Both comprise mainly endangered Yellow Box Red Gum Woodland and are cared for by the Friends of Hughes Grassy Woodland, an ACT Urban Parks-sponsored landcare group. The Group has just received a grant of $8,050 to improve bird habitat in this area. One tree on Section 57 is already on the ACT Tree Register, and trees on both Sections are currently on the ACT Provisional Tree Register.

    I am appalled to think that this area could ever have been considered for bulldozing.

    Many thanks for seeking out this information through the Freedom of Information process and for an excellent and frightening article.

    Kind regards,

    Dr Jacky Fogerty
    Hughes resident

  2. Thanks John and Jacky – it is extremely worrying that our planners see urban open space as a free for all for development and engage in secret deals without benefit of community input and it seems that apart from land values they are happy to propose swaps blind to the social, environmental and cultural values that land may have,

  3. I think it is more worrisome that the good voters of the ACT are not engaged in the political process and seem to feel disconnected to what is happening around them.

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