Planning change is going to come… it is, isn’t it?

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Site of the Ainslie YWCA development… converting community lands and facilities for social housing is madness. Photo: Paul Costigan

“If the ACT Greens are to build that better normal, then the Planning Directorate will have to be forced to change and to do something about addressing the long list of heritage and the environment issues that matter to Canberrans,” writes “Canberra Matters” columnist PAUL COSTIGAN.

WHEN it comes to the ACT government and planning and development, 2020 was not a year to be celebrated. 

Things got horrible with Mick Gentleman as Planning Minister and, given he continues in this portfolio, things are not likely to improve.

However, it is time to be jolly – or at least look to the positives and who would be nice in 2021. That means attention must turn away from the government’s Grinch Incorporated, those fellow planning travellers are possibly sitting down popping corks on what a good year they had spoiling people’s lives and wreaking havoc on the city.

So what could be good in 2021? This will be the year that the ACT Labor/Greens coalition will prove its value to the city’s future as the bush capital. Soon we may learn what the Greens mean by Building A Better Normal – their platform for the October election. 

Eyebrows were raised when the Chief Minister created the ACT Minister for the Environment and Heritage to be taken up by one of the new Greens MPs, Rebecca Vassarotti. The heritage portfolio had previously been with the Planning Minister and we all know what that meant. Things went backwards.

The combination of heritage and environment could be a strong platform from which to take an interest in planning and development as well as the enhancing of the urban forests, parks, greenery, biodiversity – and the celebration and protection of the city’s heritage as the city modernises. 

This means that the Minister for Heritage and Environment will have to do something about the ad hoc approach that has become the norm for the Planning Directorate. 

This directorate has become expert at spin to cover up the meaningless, complex mess that pretends to be a planning regime. 

If the ACT Greens are to build that better normal, then the Planning Directorate will have to be forced to change and to do something about addressing the long list of heritage and the environment issues that matter to Canberrans. The minister needs to stop them producing glossy planning statements, doing silly planning refreshes and endlessly talking about strategies.

If the above key performance indicator was not enough, the same Greens minister has carriage of Homelessness and Housing Services. Given the heavy lifting done by the volunteer sector with assistance to homeless people, and the increasing presence of people sleeping rough around shopping centres and in parks, this matter should be a priority to be addressed at least before next winter. 

The volunteers of Safe Shelter ACT provide some overnight shelter for homeless men during winter, with numbers increasing each year. And the homeless women? Safe Shelter’s annual report for the next year will provide an indicator of whether the new minister has taken her job seriously.

On another front, given that housing services is within this same minister’s portfolio, and given she is minister for the environment and heritage, we can hope that she will use her new position to put a stop to the madness of converting community lands and facilities (for example, Ainslie’s Bill Pye Park) for social housing. Social housing needs to be integrated into the suburbs. Not separated out.

The other big challenge for this new minister will be to carry on the work commenced by Gordon Ramsay to increase the performance of developers in keeping to the building regulations as well as to implement some real environmental codes for all constructions and landscape works.

This new portfolio could deliver for the city, for residents and for the many who supported what the bush capital stood for before the barbarians were allowed inside the city gates. 

The New Year clock is ticking for Rebecca Vassarotti and the ACT Greens. Let’s wish the new minister well for 2021 and look forward to significant changes. 

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

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