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How politics rolled the local residents

The YWCA’s development application in Ainslie. Photo: Paul Costigan

There’s more than a storm in teacup behind the YWCA’s development victory over the objecting residents of Ainslie. There’s insults, legal threats, social media trolls and political intrigue, says “Canberra Matters” columnist PAUL COSTIGAN.

ON Wednesday, June 29, the ACT Planning Minister used his “call-in” power on the YWCA’s development application (DA) for social housing on a site alongside an Ainslie park. 

Paul Costigan.

The site was historically designated for community use and locals preferred the site be returned for community use (child care, meetings rooms etcetera) rather than being crammed with nine units (originally to have been 15).

When the original DA appeared, the residents lodged objections outlining the planning faults in the YWCA’s DA. In early 2021 the planning authority approved the DA. Three residents pooled their money and took the authority to the Appeals Tribunal (ACAT).

Before the residents attended the tribunal, one received a letter from the YWCA’s lawyers with the threat of defamation. Trying to limit a tribunal hearing is not democracy at work. The letter was ignored.

The YWCA fronted the tribunal with a packed suite of lawyers and paid experts. The tribunal found that the DA had many faults and reversed the planning authority’s approval. 

The YWCA took offence at this. It did not acknowledge what the tribunal had said (rules not met) and instead cast the tribunal members, the residents and their supporters as being against social housing for women. 

It also ignored the residents’ main argument that they wanted the facilities reopened as community facilities and they wished to discuss other options with the government and the YWCA for more social housing in their neighbourhood. Both could happen.

No-one in the YWCA took responsibility for the faulty DA and never mind that Ainslie is full of social housing and that a reasonable number of the residents on the street in question are in social housing. 

One of the tribunal’s rulings was that the units were crammed up against large trees on the border, meaning that the units would have little solar access as required by legislation.

The planning authority quickly varied that rule so when assessing solar, large trees shadowing residential units would no longer be of concern. The ACT Greens said nothing about this – continuing their policy of “Building a Bigger Farce”.

Earlier this year a new YWCA DA appeared with very little change. The number of units was reduced from 10 to nine. Nine units on this site is cramming – when probably five should be the maximum as on similar inner-north Housing ACT sites. 

This new DA was doomed to fail given that the faults were largely repeated. 

A populist campaign appeared to recruit supporters to rage against the “selfish” residents and to suppress democratic debates and any future appeal processes. Online forums soon became dominated by trolls casting the residents as nasty and vexatious accusing them of stopping social housing.

A prediction that the YWCA would use its close political affiliations with Ministers Yvette Berry and Rebecca Vassarotti was spot on and the planning minister was convinced to use his special call-in powers, meaning the faulty DA was approved and no appeals would be allowed.

I believe money and the autocratic establishment won over democracy and common sense.

People noted that this was yet another tick for Berry’s campaign to use community facilities as the land bank for social housing developments. There’s more of this to come.

On ABC Radio that Wednesday afternoon few of the facts were canvassed in an interview with the YWCA. The discussion was about creating opportunities to restate how the residents were stopping social housing for women and that the DA had met the rules (utter rubbish). 

The aim of the interview was to cast the YWCA as the one suffering because of the vexatious residents (looking after their cherished street, parkland, trees and biodiversity). It was mentioned that two residents living on the street supported the YWCA development. Sad fact – they do not live on that street and both have undeclared direct connections to the YWCA.

The interviewer treated the Ainslie representative differently. Twice, he rudely spoke over him and tried to catch him out with a naive gotcha question.

Canberra residents are frustrated by this Greenslabor government’s paltry efforts to get 3000 homeless off the streets and constantly implore the government to urgently allocate real money to address the lack of social housing in Canberra. 

The interviewer did not ask what yield (profits) will go to the YWCA from managing people into these crammed units. Nor how the campaign about these units is being used to gloss over the failure of Ministers Yvette Berry and Rebecca Vassarotti on social housing and related social matters. 

The planning minister was convinced of the YWCA’s blinkered argument that community facilities had to go to make way for housing rather than the more logical case that there could be an increase in both community facilities and social housing in Ainslie.

Berry and Vassarotti should have been asked to swap some of the vacant Housing ACT sites with the community site now occupied by the YWCA – which could then be handed back to the community. But that’s far too logical and too humane. 

It is not hard to imagine the skewed alternative facts that were put by the YWCA and their friendly ministers to the ACT’s docile planning minister. Maybe the ABC could do something positive for the Canberra community and explore the real story behind this inappropriate call-in decision.

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Thank you,

Ian Meikle, editor

Paul Costigan

Paul Costigan

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15 Responses to How politics rolled the local residents

Greg Hollands says: July 9, 2022 at 10:45 am

Well done Paul – keep on calling out these obvious inequities and flawed decsiions by a flailing, and seemingly, ever more stupid greenslabor government who only ever make stupid decisions. Not to mention the eviction of many long term residents of inner Canberra under the guise of “renewal” – ie, code for how can we make some money! The residents of Canberra will (hopefully) remember these things when they next come to vote – we can always dreamm!

democracy manifest says: July 9, 2022 at 4:34 pm

Surely no one has done more than Paul to organise community support in favour of this social housing project. Every screed like this must convert hundreds more to the cause.

S. Draw, K. Cab. says: July 11, 2022 at 3:02 pm

Hasn’t brought me over. In contrary, firmed-up my opposition.

Well everyone, lets see, what scout halls are now well overdue for 9 unit make-over?

This farce is anything but democratic and you know it.

Michael O'Loughlin says: July 9, 2022 at 10:37 pm

If you really believe the ACT Government and its lackeys are building community support with projects such as this, then I have a very nice harbour bridge you may wish to buy.

Ian Meikle says: July 10, 2022 at 12:50 pm

By way of disclosure, comments from Leah should be tempered with the undisclosed knowledge that she is the senior adviser for Policy and Engagement at YWCA Canberra.
Ian Meikle

Nathan says: July 12, 2022 at 1:05 pm

So Ian, in the interests of fairness, should you be forced to disclose with every screed you publish against the ACT Government your extremely close ties to the Canberra Liberals?

Ian Meikle says: July 12, 2022 at 1:33 pm

Well Nathan, that’s no problem. I don’t have any. If I did, I’d be professionally obliged to make such a declaration. And I would.

Nathan says: July 12, 2022 at 2:13 pm

Gary Humphries didn’t appoint you Chair of the Canberra Theatre Trust in 1996? You didn’t offer you services to him as a debate moderator (something that was offered up directly by the Canberra Liberals, rather than yourself) in 2010? I could go on Ian.

If you want to claim to not have links to the Canberra Liberals, best not leave the receipts out there in the public domain for all to see.

Ian Meikle says: July 12, 2022 at 2:44 pm

Yes, I was chair of the Canberra Theatre Trust. So what? In any event I wasn’t working as a journalist. The federal government (Labor) appointed me deputy chair of the Interim Hospitals Board. I wasn’t working as a journalist.
I did moderate – ie sit in the middle – a federal poll debate, as many journalists do during elections. I was invited, I didn’t seek the gig. Drawing any political inference from that is utterly false. I have never had any affiliation with any political party and you can insinuate all like, Nathan, but you’ll be wrong.

Ian says: July 10, 2022 at 5:32 pm

What we are seeing is the greatest transfer of public wealth in the form of public land and grants to non-government organisations since those hazy days at the start of self-government. Large swathes previously publicly owned land have been privatised for residential development the Northbourne corridor. Non-government organisations are pressing Government to provide them rights over land currently used for community facilities, sport and recreation uses and other green space to be replaced by residential developments. The Community Housing Association’s budget submission outlines a list of changes that will make it easier to hand over public assets at an incredible cost to the community. The Government has abandoned control and abrogated its responsibility for controlling and managing these assets for the benefit of the community.

Mike of Canberra says: July 11, 2022 at 3:12 pm

That this situation in Ainslie has been allowed to develop with the full support of the ACT Government is simply not good enough. I really think the time has well and truly come for the people of Canberra to demand a full independent audit and overhaul of the public housing estate and Housing ACT as a means of establishing a decent information base for decision-making.

Among other atrocities, we hear that houses in the estate are being burnt down, trashed, or not maintained. We hear of tenants dealing drugs, housing being reserved for prisoners serving gaol sentences and now, designer housing being built for a selected few on land designated for community facilities by an obviously favoured community organisation. Not only is public housing (and its multitude of other labels) being destroyed by tenants, but other tenants are living in highly subsidised public housing while possessing multiple late model cars and, in some cases, cabin cruisers. All of this reeks of something terribly wrong, on so many levels, not only with our public housing system but also the values underpinning decisions made by the current ACT Government, values that I suspect would be quite at odds with those of ordinary Canberrans.

Ms Berry appears to have not the slightest shred of innovation let alone ability to manage this estate. In fact, there are increasingly strong indications that she operates on the basis of expediency rather than genuine, soundly based principles. As an example, when seeking to justify the sell-off of the former Stuart Flats and Gowrie Court amongst others, she used to rail against “concentrations of disadvantage” with some justification. But instead of making this a matter of principle for guiding future decision-making, she is proceeding to replace large “concentrations of disadvantage” with smaller “concentrations of disadvantage” all over Canberra. There is not one ounce of concern for, let alone consultation with neighbouring private homeowners as she overcrowds their streets with this housing, leaving them to carry the risks this entails, all at a time when our marginalised police force now will not even attend burglaries. The Government’s response to residents’ concerns? “You will just have to learn to live with it”. On the basis of her policy and decision-making Ms Berry gives a very clear impression of not having the ability to get her head around this problem.

Who knows, maybe if she possessed just a small amount of Ministerial acumen, the appalling situation of kicking older people out of long-term homes to which they have tended with love and care may not have arisen. Maybe the disgraceful situation around Bill Pye Park would not have arisen. And who knows, there just might be enough public housing for those who really need it, and it just might be more equitably and efficiently distributed throughout the community as well as being managed effectively.

A full independent audit and review of Housing ACT and the public housing estate has to be done and done now. The administration of public housing is out of control in this town and needs to be addressed.


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