ACT Government’s inability to listen

Residents speak but the government interprets

In August 2019, Ben Ponton, the ACT’s chief planner, said: “Your feedback plays a key role through your unique ability to communicate useful observations into issues that may affect your neighbourhood…”

And the reality? 

Residents fill out heaps of “Your Say” online surveys and make endless submissions. Mostly, it’s a waste of time. The government’s response to people having their say, is: “This is what we heard”.

That is, the bureaucracy sets the questions and interprets the responses to ensure that residents’ issues are rarely addressed.

The most insulting term is that “there were divergent” or “a number of views”. Those often-used terms are the bureaucracy’s justification to skew the results to suit the government’s predetermined agenda, ie keep the minister happy!

It is possible to read what residents aspire to. Simply look to the documentation produced by the city’s hard-working community councils. Here residents set the questions, collate the data and provide a reality check on what is going on. Politician-free data!

The preliminary results from the Inner South Canberra Community Council’s late 2019 survey delivered no surprises.

The responses are more or less the same as residents from all over Canberra have been saying for yonks: residents value their streetscapes (trees and gardens) and open spaces (parks, ovals and bushland for recreation).

These top a list that includes serious stuff such as the maintenance of urban areas, a desire for good design, proper planning, thoughtful developments and a host of building issues. And not to be left out, are the concerns about the ever-increasing rates and charges under this Labor/Greens government.

This survey and previous ones (eg Campbell) reinforce that the majority do not wish to live in high rise. Most residents still prefer to be in stand-alone houses, or townhouses, duplexes or dual occupancies.

Yet again, there’s the wish for good design – both in architecture and landscape. Absolutely no surprises there. And talking of building quality, it was sad reading to see some draft meeting notes put out by the Weston Creek Community Council for a meeting with Gordon Ramsay, Minister for Building Quality (the meeting is yet to happen).

The notes included such basics as: building certifiers should ensure that the National Construction Code is followed, and who in the building process ensures that buildings are fit for purpose?

At the moment there’s a list derived from real experiences that includes that if a building is built to the specifications approved, why are so many rooms too small, the wardrobes often contain air-conditioning or some other unit, paint falls off the walls, the windows jam and tiles peel off. Included were references to how the concept design for many buildings may be undertaken by architects, but once approved anyone involved alters the design to suit themselves.

Lights are put where the electrician thinks they could go, plants are not well placed (and usually die quickly) and the list goes on.

Where are the building professionals who should be overseeing the complete delivery of buildings?

The architects are usually off the scene early in the process and after that there is very little in the way of registered design professionals on the site to supervise the finish.

If this government was serious about building quality and good design, then why is it not insisting on registration for building, engineering and landscape professionals to be involved with the total delivery of new buildings as well as all aspects of the redevelopment of established suburbs.

This is what residents are talking about – and this is what the government ignores.

In April, I scored the chief planner very poorly (20 out of 100) against criteria based on his own 2017 statements. He talks constantly about the value of consultations.

There would be few residents who have had positive experiences dealing with this chief planner’s bureaucrats on planning and development.

As I said in April, he can do better. A lot better!

He could do something radical – such as read and act on residents’ submissions.

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This piece was originally published in City News

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

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