Dickson Planning Consultation Dilemmas

Development dilemmas: part three
The future of the Dickson Precinct and beyond

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This is the third of several posts on planning and development issues for Dickson in Canberra. Residential groups around the country share similar frustrations, dilemmas and challenges in dealing with planning and development bureaucracies.

The ACT Government has an established process whereby it ensures that there are at least notional consultations on development issues. The planning authority (ACTPLA) funds and then works through a series of community councils. These bodies are in regular contact with the authority and are provided with notices on developments and are given the opportunities to make comment. Likewise when a developer proposes a major development , they are required to meet with the relevant community council as part of the development application processes. This allows the developer to tick a box to indicate that they have consulted with the local residents.

The community councils spend quite a lot of volunteer time processing and getting their heads around a constant flow of development applications and notices from various agencies on all manner of urban issues. It is a hell of job for volunteers.

The annual amount these council receive in funding is small. I have heard the figure is around $12,000  to assist with the admin of the community council. In turn they are expected to represent residents’ views to ACTPLA on urban issues and development proposals.

These volunteers spend heaps of time and resources getting to meetings, writing submissions and meeting a whole range of stakeholders. They work hard. They are often very committed to the issues and would like to make a difference. All for about $12,000.

I am aware that when the government brings in design panels or special consultants to provide advice, $12,000 probably pays for one meeting with any design panel or would be a small fee to a specialist professional consultant. Yet ACTPLA expects the community councils to provide crucial advice for almost nothing. And they do!

For any of these community councils to function, they need to develop and maintain good working relationships with ACTPLA and other relevant agencies.  Members need to be friendly with the ACTPLA and other bureaucrats. ACTPLA  sees the value of this relationship and works to keep the community council members close and welcomed to the inner sanctum of information. The community councils end up feeling privileged with this level of knowledge.

This closeness is a problem for the uninitiated. Through this close and ‘friendly’ relationships, it becomes hard for the community council members to disagree with ACTPLA. So it often happens that the community council ends up representing the views of ACTPLA to the local residents. This is how such political advocacy is manipulated often by planning bureaucrats. The bureaucrats have learnt over years that by keeping this friendship going with the community councils, that they are then in a position to use this ‘friendship’ to bring about an acquiescence within the community council on difficult issues.

On the surface at least, it looks as though the system works whereby ACTPLA and other agencies consult with the residents through these community council. In fact this system continues to fail residents.

For most residents the first chance they really get to get involved with any development application submitted by developers, is when the development application is lodged, is initially signed off by ACTPLA and then put out for very limited time for any comments. At this stage, if residents wish to know what the development is about, it means being confronting with a mountain of plans and paper work. All this stuff is difficult for any professional to understand. So the chances of residents getting their head around what it all means is minimal. Experience shows that by this stage most of the larger deals have been done and the best any resident can achieve is to tinker with the edges— the smaller details only.

ACTPLA continues to make development and planning decisions that are perceived to be unfavourable to residents while almost always favouring local developers. If the community council processes had been maturing and functioning properly over the last decades, then by now there would have been a much more transparent and residential focus on the process for development and planning here in Canberra.

I do not know of any residents that has any faith or trust in the ACT Government when it comes to planning and development. None of the local politicians take residents seriously on planning or development matters. They see the established community council processes, they take the advice of the ‘professionals’ in ACTPLA and other agencies and thus feel very comfortable in side stepping comments from local residents groups.

Unfortunately this has been this way for decades and there is no sign that anything is about to change. Occasionally residents groups get together to fight a particular battle over a proposed development. Occasionally they win (YAH!).

ACTPLA will then grumble about how wrong any adverse decision that comes their way, but they change nothing. The culture of ACTPLA is that they are the professionals, they know what is best and people should learn to understand that this is the way of planning and development in Canberra.

I have seen in the past decade many very committed residents work amazingly hard to bring about changes to particular development applications. But despite the huge personal commitment from many on community councils and other residents groups, the ACT Government, its politicians and its beloved ACTPLA have for decades shown no willingness to change to actually engage with residents on planning and development issues and to place any importance on the aspirations of residents.

The current consultation processes provides a veneer of something hinting at consultations, it allows the ACT government to kid itself that it is consulting and allows for the development lobby to continue to use the ACT Government to override the aspirations of the residents.

Any change must come through the political process and through the right people being elected. If anyone can nominate any current ACT Government or locally elected federal politician that has a visionary view on planning and development, one of the most crucial issues for residents (voters), then please let everyone else know who that is.

Last time I asked that at a meeting — there was silence.

Something has to change.

It is time to have a new planning authority model; time for a new set of politicians.

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Part One of this seriesclick here

Part Two of this seriesclick here

Previous on the Dickson Shops –  click here. –  on the Dickson Parklands  –  click here.

and do we really need to endlessly spend money on these people who fly around the world telling planners the bleeding obvious – click here – and what difference has such advice made? – and I suspect it costs a little more than $12,000. why not sit and talk to some locals – the morning tea would cost a lot less.

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Paul Costigan

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