Lawyers, files and money–and those responsible for this mess

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It took about three hours of argument on Friday 28th October for a decision by the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACAT) on whether certain government planning documents should be released to those making objections to the Government’s agreement to the revised Development Application (DA) for the Dickson supermarket.

Yes, it took three hours and five lawyers and who knows how much money and time to get to this point of the case. And then there were the files – all the main participants arrived with boxes and suitcases of them. What happened to the paperless office?

This was not the actual hearing – that will happen later in November.

Friday’s expensive episode was because the lawyers for the Woolies’ landlord (Charter Hall Retail) and community members who had joined the case wished to access more documents than had been supplied. To hinder their access to information, the ACT Government and the developer jointly mounted a very expensive case to have the requests (subpoenas) set aside.

All this despite the fact that amongst the ACAT eight objectives, number 2 reads “to ensure that access to the tribunal is simple and inexpensive for all people who need to deal with the tribunal.” I dare not think of the time and how many tens of thousands of dollars Friday’s small episode cost.

Then there will be the main event that had been scheduled as a nine-day hearing. It has already been realised by all concerned that it will be much longer than the nine days allocated. In fact the hearing will involve so many lawyers and experts that a much larger room will be required for the tribunal to comfortably and effectively operate – and at present none of the ACAT tribunal rooms will be big enough.

During the recent ACT elections it was stated several times just how fair the planning processes are and that if people wished to they could always take their objections to ACAT for a further hearing. You would have to be kidding! There is no way any normal or sane person should contemplate taking on this over-complicated appeals process.

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Above is a photo of the legislation documents that had to be examined for this appeal – and that’s before you face the mountains of documents (also above) that land on your desk for you to find the clues as to how the decision had been made. (Note – I am an observer–not a participant–in this case. It is not me who has been spending every spare moment going through all those files).

While there were some wins from last Friday’s hearing, a big message was that all the questionable goings-on, contracts, sales, and so-called consultations by the ACT Land Development Agency and the Economic Directorate (LDA/Directorate) have no bearing on this case.

It was made very clear that this appeal is to be about the Planning Directorate’s processes in making their decision on the developer’s (Coles etc) revised DA for the new Dickson supermarket complex.

That is, the LDA/Directorate’s processes on influencing the developer to build big and ugly are not to be subject of this appeal. So the LDA/Directorate causes the mess and yet is not brought to account for all the trouble they have caused both to local businesses and residents.

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And in case you are wondering what the residents are not happy about – first have a look at the pretty and carefully crafted Photoshopped images above that have been used to show what is being built. Then have a look at the simpler graphic below that has been put together to more accurately indicate the dimensions of this thing alongside the present buildings.

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This whole mess is now to involve many lawyers (about eight I think), mountains of files and many hours of residents’ time. There will be tens of thousands of ACT ratepayers dollars spent by the government on this case.

Surely there must be a better way for the government to initiate proposals for development that involve real engagement and actual consultations.

As with the Braddon bowling club issues in last week’s post, and many others, something must change. All such proposals need to be first based on real precinct and master planning that takes account of the people who own small businesses and the residents who have invested in their homes and their suburbs.

It used to happen that way in the ACT up until about 15 years ago when there was a real independent planning authority.

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All these inner suburbs can and will change. That’s a given. There’s heaps of changes already happening. (see above – images from the neighbourhood this week)

However the current economic driven–land sales model is destroying our city.

The big lesson to come out of all of this is that the LDA/Directorate must no longer be allowed to operate in this space. But, as with the last reshuffle under Jon Stanhope to clean up planning matters, the bureaucracy must not be allowed to simply move their chairs around the office and come up with some new logos as a pretence that all things are now much better.

Underpinning the new planning/development agency needs to be a core function – to ‘consult’. And by that I mean to consult and engage with an open mind on all the possibilities.

A point to be made. The Federal Court in 1997 made this ruling on “consult”:

“There are many examples where legislation has imposed a duty on administrative agencies and on persons holding particular offices to consult, before acting, with persons and organisations likely to be affected by decisions proposed to be taken by them. Such a duty to consult will ordinarily involve more than the decision-maker telling interested parties what it is going to do; it will usually require the decision-maker to give information to those others and an opportunity to them to respond. The duty will also require the decision-maker to consider the responses and to take them into account, to the extent it considers appropriate, in arriving at the ultimate decision.”

I suggest that at the moment the LDA/Directorate has not been ‘consulting’ and has a culture of not respecting the opinions of residents. They are seen to exist in a parallel world where spin is used to justify their behaviour.

I doubt whether any of the key personnel from the present LDA/Directorate would be seen by locals as being appropriate for any new agency. All those spin doctors should definitely not to be involved.

This presents a huge challenge for the incoming government. And I must remind The Greens that they have recently witnessed first hand the disrespect that residents receive in meetings with the LDA/Directorate. Looking at you right now newly elected member.

Let’s remain optimistic. Let us hope that once they settle down after celebrating, that the Labor/Green government will remember and act on the messages they heard often about the LDA/Directorate’s unfriendly processes for development & planning.

We shall be watching to see what miracles occur that will allow everyone to put all this nasty stuff behind us. And as for the ACAT process, that should be a very remote and rarely used last option.

I suggest that if disputes occur in the future over planning decisions, that it would be far cheaper and effective to put everyone concerned in a large room with heaps of wonderful  food and drink–no lawyers– and tell them to stay there till resolutions are agreed to. Much more economical and far less daunting.

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Special mention: I have used photos of documents and graphics from Jane Goffman’s local blog–Dicksonia Magnifica–through which she has kept locals up to date while she and others have been researching the mountains of documents for the ACAT appeal.

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