Searching for Canberra’s planning authority

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The good people of Canberra, when they are in an optimistic mood, still believe there is a planning authority (ACTPLA) that consists of a learned group of experts who collectively make evidenced based and objective decisions on planning and development.

Sadly this is not the reality.

About ten years ago major changes were introduced to the way planning and development happens and since then two significant bureaucratic structures have morphed into being.

One of these is the infamous LDA/directorate. This two-headed monster is the major player in defining planning and development outcomes across Canberra. Residents have been forced to engage in time and resource heavy activities to deal with the many layers of smoke and mirror games that the LDA/Directorate has perfected. As for their communications efforts, they are fantastic examples of urban-babble.

But what of the planning authority (ACTPLA) in all this?

I ventured onto the planning website to glean the current makeup of ACTPLA. The ‘authority’ seems to be vested not in any actual body of people but in one person, the Chief Planner, who doubles as the chief of the planning directorate. This one person serves both the elected government as bureaucratic chief and simultaneously is the now almost invisible entity called the authority – ACTPLA.

ACTPLA is a case study in illusion and deception. It is worthy of a comedy sketch. Local decisions on planning and development are made by a body that is not really there except in the minds of the politicians who need it to be seen to exist – even though it is a virtual thingy – so as to avoid their responsibilities for the mess being made across the urban areas of Canberra.

Add to this the waves of urban-babble used to confuse residents who dare to question how the government can justify their ongoing terrible ad hoc decisions. For instance the residents of Red Hill raised all manner of logical concerns about a LDA/Directorate plot to change the zoning and have a developer to plonk some super-sized complex (with few green spaces) into the middle of Red Hill. This battle continues.

The Minister’s response (click here) is a wonderful example of urban-babble written by his bureaucratic planners that could be summed up in a few words – Nope, Nope, Nope and please do not bother me again!

And by the way – the new housing proposal would reduce the number of affordable/government housing in the area. So yet again any wafer-thin government policy on affordability is being overridden by the myopic agenda of the LDA/Directorate.

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There’s no doubt that future students of urban development will have some fantastic fun forensically fossicking through the history of Canberra to identify how the city’s previous much-loved and envied urban character was messed up by this ACT Government.

The case studies will have common themes. For instance, this ACT Government consistently goes out of its way to provoke the residents rather than working with them on changes to the urban fabric. The peaceful lives of residents are consistently being challenged through a process of ‘urban renewal’ that lacks meaningful, transparent and honest community engagement.

The ACTPLA will be a mystery to future students as they uncover how faceless bureaucrats were allowed to take the place of decision makers that are normally in place within local government and whom the general public can access. Here in Canberra, these bureaucrats are hidden from view. There is no listing on the website on who forms ACTPLA. Are they really a group of mischievous goblins in the dungeons of the ACTPLA buildings? Now there’s an image to ponder!

Another common theme will be bureaucratic walls of legislative confusion and zoning regimes that are constantly reconfigured to hinder access and applied to favour anyone but those who reside in established suburbs. It is common that the bureaucracy applies variations in order to override any objections that are based on the correct use of the codes and/or legislation.

Future studies will show how over the last decade this government has diminished rather than enhanced the urban character of Canberra’s more established suburbs.

It was not always as bad. For instance back in 2004, the former planning authority was interested in the urban character of the inner suburbs. They produced documents to guide planning and development – here’s the one for Red Hill.

Unfortunately for the residents, after all the consultations behind those urban-character documents, the documents were not linked to legislation and have been buried by subsequent ACTPLA chiefs. The intent of the whole urban-character identification exercises has largely been trashed by most of the subsequent LDA/Directorate land sales and development proposals.

As for addressing any substantial environmental or climate change issues through planning and development directives – all that happens at best is green-wash.

So back to the original question – do I think there is a planning and development authority (ACTPLA)?

Not really – at best it is now a faint shimmer that is visible only to the ACT Minister for Planning. Lucky him!

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