Seeking a Planning Minister for Canberra

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Canberra residents have the perception, or at least the aspiration, that the elected ACT politician appointed to be the planning minister will oversee the future planning and development of the city on behalf of the residents.

In a recent article the former chief minister, Jon Stanhope, listed one of his disappointments as not being able to deal with land planning (and affordable housing). His planning minister was Andrew Barr.

Moving back even further in Canberra’s history, Prime Minister Bob Menzies became very frustrated in the 1950s by the bureaucracies that had charge of the future of this city. There were two main departments and between them they were continually passing the buck back and forth and as a result not much was happening.

Menzies’ solution was to replace their roles in the planning and development of Canberra with the one body — being the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC). Over time the NCDC proved somewhat successful although it did leave the city with urban and infrastructure problems still being addressed today.

Since self-government in 1988, there have been continuous changes to the city’s planning and development bureaucratic structures. As a result Canberra now has not one, not two, but five separate agencies dealing with overlapping aspects of planning and development.

They are: the National Capital Authority (NCA), the ACT Planning and Land Authority (ACTPLA), the Environment and Planning Directorate, the Land Development Authority (LDA) and the Economic Development Directorate.

Actually that could be six, as the Community Services Directorate has recently been very active in talking up developments.

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This bureaucratic web goes largely unchecked constructing rules, partial rules, and stacks of obtuse planning processes. The result is a convoluted planning and development system that is dense and incomprehensible to all, including the bureaucrats who administer this maze.

The planning and development agencies, all five of them, have now developed a strong culture of believing their own messages. This has become very evident of late whereby they go public with statements to indicate that they do listen to residents, but in the end they make their planning and development decisions for the ‘longer term benefit of Canberra’.

Who knows how they define this ‘longer term benefit’. The common perception is that their ‘longer term benefit’ has little to do with health and welfare, little to do with aesthetics, almost nothing to do with climate change or other pleasantries such as neighbourhood character and enhancing the public amenity.

One wonders just whose ‘longer term good’ it must be about — any guesses?

Meanwhile out in the suburbs the questionable and inappropriate developments roll on endlessly.

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No resident, as an individual or group, could possibly deal successfully with this confusion of agencies and the mountain of rules, partial rules and those rules that can be bent when the bureaucracy decides to do so to suit someone else.

Meanwhile, believe it or not, in amongst the quagmire of bureaucracies there still exists someone with the title of ACT Planning Minister.

Like all the ACT ministers, the planning minister is loaded down with multiple portfolios. The current planning minister has portfolio responsibilities for planning, community services, ageing, children and young people, workplace safety and industrial relations.

This means that even if they were inclined to act as a real planning minister, there is little time to deliver on planning in an intelligent and knowledgeable manner. And besides — the bureaucrats would stop such a thing happening!

On top of that work load, is the reality that the ACT planning minister has direct control of just one of the five agencies with a role in planning and development. Most of the recent questionable planning and associated developments have been delivered by agencies, such as the LDA, that are not under his control.

The ACTPLA is supposed to be an independent authority — meaning they make up loads of rules to complicate people’s lives and the minister has very little say about what it does.

The NCA is an irrelevant remnant of the Commonwealth’s reign (pre 1988) that continues to complicate matters under the guise of national significance.

On top of this maze, there is also the Chief Minister, being also the Minister for Urban Development, who makes his own announcements on planning and development, most of which end up irritating residents. He has a team that pumps out propaganda that reinforces the view that the politicians and their bureaucrats exist in another reality — almost as if they are continually attending the mad hatters tea-party.

With so much planning and development being conducted by people and agencies not within the planning minister’s control, the reality is that the ACT Planning Minister is a planning minister by name only.

Maybe it is time for the Menzies solution to be re-applied. This whole mess of bureaucracies need to be reduced to one Commission for Canberra that is respectful of the aspirations of residents, and is focused on people, addresses local and national perspectives, promotes good design in buildings and landscape, delivers sensible and relevant developments, and ensures that developments enhance people’s health and well-being, the environment, aesthetics, and neighbourhood character and provides opportunities for cultural development.

Someone (not another dreaded committee) needs to be appointed to clear up Canberra’s mess of agencies. Planning and development across Canberra should be under the direct control of one planning and urban development agency with just the one minister. Is that possible — or would the bureaucrats stop such a thing happening?

There’s just over twelve months to the elections, so there’s still plenty of time to get such significant changes moving.

Over to you ACT Government. Give it a go!

also published on RiotACT

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Paul Costigan

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