Canberra Planning and Development: Marsden Street Battle Copy

Do Unto Others

A Paper by Paul Costigan,

Marsden Street Battle
on the residents’ battle with their chief planner over a proposed redevelopment

originally written in early January 2012, this version slightly updated and amended

Views expressed are those of the author; sometimes they are factual and sometimes they are opinions. All presented both to inform other residents and hopefully to influence someone in our ACT Government (The local government for the Australian Capital Territory – being mainly made up of Canberra) to bring about some well overdue intelligent changes. There must be a better to way do the business of planning, design and development in Canberra!

 In the last couple of years (2010-2011) the residents of Dickson became mobilised to question some of the planning and development that was being proposed for their precinct, being the local shopping and commercial centre and the surrounding suburbs.

The following saga focuses mainly on the development application for a multi-unit development in an area of Dickson that has no such developments.  This part of Dickson had been previously classified as an area not suitable or appropriate for the level of intensification proposed by the developer with no interest in the suburb (than profit obviously) and approved by the local planning authority which is viewed by locals as being an agency that has lost the plot completely.

This document has been compiled while awaiting the outcomes to the appeal to this particular questionable (being polite here) suburban development application. The tribunal’s decision was unknown at the time of writing. This story is being told as a criticism of the ACT planning processes and the enormous stress and troubles it puts it residents through. It is about very complex process forced upon residents. This story needs to be told no matter which way the tribunal decides.

The ACT Government brought about a significant bureaucratic change to the structure of its government departments in mid 2011. One major change was that the ACT Planning and Land Authority was merged into a larger Directorate. This provided hope for citizens that a change of culture to Canberra’s design, planning and development was about to take place.  Unfortunately the experiences as outlined in the saga that follows points to it being very much business as usual with the planning authority that overseas a regime that challenges its citizens being interested in living at peace with their cherished suburban surroundings.  There must be a better way of doing the business of planning, design and development.

The following is a personal account of events. As much as possible I have tried to stay factual. But it has been a very stressful time for local residents. So I have allowed some emotions and reactions to be reflected in some of my opinions. That’s life!

Why have I written this? To provide a record of these events – although a personal view.

Despite my cynical tone I wish to remain optimistic. I wish to assist in the processes of bringing about change to see civility, humanity, intelligence and respect return to all aspects of the design, planning and development of this city.

Thanks, Paul Costigan, 16 January 2012

An Introduction

For the last fifteen years I have been blessed to have lived in a very desirable suburb, the inner North Canberra suburb of Dickson. It is a well settled and diverse community that enjoys a reasonably high level of amenity. The suburb is going through a quiet change with new families taking over houses built in the 1960s and in many cases the new residents have modernised the street scape while largely enhancing the local amenity.

The visioning that drives the design, planning and development of our cities, suburbs and rural areas must change dramatically if we are collectively to deal with the issues related to climate change, sustainability and populations.  At home in Dickson in the last couple of years I became engaged with my local community in voicing opinions that the local planning authority was definitely not delivering resilient, engaging and healthy urban, regional and rural environments, designed in balance with natural and cultural systems.

I do not think it possible to have witnessed in a western democracy such a loss of faith by a local community in its own government agency that had been handed so much authority and responsibility to do well for its citizens. There’s been no press campaign at work here. The loss of faith in the planning authority can only be blamed on the work of the authority over the last decade or more in how it has dealt with various communities within Canberra.

Any reading of material published by the planning authority in the past indicates that those who had been in the leadership roles within this bureaucracy were at least superficially very much informed of current issues and were very capable of engaging in national debates on contemporary topics of urban design and such.

Unfortunately, based on the actual experiences of local communities, there exists now a complete mismatch between the planning authority’s expressed ideals and visions  and the reality of the manner with which it goes about its daily business of not delivery a livable city with enhanced green infrastructure assets. To many Canberra residents, Canberra is fast becoming a city that will not be fun to live in!

There is still much to be admired about Canberra, but most of that has been because of decisions and visions from the past. Somewhere in the last decade or so we have lost our way. The future of Canberra as a model for planning and design is rapidly fading; or being ploughed under.

With all the current issues around climate change and sustainability and population one would imagine that any development would be required to enhance the green infrastructure of the city for future generations. But alas, except for some ad hoc positive examples, citizens have come to the view that city and suburban development as approved in recent years through the local planning authority erodes the amenity and the green infrastructure assets as provided for by previous wise heads.

Nationally I am engaged in debates about national directions. However the ideals and visions being expressed nationally through the institute I represented were very much being challenged locally, right here in my own suburb. It is a privilege to be given the task of national advocacy and national policy development. But what is the point of doing this in isolation to what is actually happening to people in the street outside my own front door.

So my national work now informs my local advocacy. As a result eighteen months ago I stepped forward to join with others to question what the planning authority has been doing – or in some cases, what it has not been doing.


Points up front to be considered by all taxpayers.

Any residents contemplating opposing a development application need to understand that for some reason, if it goes to the Appeals Tribunal, then the Planning Authority and the developers become joint parties in opposition to the residents. So your tax dollars are used to assist the developers in the case against you, the taxpayer and resident.

And linked to this, to make such an appeal is an enormous commitment in time and possibly money. Your taxes are at work here. Not for you but against you. The development industry fully understands this. No matter how bad the original submission, they allow in the budgeting for the possibility of dealing with opposition by residents knowing that the government assists the developer’s cause as the Planning Authority needs to defend its decision to allow the developments to go ahead, no matter what evidence is presented to show how bad a decision has been made.

Significantly on the day of an appeal, the residents will have to face two legal teams, one each for the Planning Authority and the developer, who then work together to deal with (assault) the residents.


Thoughts for the professions engaged with planning, design and development of urban environments.

The ACT Government needs to urgently review all development processes and to insist on professionalism. That is, planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers and other like professionals involved with planning and development should be required to have current forms of professional registration.

All planning and development proposals should be signed off by a suite of professionally registered professionals: planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers etc.


A few initial points for anyone with an influence on the Planning Authority.

The current ACT Planning processes disadvantage its own citizens. There must be a better way of running the planning, design and development of this city, being Canberra, the Capital of Australia, the ‘bush capital’, that had the reputation as being a planned city.

Canberra’s core amenities are being eroded through a lack of intelligence and care being applied to planning, design and development. Planning and development of the city should be to benefit the citizens. It is not an easy process. But citizens expect far better than they have been receiving of late.

the great Marsden Street saga
a bureaucratic epic in many parts

What started out as an occasionally reported residential protest over a multi-unit development proposal, recently moved through some final stages of farcical proportions.

As with any Development Application (DA) in Canberra the process revolves around the actions, or lack of actions, by those entrusted through the local government and therefore through elections by the residents, to an agency known as ACTPLA, the ACT Planning and Land Authority.

The great Marsden Street Saga really gathered speed in mid 2010 when local residents started to take action to question the scope of this proposal and at the same time were confronted with the advanced planning to redevelop the local shopping and business centres. The major concern being that this core redevelopment proposal was being done in isolation to the surrounding suburbs. The residents had a simple request. Integrate the planning to ensure there was a holistic approach to the design, planning and development of the whole neighbourhood, being residential and commercial.

Some still see that the planning for the Dickson commercial and shopping centre and the raft of development proposals being thrown at the surrounding suburb as being two quite separate issues. I disagree. The commercial centre is part of the infrastructure, both green and grey, of the whole precinct. All the planning, design and development of the centre and its surrounding suburbs are linked.

The link to the Marsden Street Saga was that the same agency, ACTPLA, had surprised the local residents with a rezoning that introduced into the neighbourhood a significant change to housing. One major outcome of this has been the realisation of how much the zoning system has been badly designed and then implemented by the planning authority. A few people with ACTPLA or whoever is involved, need to taken and out and given the boot! This zoning system is so bad that it must  have designed by the same infamous committee that set out to design a horse and ended up with a camel. In this case I consider the outcome only just pretends to be a camel. It is really that bad!

Side story: the zoning in question is referred to as RZ2. Residential Zone 2. This is something I knew little about up to about eighteen months ago. The area in question within this part of Dickson that has been zoned is in fact a stretch of property that cuts right into this area of the suburb. When I questioned how this happened, I was told it was a technical change undertaken by ACTPLA. All the residents in the immediate area were surprised about the change. They had invested in their house and property on the basis that it was a home that suited their lifestyle and maybe would be handed to future generations to enjoy and probably modernise some time in the future. It came as a shock to find that a group of bureaucrats under the leadership of a Chief who had ultimate power to make intelligent decisions for the good of the citizens of Canberra, had applied a concept with potential devastating results to the very citizens he was empowered to care for. Apparently this RZ2 is a zone that is meant to be close to main commercial centres such as the Dickson shops. In this case the tip of these long stretches of properties just make it into this designated area so the complete long fingers of properties were rezoned. If the bureaucrats had been doing their jobs honestly and had left their office and just looked at the potential results and engaged with the locals, they would have quickly seen how bad a decision this was. But badly managed bureaucracies do not work intelligently and so we have this travesty of administration here in Dickson and across the Canberra communities.

At this point it must be emphasised that the residents group was not opposing change. They are very informed on current debates around the intensification of inner suburbs. However as with recent research through Melbourne University, they have found themselves in an oppositional position based on the lack of real engagement by the planning regime and by the absence of quality of design in most development proposals. There was also a lack of respect for the residents in how they were treated throughout the whole process.

The issues being worked through here in North Canberra are similar to those being faced by communities across the country. Too many planning authorities, in particularly the ACTPLA, have developed a culture of treating the residents as the enemy. From a resident’s point of view, the planning authorities are seen as being too close to the development industry and the majority of developers are ‘fly in fly out’ builders and money men who have no commitment to the greater neighbourhood. However as the story unfolded the residents did meet an exception or two. But such thinking and locally committed developers are not numerous.

The style of developer in question is the type that appears on doorsteps with all sorts of dubious stories as to why they wish to buy (sick parents, children to be near schools etc), they manage to gather double blocks of land, and then push through DAs with little care for finer details.

The initial proposal was to replace two houses with 12 units.

This area of Dickson is not over developed. Most houses are single dwellings. There has been a slow redevelopment underway with houses slowly being upgraded and modernised.  A small number have been developed into dual occupancy residences. But all of these fit well into the suburb. There are also a few double story extensions. But again these fit in well.

This new proposal presented something quite out of character. 12 units where there were two dwellings. The blocks are large and locals agree that maybe 5 well designed townhouses could have been sited on the joined blocks to form a quiet mews townhouse type setting.

Marsden Street residents became aware of the lodgement of the DA around July 2010.

What followed was a coming together of the neighbourhood and the subsequent submission of 120 responses. At about the same time the Dickson Shopping and Commercial Centre draft plan was announced. The two issues came together with a couple of public meetings with one attended by the then Planning Minister who invited along the ACTPLA Chief Executive.

This was an infamous meeting whereby a group of Young Labor party members were encouraged to attend to back up the Minister’s statements that the new developments were to see in more young people and that some of the older residents would have to move on to make room. There were also one or two other plants in the audience who right on cue would express support the Minister’s views. The presence of these supporters allowed the Minister to report later that there were mixed views within the residents. Whereas within the real residents group there was the general agreement that the styles of infill was not appropriate and that the Dickson Commercial Planning was fundamentally flawed.

About the suburb of Dickson: Dickson was first developed as a suburb of Canberra in the early 1960s.  Before that, an airfield occupied the land where the library now stands and sheep paddocks covered the area.. Dickson was named after Sir James Dickson, advocate of Australian Federation and one of the founders of the Australian Constitution. There is no specific theme for street names. In the 2006 ABS Census, Dickson had an estimated resident population of 2,048 persons living in a total of 865 private dwellings.  27.5% of occupied private dwellings were fully owned, 20.8% were being purchased and 43.9% were rented.  28% of rented dwellings were public housing.  15% of the population were aged 65 years and over.  The median age was 34. (taken from he Dickson Residents Web Site)

The major messages for the residents were that the Government left the style of development to market forces and that the planning for the Dickson Shops was largely a done deal.  For the residents it was an unpleasant meeting as the Minister and the ACTPLA Chief were very much in lecturing mode and not open to discussing any of the concerns of the residents. Any notion of engagement with the local community was not evident as being on their agenda for this meeting.

During this period, being the latter part of 2010, there was a variety activities, such as special meetings, attacks on the community representatives, and lots of comment and opinions expressed through various media. There was also the reporting in the Canberra Times of objections from the Planning Minister’s own household (he’s a Dickson resident) about the DA for the house next to his. Apparently the submission was flagged by ACTPLA for special attention.

Linked into all of this noise from Dickson, the residents were being contacted and meeting with other community groups and sharing stories of their frustrations with trying to get any form of transparency and plain common sense out of the ACTPLA processes of dealing with developments in their suburbs. There were an enormous amount of stories told of how badly all the communities felt about their treatment by ACTPLA. In some meeting residents were in tears as they told of how their lives had been changed by having to deal with ACTPLA. The common theme was that residents wished to be engaged and were seeking good design and intelligent solutions to the intensification of their suburbs. But this was not happening.

What was and continues to happen in Dickson in relation to these nasty development applications, has been happening for a decade or two now across inner Canberra and continues to be played out across many of the other older suburbs. Lives are being disrupted all over Canberra thanks to a long series of bad planning decisions.

All of this resulted in a high level of public awareness of the complex issues around these North Canberra proposals.

The residents were desperate to seek positive outcomes. And even today after all that has been thrown at us, we still wish for this!

While various approaches were made to discuss the value of taking a holistic view to planning, to adopting a precinct and integrated approach to the planning and development of the whole area around and including the Dickson commercial centre, generally most requests (but not all) were politely met. In fact, to be blunt, the then Minster and his Planning Chief made it quite clear that such precinct planning could not and would not happen. It was not the way planning happened anywhere else apparently. Of course all the evidence points to the contrary, but this was a Minister being badly advised.

They said that if precinct planning were to be applied to the Dickson area, then it would have to apply to other precincts across Canberra. In response to such a silly statement – we had to say: What a shame that would be!

Unfortunately nothing really changed in the approaches being undertaken by the ACT Government. Curiously any politicians that were approached usually said that they could not ‘interfere’ in planning matters. One started to wonder why we had these elected representatives.

While being aware and open to discussions about the intensification of their suburbs, the residents were forced by the reaction of government into an oppositional set of actions.

Just before Christmas of 2010, the developer’s new DA for Marsden Street surfaced with limited notice by ACTPLA despite their knowledge of the amount of opposition. Given that so many residents were in fact away over the Christmas New Year period, it was not hard for the residents to sense that the timing of this new announcement was on purpose and that ACTPLA was very complicit in the processes being undertaken.

The new DA was a slight amendment to the first. It proposed ten units but still did not meet some basic ACTPLA requirements and was still out of character with this area of Dickson. It also took away much of green infrastructure potential of the two sites and replaced them with a sea of hard concrete, driveways and paving. The landscape planning was a joke. No professional landscape planning was required. No professionally registered landscape architect was required to supply or sign off on a real landscape plan.

It must emphasised that this DA, in its various versions was always about reducing the landscape and the bio diversity potential for the sites concerned. While the Government has made lots of policy announcements on climate change and sustainability, this DA was about none of this. The proposal sets out to fill the site with as much hard stuff as possible, provide the absolute minimum of amenity (much of it below the minimum requirements) and simply to jam in as many units as physically possible.

Despite the timing, residents worked in groups to circulate emails, to phone around and to letterbox those that had asked to be informed to ensure that as many as possible became aware and took up opportunities to respond to the (slightly amended) new DA proposals.

There followed some more lobbying and I even had a meeting with the developer in question. All unsuccessful. Nothing changed.

About this time the ACT Government announced changes to the ACT Bureaucracy that would see a change in status for ACTPLA. The agency was to be placed within one of the new Directorates, with a new Chief to oversee the whole Directorate including ACTPLA. Ultimately this saw the departure of the ACTPLA Chief Executive.

This change offered new hope to the residents that there could be a breath of fresh air in the planning. However evidence very soon emerged that while change was in the air, all things remained the same and previous DA practices were to continue, no matter how dubious!

Meanwhile a local resident, an experienced planner formed a team to commence the detailed research on the Marsden Street DA. The amount of research and documentation that she and others now undertook has to be recorded as being just bloody amazing!

The ACT Government announced about his time, (June 2011), that it wished to introduce some variations to the Zoning system. There were many and varied reactions to the proposed changes as residents, who had welcomed the idea of change, found the proposals did not adequately address some of the issues but also seem to open up possibilities for a new set of problems.

The Marsden Street DA would not have been effected by these changes unless of course the developer failed to submit a new and final proposal in time, being late June 2011.

It was reported that even though he was late in submitting his next DA, the new proposal was progressed and was ultimately approved.

This series of episodes were researched by a local historian who used documents obtained through Freedom of Information. His research came to the view that ACTPLA does not take residents’ concerns seriously. Residents were not exactly surprised by this view.

Thorough research on this approval threw up a host of questions about ACTPLA’ processes most of which found their way into the submission by the residents to the ACT Civil & Administrative Appeals Tribunal (ACAT) about the DA.

Other efforts were undertaken to see if changes to the decision on the DA could be entered into given that the ACT Government was flagging changes to the processes and that so much evidence against the proposal could already be identified. But alas, the ACTPLA insisted that the adversarial processes were to run their full complex and costly course.

So alas, however reluctantly, an appeal was lodged with ACAT in late September.

This was done very reluctantly by all the residents concerned. The ACT Government was offering no other choices.

To the residents their elected representatives and their bureaucrats refused to change things and to avoid this costly and hurtful and mean-spirited adversarial approach to the planning of our city and its suburbs.

Meanwhile, it must be stated again, the amount of time and energy that was put into the research around this DA continued to be beyond belief.

So let me say again – there must be a better way to treat the citizens!

But alas the first big strategic mistake by the residents was about to be made.

The first step in the ACAT process is to insist on a mediation session between the main players. This mediation took place in early October 2011. Apparently we are not supposed to report what happened. The result are supposed to be confidential except to say that mediation failed. And I must say that he whole management of the session was just plain weird.

Thinking we were doing the right thing, as part of the mediation the residents produced an overwhelming case with lots of evidence that proved what was wrong with the DA as lodged. The ACTPLA representatives did initially state that they were satisfied that the proposal met the criteria and rules etc. But when taken through the evidence as presented, they seemed to cave in and then looked to the developer to offer a way forward. They had nothing to offer and hence the mediation came to an end.

The residents saw this as a positive outcome and work intensified in preparation in making final submissions to ACAT that was to hear the appeal in the week before Christmas.

The residents were preparing to ague the case about why the approved DA should be disallowed. Lots more research. Neighbourhood collections to pay for special reports. Frustrations with attempting to get information from ACTPLA. An enormous effort! Loads and loads of paper.

About two weeks out from the appeal hearing the residents learnt that the developer had lodged a new set of plans. There was no way that any government agency could assess these new plans in time for the hearing. Let alone was it feasible and realistic to expect the residents to carry out the required detailed assessment in their own volunteer time. But all efforts were made to come up with a response that in itself still showed that the DA did not meet all the ACTPLA’s essential rules and criteria.

So here was the big mistake that others must learn from.

The residents had approached the former mediation session with an enormous amount of new evidence to prove that the proposal should not have been allowed. And they proved their case. We wondered at the time why the developers were so cool about losing this session.

It was simple really. With all the research undertaken by the residents, the developers were able to work out which adjustments they could apply to bring the proposal closer to meeting ACTPLA’s requirements. And to make it more difficult for the residents, they produce these new plans so close to the hearing date that no-one would have the time to thoroughly dispute them. And again they made sure everything was as late as possible as they were provided with extensions in making their final submission for the Tribunal hearing.

Given that they were late in submitting to the Tribunal, it follows that their submission should be have been rejected. Not so.

Given that their new plans were an admission that the ACTPLA should not have approved the former ones, and that the developer had in fact been in error with their former submission, then this final submission should have become the evidence for disallowing the whole DA. Apparently not so.

This meant that the residents went to the mediation and revealed most of our evidence. In hindsight I suggest the residents should have simply presented their desired outcome – which in this case should have that the development should be a maximum of five townhouses on the joined blocks. We should not have produced the evidence to back up why we thought the former DA was flawed. We should have kept that back for the presentations to the Tribunal.

Instead the forced mediation allowed the developer to take the evidence as produced and paid for by the residents and to ‘modify’ their next set of plans accordingly. Apparently they were very aware that this modification process could continue right up to the last days of the hearing. Some modifications were even being made during the hearing.

So the warning for all residents is that your hard work in producing evidence will be taken away and used in advance of any hearing and during the hearing itself by both the ACTPLA and the developer to the disadvantage those who did the real work, the residents.

And then in the week before Christmas, off we all went to ACAT. Bah humbug!

So there we were as volunteers being forced to deal with the seventh version of this Development Application. This last version had been produced in the last weeks before the ACAT hearing.

Already the ACTPLA had approved several versions of the DA only to have each found to be outside their own criteria. And now this latest version simply moved a few things around in response to the evidence produced by the residents.

Does it not follow that this final version was in fact evidence that ACTPLA’s approval process on this DA was flawed and that the development specifications should have been deemed as not meeting the criteria? Apparently not so.

Given the questionable nature of the first submission and the subsequent many amendments, it is astonishing to think about the amount of resources that were consumed by the whole process.

On the days of the ACAT hearing there would have been about 24 people in the room every day – for about four days. ACTPLA had three on their team: A planner and two legal types. Most of the time three of the developers were there along with two legals. The residents had a team of two plus their own local barrister. Most of the time, there would have been about six to eight residents as observers with about 16 in total attending at some time during the hearings. There were about four other witnesses called. And there were the three tribunal members.

A word or two to describe how things were conducted by the two teams representing ACTPLA and the developers.  Adversarial, at times very rude and most of the time quite unpleasant.

I assure all that the Barrister representing the residents is very polite in the way he goes about his business. He still gets the answers required but keeps it civil at all times.

The best way to describe the behaviour of the other legal teams is to paraphrase the words of one of the residents as she left the tribunal rooms – she said, ‘Now I know that there is a career path for all those playground bullies! They become lawyers!.

The question just kept on being asked by residents in attendance. Is this what taxpayers think is the best way to use resources? The developer puts in a crummy DA and then we all have to spend 18 months and a huge amount of time and money and other resources in dealing with it. Then on the day of the appeal the residents are confronted with a legal assault by ACTPLA!

The residents were ready for a civil argument. We were not really ready to witness the developer’s case being argued through all sorts of spin by ACTPLA, the same agency that actually establishes the criteria. But now was prepared to pull out all stops to point out the loopholes in their own development processes.

On ACTPLA’s Rules and Criteria:  There is no way that any normal person could ever get their heads around the manner in which ACTPLA has written and manages their own Rules and Criteria. Apparently some rules are mandatory. Except when they are not. Then you should look to which criteria may apply. Or seek out which ones overrule particular rules and other criteria. And then it depends on ACTPLA’s own translation of what it meant by the various Rules and Criteria as these have so many loop holes that allow for any number of variations and translations. Then there are the long list of things that the Rules and Criteria do not cover!

So may I suggest that ACTPLA use this quote to explain its actions:

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know. ”          US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfield, February 2002.


What follows are a few of the issues that surfaced  – there are many many more.

The DAs being lodged by the developer were often late. The DA in its many forms should not have been approved. ACTPLA, as a public sector body, must attend to the needs to of residents as well as the developers, Instead, as witnessed throughout this whole case, the ACTPLA was seen to support the developer although the DA was constantly shown to be flawed. And finally, instead of looking to the needs of its residents, the ACTPLA and the developer hire barristers who work together to legally assault the residents who seek were seeking justice and a fair hearing.

The development was lodged under the name of an architecture firm, yet the person lodging seems not to be a Registered Architect, as would be required under the ACT Government’s own Architects Act.

The residents had evidence that before he bought the property there was a tree order placed on one of the trees as being a Significant tree. This tree was removed after the property was bought. This removal was ruled to be not relevant to the DA application. Was this a lesson on how to ignore Significant Tree decisions made by the same department that now oversee the ACTPLA?

The developer admitted to not having looked at the Territory Plan recently.

The Traffic Consultant produced by the developer was something! It is actually hard to explain the points he made as often he made no sense to the residents who were listening to this nonsense. It became obvious that while he had a history in Canberra that went back to a previous decade or two, he had no current knowledge about Dickson and in particular about Marsden Street. He used to work in Canberra but is now in Sydney. He was vague at best about traffic movements through Dickson and demonstrated that he had no knowledge of the current increases in traffic through the suburb.

Much of his main evidence was seen as inaccurate by locals who have witnessed the changes that he obviously knew nothing about. He used the name of the local school that had not been used for at least 15 years given that the former Catholic School had moved out and the site sold to another Christian School.

When he came to justify the extremely tight turning circles that were being allowed for with the inner driveways under the proposed DA, his evidence was just so much spin that it was hard not to laugh. There were a few too many chuckles from residents at this stage!

Then there was the developer’s friendly town planner. Wait for this!

Apparently as there is so much public space and public amenity in and around Dickson, that it could be argued that the residents of these proposed developments will not require the same amount of private open space for each of their units as is required under the legislation.

He also stated that these new units will be a great improvements on the present ex-government house presently occupying the blocks.

This comment on the replacement of the ex-government house needs to be addressed along with a tone that was expressed occasionally by several about how the development would suit renters. For the record, the comment on the house being ex-government illustrated a bias as well as a lack of knowledge. Large parts of Dickson were developed in the 1960’s by AV Jennings. These houses are part of that private development. Dickson has a high standard of living and there is a high level of rentals. Rental should not be equated with a lesser standard of accommodation.

The developer’s town planner offered a range of views of how these new units fitted well into the suburb given other make-overs to some houses. It seemed to him that this unit development somehow fitted in with other successful architectural solutions around the suburb. I suggest that this planner should stick to planning and stay away from commenting on design issues about which he obviously knew little.

The reality is that there may be a few new houses, two storey renovations and new quality designed houses in the area as a result of a low number of knockdowns. The town planner focused on these. Straws of evidence. But the reality is that most of the housing stock has a design conformity even after some renovations and in some cases a two storey conversion or two.

The same person offered a spin on the fact that because several houses in the area were now double story, that this insertion of ten units in place of two houses would be a natural fit. This despite that there are no such developments in the immediate area.

The jump in logic that this proposed multi-unit complex would somehow fit into this mainly privately owned single dwelling garden suburb,  was just beyond belief!  Again, I have to question the thinking of this town planner.

When the town planner was asked why he did not offer any comment on the impact the development would have on the immediate neighbours, he answers became vague.

Maybe he had it mind that the former Planning Minister (as reported in the Canberra times) had raised issues about immediate impacts on his house by a double story development next door? The plans for the new house were changed.

His comments about how the immediate neighbours would be effected were at best patronising. He eventually made the comment that in fact there will be an impact – but that will be OK.

The reality is that this development continues to be viewed by the local residents as having an enormous impact and evidence has been produced to demonstrate this. But as the historian who research the manner in which ACTPLA treats the submissions, the huge volume of submissions and the well research arguments were not taken seriously. They were noted in number but not responded to or reported on in detail by the planning officer handling the case.  It was noted in ACTPLA’s own records of events and meetings that ACTPLA did not provide any adequate recognition to the effort being made by the citizens most effected by such a development.

The ACTPLA produced one of its own planners as a witness. Unfortunately the planner had to admit that dealing with this late version of the DA meant that he had to spend heaps of his private time trying to make any form of assessment. Please remember at this stage that we were dealing with an unapproved plan that no one had realistic time to assess and that was in fact an admission that the former approved versions were flawed and should not have been approved. Yet the real onus was now on the residents to prove it did not meet the criteria. And to do so with just days available to do the research and calculations all over again!

Now for some nasty stuff:

The ACTPLA legal approach was to attempt a personal attack on the residents representative on the basis that she was not really qualified to present. She was painted as being a neighbourhood stirrer, she had committed the crime of sending emails and correspondence to other residents and was conflicted in her efforts to present evidence at this hearing.

The ACTPLA barrister also went through nonsensical and convoluted questioning and demanded yes or no answers which was near impossible for anyone with even an elementary knowledge of the complex technical issues being discussed.

I report this politely! The view of residents present was that it was not so polite or civilised on the day. All the residents present found the behaviour of the barristers representing both the developers and in particular the one representing the ACTPLA as being quite out of character (being polite again!) for a tribunal set up to hear a case being put by residents.

Naturally the appellants, the residents, felt that the evidence we were producing for the Tribunal’s consideration was being compromised by the behaviour of the ACTPLA barrister’s approach and his behaviour towards the resident who took up the challenge to present the evidence.

One would hope that the Tribunal members are capable of ignoring this lack of civility and a host of unwarranted assumptions about those giving evidence for the residents. But one cannot think that the ACTPLA barristers conduct themselves this way with the full blessing of ACTPLA and therefore act with the approval of the current ACT Government.

In contrast, the resident’s barrister continued to provide incisive argument without the need for any disrespect or insolence towards these from ACTPLA or the developer.

Now for some really silly stuff:

During the hearing, the ACTPLA spent excessive amounts of time arguing some curious points. Here are a few.

The ACTPLA has its own guidelines on how to measure Gross Floor Area. Yet, despite the fact that the residents were using this to guide their measurements, ACTPLA presented numerous arguments about just what is a floor. It was a case of extracting every possible single square centimetre from the result to have the final Gross Floor Area be just that tiny bit under the requirement. Be very aware, do you recognise a ‘floor’ when you see one. ACTPLA would doubt your judgement!

The barristers spent considerable time defending the developer’s proposal, that has the ACTPLA’s approval, to place the clotheslines for the units near garbage bins and in the shade. At this point again there were chuckles around the room about these two legal boys showing all the signs of not understanding how to dry clothes. Both barristers argued, with so serious faces, that ACTPLA’s regulations do not stipulate that clothes drying needs to be in the sun. Besides the clothes could be instead hung elsewhere such as in the front yard. If there was one. Which in most cases there was not.

Likewise there were extensive long dissertations on what was a fence as opposed to being a front wall. I will never look at a fence in the same light again. Wonderful material that for a Monty Python sketch.

The ACTPLA also emphasised the point made by the developer’s friendly planner that such units did not need so much private spaces as there was so much public open space in Dickson. So ACTPLA was asking the tribunal to ignore ACTPLA’s own requirements for private open spaces.

Then there was the comment that despite the narrowness of the driveways and the difficulties of getting to the back units, and that this would obviously mean that at times emergency vehicles would not be able to enter. The ACTPLA rules doe not specify that emergency vehicles need to be allowed for. Bad luck residents if an ambulance need to get to you!

Much of the spin being trundled out was laughable. And there were just too many chuckles.

However, this is serious not just for the present residents.  Someone may be living in one of these badly planned mini units in the future and will be wondering just how such a decision could have been allowed. But maybe this was about something not mentioned.

A question. Is ACTPLA overseeing the building the slums of the future here? Maybe the attitude as translated by the attitude expressed through the barristers for the ACTPLA, is that anyone who foolishly bought or lived in such (cheap) dwellings should not expect the same standards as other residents, that is owners of properties across Canberra.  Were we witnessing some double standards in development? People who rent versus those who own their own homes?

ACT planning outcomes are really a matter of chance.

Developers know this and when they submit they know that ACTPLA does not hold the line on many of its own crucial requirements (Rules or Criteria – who knows!).

In this case, the developers had submitted plans that may have contained mistakes. The developer stated during the hearing that he had not consulted territory plans lately.

The view of the residents is that the developers know that they can get away with this as ACTPLA has a history of allowing such things to go through. ACTPLA simply puts it out to the residents to discover the errors. A professional line in the sand is yet to be drawn. ACTPLA has yet to develop the necessary professional standards and rigour to deal with such DA applications.  The ACTPLA should simply be knocking back badly put together applications. If they did that, the government and the residents would avoid such adversarial situations and the whole system would be saving money.

Developers do what they do because they know they can!

Based on the Marsden Street experience, this would be the common view of the planning process. The ACTPLA does the most rudimentary check on plans for compliance. In one ACTPLA document, the ACTPLA stated that it relies on the facts, figures and calculations as supplied by the professional architect. In this case the developer used the term architecture in his firms name but he is not a professionally registered architect. After this basic check, the ACTPLA puts out the DA notices to allow the residents to prove the non-compliance, no matter how obvious. If the residents decide to challenge, they end up challenging the joint forces of ACTPLA and the developers. The resources of the ACTPLA, that is the ACT Government and tax payers resources, are combined with the resources of the development industry to assault the residents. A process of mediation and tribunals then allows the evidence produced by the residents, the appellants, to be used at each stage by the developer to adjust and resubmit any number of plans right up to and during the tribunal hearings.

The expectation should be that the ACTPLA signs off on a set of plans, that decision and those plans should be the ones that can be contested. Not so! The ACTPLA and the developers just keep shifting their goal posts with new plans, new approvals right to the end.

Meanwhile the residents have to play the game of shifting Rules and Criteria and attempt to understand the absolutely huge amount of planning documents and various levels of territory plans.

Every other resident can tell you a story of how ACTPLA gets fussing about little things when it comes to your own domestic proposals for changes. But for these developers, away they go without the levels of rigour that the local communities should have been expected to have been enforced.

There have been redevelopments in this section of Dickson, but to date they have been sympathetic to the suburb. The style of this particular redevelopment would be the first of its kind in this section of Dickson. It does not automatically follow that such redevelopments have (unfortunately) been allowed to go ahead elsewhere in some of the older suburbs of Canberra therefore should be allowed for in this section of this suburb.

Whatever is approved for this site would be used by future proposals as the benchmark for future redevelopment within this section of the suburb.

We are witnessing a marked change in the character of many of Canberra’s formerly well planned and culturally rich suburban landscapes.

The residents of Dickson would appreciate the opportunity to contribute to some positive outcomes for the present and future generations of residents.

More stuff about the ACTPLA and its processes:

  • The ACT Government needs to urgently overhaul ACTPLA and to implement whatever changes are necessary to see a change of culture in the manner in which ACTPLA deals with the local residents. New processes of communication and community engagement need urgently to be put in place within ACTPLA.
  • Development Applications should be instantly rejected if not signed off by the registered professionals, including architects, landscape architects, engineers etc.. This Marsden Street DA would not have progressed if this requirement had been in place.
  • The ACT Government needs to urgently review all development processes and to insist on professionalism. All Planners, Architects, Landscape Architects, Engineers and other like professionals involved with planning and development should be required to have current forms of professional registration. All planning and development proposals should be signed off by a suite of professionally registered professionals: Planners, Architects, Landscape Architects, Engineers etc.
  • Development proposals needs to demonstrate how the proposal will, not just maintain, but enhance the amenity of the city and the green infrastructure assets.
  • Development of the city and its suburbs needs to be underpinned by an integrated approach to planning, design and development.
  • Development should include a key a comprehensive landscape plans that will enhance the green infrastructure assets of the areas, urban, suburban or rural, being considered for development or re-development.
  • On larger planning issues, such as the Dickson Shopping Centre planning, an integrated approach is urgently required. This means adopting an integrated design approach that engages with the local business and residential communities. It also means that any decisions on the planning for the shopping centre need to be linked into a whole of precinct plan that includes forward planning for and design of the surrounding residential areas.
  • The ACAT process should be reviewed urgently. It should not have become so adversarial. It is time to rewrite the protocols for these tribunal hearings. Let there be solid argument. Let there be rigour in the evidence produced. But cut out any opportunities for personal attacks. Cut out all opportunities for spin instead of factual statements. Keep it civil and polite!

Key Drivers for the Planning, Design and Development of Canberra

Some issues that the ACT Government needs to address as core to planning, design and development of the city of Canberra:

  • Current housing challenges are inextricably linked to broader national sustainability challenges – including the impacts of climate change, environmental degradation, population growth, economic development and demographic change on urban settlement dynamics. Therefore all redevelopment proposals need to demonstrate how they integrate landscape and building design as a key mechanism for achieving more climate-responsive, socially equitable and affordable housing solutions.
  • With the redevelopment of existing suburbs there must be a renewed focus on the potential for improved landscape ‘performance’—particularly within urban ecosystems—in the context of addressing broader issues of sustainability and adapting to climate change. This commitment includes the better management of our urban landscapes in order to reveal, enhance and regenerate the value of ecosystem services across a broader range of landscape scales.
  • Decision-making processes which impact on residential development should be underpinned by a genuine respect for the value of the associated landscape and suburban context. That the landscape performance potential of our local and regional environments would always be harnessed to inspire, enable and support residential design solutions which meet the needs of developers, homeowners and the broader community without compromising natural environmental integrity.
  • There should be a commitment to ensuring that all new redevelopments within existing suburbs contribute in a positive sense to the rich tapestry of the suburbs in question, that new developments in existing suburbs are mindful of how they relate to their location and context in each suburb, and also to broader patterns of historical development and a sense of place.
  • That the redevelopment decisions for present suburbs need to be mindful of its contribution to existing residents, the character, culture and identity of the suburb and how it must add a positive value to the existing and future amenity.
  • There must be a real commitment to design excellence and innovation.
  • There should be a commitment to making connections between people, enhancing opportunities for positive social interaction, reinforcing social identity and civic pride, encouraging social inclusion and contributing towards to improved social health, prosperity, morale, goodwill, neighbourly behaviour, safety and security.
  • There remains the real need to respond to the significant challenges of providing sufficient, appropriate and affordable housing opportunities for a growing and changing population in the Canberra Region.
  • The Government needs to be more honest about their support for the provision of affordable, good quality, accessible housing that protects the health, safety and wellbeing of the public together with the health of the broader natural environment for existing and future generations.
  • All planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers and other like professionals involved with planning, design and development of this city should be required to have current forms of professional registration. This includes those working in the government who have decision-making and key advisory roles that directly affect planning and development across Canberra.
  • All planning and development proposals should be signed off by a suite of professionally registered professionals: planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers etc. A DA should be instantly rejected if not signed off by the required registered professionals and include the appropriate accompany plans, such as full landscape and sustainability plans.


It’s About Planning and Governance

Planning is the serious challenge for the 21st Century for the professionals and communities involved in urban planning and design, for residents and for local businesses

It is about engagement and about the development of integrated design solutions through planning. Enhanced management and development of Green Infrastructure networks must be prioritised within urban design decision-making as a key pathway to healthier ecosystems and to cleaner, cooler, healthier and more livable urban environments.

Stewardship of our unique Australian environment should underpin the management, master planning, design and construction of urban, regional and rural landscapes and embrace recycling, conservation, regeneration, and restoration of natural systems. Climate change adaptation and mitigation can be addressed through innovative urban design and management that recognises that healthy ecosystems provide the fundamental support system for life on earth.

We are well past the time when the complex range of planning and development issues can be left to ‘market forces’, to the past practice of government being ‘at arms length’ to planning and leaving it solely to planning & land development authorities. Communities must be engaged to own the planning and development of their own settlements.

Agencies involved in the planning, design and development of our cities, including new and infill developments, should use inclusive models of collaboration and transparent decision-making processes that promote positive engagement and consultation with communities to raise public awareness of design. The imperative is for Government decision makers to engage (rather than just consult) with communities, professionals and local businesses at the early concept stages. This level of engagement, no matter how complex and difficult, must underpin legislative and governance decisions in relation to planning and development.

Planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers and other like professionals involved with planning and development should be required to have current forms of professional registration. Planning and development proposals should be signed off by a suite of professionally registered professionals: planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers etc. This includes those professionals working in the government who have decision-making and key advisory roles that directly affect planning and development



Late January 2012: The Tribunal came down on the side of the residents. This surprised everyone including the Planning Authority who were seriously upset, especially given that they had thrown their top lawyers at this case. We estimated it must have cost the taxpayer at least $30,000 in ACTPLA’s lawyer fees plus the cost of all the ACTPLA officers’ time as well as other advisers. In total the whole exercise may have cost the taxpayer in the order of $70,000. Then add in the resident’s time, the developers’ costs and the costs of the tribunals. Would $300,00 plus be close?

Late 2012: The developer re-appeared about a year later with new plans which reduced the number of units to six. By coincidence this was the original suggestion of the residents when an initial informal mediation was suggested but rejected by the ACTPLA chief planner at the time.

Late 2013: No development has taken place and we have heard that new plans are now being developed and are to be lodged soon.


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Paul Costigan

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