ACTPLA fades away to a myth


I do not have a positive view of the planning regimes here in Canberra. Surprised?

Whenever I write a post about planning there are often responses that defend the planning bureaucracy plus the occasional supporter of my comments.

The real problem here is the subject of the debate – planning and development as it is administered by the ACT Government. Once upon a time, this was the ACT Planning and Land Authority – ACTPLA. It really existed!

Anyone who had the slightest interest in a planning or development would have been aware of the acronym ACTPLA. It used to be everywhere.

That was when life was sort of normal. How things change. Sometime over the last few years someone somewhere decided that we did not need a planning authority. OMG!

Yep – there is now no ACTPLA website, no such pages, no obvious use of the acronym on the ACT Government web site. It seems that it has been scrubbed out. Gone!

If this was a local council area somewhere else in Australia, locals could talk to their local planning committee and then their local councillors about planning issues. They could even attend the council meetings and watch the elected representatives discuss planning decisions. There are stories about people attending these meetings and fights breaking out. Nothing like that happens here in Canberra. Shame really.

I am not saying the local government planning system is the best system, but at least the rest of Australia knows how their system of planning is supposed to operate. Most of the time– except those times when other things happen. Remember ICAC in NSW?

Here in the ACT we used to have an authority independent of government – and therefore independent of the mischievous ways that politician have been known to intervene in planning decisions. Again not necessarily the best system – but at least we knew what it was and how it was supposed to work. Some of the time!

About ten years ago things started to fall apart when the authority, and all its powers, became vested in one person, the chief planner. Then things really warmed up. Some of the decisions by the chief planner – being ACTPLA – disagreed with the policies of the then elected government. The biggest issue was when the government wanted to break up the duopoly of the two supermarkets and introduced a policy to open up the ACT for new players to be encouraged. ACTPLA was seen by the government not to be following the policy.

War broke out. It went public. It was nasty and bitter stuff.

The government set out to solve the matter by taking the almighty step of restructuring  the whole of the government bureaucracy. This was when they invented bigger titles for the departments – now Directorates – and their chief with even bigger titles – Director-General (Generalissimo to many of their underlings). One outcome was that the planning authority was consumed back into the planning bureaucracy. (That’s a very brief version of complicated events)

Over the last five years or so – the use of the title of the Chief Planner seemed to have been slipped from view. Gone!

The authority is probably still in existence in theory through the legislation, but it seems that the Generalissimo of the Planning Directorate and the planning bureaucrats are completely subservient to the Minister of Planning. No more public fights please.

That may sound like a better model in a democracy where the minister takes all the responsibility for planning and development – and there is no longer in separation of the authority – but…

If anyone manages to catch sight of a planning minister and ask about planning matters, they will most likely be referred to the professionals of the planning authority – which not longer exists. This is the excuse used by the Minister in his letter to residents last year.

Meanwhile, as anyone who contacts the planning officials will quickly discover, the planning bureaucracy has maintained a distance as if they were still required to have that special independence. That is, the current planning bureau under the guidance of the anointed generalissimos maintain a vast murky billabong between themselves and any pesky residents.

But wait there’s more. Meanwhile we have moved to another parallel universe whereby another opaque planning and development system, the LDA/Directorate, also does planning & masterplanning with this linked into their main priority which is to sell land – being any land it can gets its hands on.

And ever now and then the National Capital Authority (NCA) intervenes because parts of Canberra are still under its jurisdiction.


What a mess.

While the ACT Government does everything it can to pretend that we have an open and transparent planning and development regime – we certainly do not.

People have no clear and transparent way of accessing how the decisions are made and no way of getting to lobby directly whoever it is that makes those decisions. I suggest others do know the secret codes for access – but most residents definitely do not. No wonder residents have difficulty trying to work out who and how and when decisions about their suburbs are being made.

The ACT’s planning authority has become a non-existent entity. Has it become like a Bunyip?  We are told it is out there in the billabong – but no one has seen it.

The management planning and development in Canberra remains a serious accountability issue. Who decides and who is influencing how things are done? Who knows?

It would be really really nice to have one transparent and people friendly planning system re-established before too much more damage is done to our urban environments – including to our green spaces and urban forests.


Footnote: Once upon a time the building in Dickson was all about ACTPLA – its logo was on all the signs outside. All these ACTPLA signs have disappeared. But there is one left – it is on the entrance to their car park building. Maybe that is where ACTPLA now hides.

Originally published on RiotACT

2 thoughts on “ACTPLA fades away to a myth

  1. Anne, you are spot-on: I remember all that too. I think that most Canberrans don’t realise how badly served they are by the current planning process because they don’t know anything else. We desperately need a thorough review of the ACT’s planning processes, informed by examples of best practice from elsewhere.

  2. My experience of planning matters in the ACT stretches even further back to the dept. known as Planning and Land Management (PALM). In the “good old days”, prior to ACTPLA, PALM staff actually recognised the value of genuine community consultation. There were green discussion papers followed by white papers; there were community elected committees called Local Area Planning Advisory Committees (LAPACs), funded and supported through PALM; there was a Commissioner for Land and Planning ( COMLAP) whose office was positioned between PALM and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

    All this changed in 2002 when new legislation was introduced by the Minister for Planning, Simon Corbell. Subsequently, ACTPLA was established, COMLAP was abolished, and, the Land Development Agency was established.

    Within weeks, the ACT Chief Minister, John Stanhope, tabled an exposure draft of the Heritage Bill 2002. The stand alone legislation which followed has proven to be been an abject failure, as more and more of the original layout and built fabric of this city is lost.

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