Canberra Urbanity – Fast Track Developments

Opinion: Proposals on fast track development precincts
Introducing democracy into ACT planning and development

crowd-P1020498Feathers have been quietly ruffled locally as the ACT Government (local government for Canberra) has announced it is to introduce a new proposal that would see identified precincts developed using a fast-track development process. This change to planning has been reported on in the Canberra Times and should be read before reading my comments that follow below – click here

What follows was edited down as  a ‘letter to the editor’ on this subject.

I consider that the special development precincts could be supported with a caveat, or two or three. The most important issue is that if they are to be adopted by the government, then these fast-track development proposals need to be based on comprehensive and transparent community engagement. (click here for explanation of community engagement)

If such community engagement is included, then the new processes have the potential to deliver a much-improved system of planning and development than the present convoluted and irrelevant ACTPLA processes.

This new fast-track process means that the elected Assembly members become directly responsible. That’s the wonderful nature of democracy.

In the past, residents have contacted local assembly representatives and locally elected federal members about troubles with local planning and development. The response to such requests for assistance has universally been that planning is overseen by the independent ACT planning and Development Authority (ACTPLA) and that politicians do not get involved. This has always left local residents wondering just why then do we bother to elect political representatives if they cannot influence something as important to residents as planning and development in their own suburbs.

On the subject of special precincts, this was the subject of a request by the Dickson Residents Group several years ago. They considered that the whole Dickson shopping precinct as well as the nearby suburbs needed to be considered as one special precinct and that a far more comprehensive master plan was needed to be put together for this purpose.

The then ACTPLA chief as well as the politicians all responded with the same condescending spin, that all areas were subject to the territory plan and that there was no need for specific precinct planning. And now we have the ACT Government introducing this concept for its own specified areas of special interest.

The major concern is that while this fast-track process is to be introduced for special areas (and that’s a good thing), unfortunately the precincts most precious to residents, their suburbs, remain subject to the whims of a non-elected faceless ACTPLA  (and that’s a very bad thing).

Residents do not get to have any say in the appointment of these people, yet they are given the ultimate authority to make development decisions about our places of living.

What the introduction of the fast-track process demonstrates is that the ACTPLA experiment has passed its use-by date. ACTPLA should be abolished.

A new form of a Development and Planning Commission should be established to work directly with and for the people who live in Canberra. The key strategy for this new commission would be to come to planning and development proposals through realistic and honest community partnerships.

This may seem far too democratic to the ACTPLA overlords, but such a process of inclusion of local residents would allow for a return to democracy in decisions about the future development of the whole of the city.

Subsequent recommendations would need to be signed off jointly by the community and the commission members before being presented to the elected Assembly for final considerations. One would expect that having gone through the processes of engagement with the community and other interested bodies, that in most cases the recommendations would be agreed to by the Assembly.

A little more democracy in planning could go a long way to saving all the present anxieties that residents find that have to go through in questioning any developments.

Eventually the Development and Planning Commission model would save decisions being taken through the costly ACT Appeals Tribunal processes. This would be an enormous saving to the government. Just part of those previously allocated tribunal resources could be instead allocated to the up front engagement with the community.

Obviously such community engagement should not be allowed to become overly time-consuming. The processes need to be established in such a way to allow equal recognition of everyone’s interests and that reasonable and realistic time constraints are adopted for community engagement. If proposals are not agreed, then such proposals do not proceed and may have to be rethought before being considered again.

Background information needs to freely available and accessible in a form so that all participants can get their heads around the issues. This matter is very important. At present the infamous ACTPLA information process is that it does indeed release information but in such a complex form that only the best skilled planners would have any chance of making their way through it. And this only if they had abundant time and resources. Having ACTPLA release information in this form acts as a form of censorship and a huge barrier as the information required by residents remains obscured behind  layers of bureaucratic jargon.

So in short I suggest that local residents have been taken by surprise but fairly quiet on these new ‘fast-track’ proposals as any new planning and development processes could not be worse than the present undemocratic processes as presently in place through the ACTPLA processes.

Some heritage and planning groups may be concerned about the loss of consultations, but I consider their issues could be addressed and appropriate processes put in place as part of the proposed ACT Development and Planning Commission.


Concerning the proposed revitalized Northbourne Ave, rather than simply worrying about the preservation of the trees now along Northbourne Ave, the emphasis needs to be about ensuring that more than the present number of trees are planted as part of an innovative and well-designed boulevard into the city. Click here for previous comments on this.


And yes, there is a history of experience in dealing with the ACTPLA – the best example being the Great Marsden Street Battle. This huge cost and use of resources, both residents and government, could have been avoided if the Authority knew about community engagement. We tried hard to engage peacefully with the Authority and the developer, but were knocked back and told the only way was through the complex process of the appeals tribunal.

The residents eventually won but at huge personal cost to those involved. The story is online – click here. There are so many stories like this that could be brought together to prove that the ACTPLA and its negative culture needs to go and to be replaced with something such as the ACT Development and Planning Commission.


Paul Costigan, 7 April 2014

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