Dickson Parklands

Development dilemmas: part two
The future of the Dickson Parklands

Section72-DicksonThis is the second of several posts on planning and development issues effecting the local residents of Dickson in Canberra. The issues are not unique to Dickson. Residential groups around the country share similar frustrations, dilemmas and challenges in dealing with planning and development bureaucracies.

The Dickson Parkland site is a curious precinct. Locals have long wondered about the mixture of users on this site located on the edge of Dickson. The puzzle remains as to how some of these organisations manage to get hold of a lease within this highly prized community site. One wonders— who in the planning authority is defining what is a  community facility?

There’s an art gallery and artists’ studio complex (good), alongside that there is a trade union complex that has a training facility as well as some related business units (really?). Next door is a child care centre (good), and a tennis court (good)which is next door to the Northside Community centre and the local Men’s Shed (good).

At the other end there used to be a union owned social club and attached observatory (hmmm?). Mysteriously, the whole facility burnt down one evening (more hmmm?). Next to this one day there appeared an apartment hotel (WTF); its ownership remains unknown. Several years ago, over a series of weekends, a Seventh Day Evangelist church hall appeared. (hmmm)

In the middle of the Parklands site, there is a Salvation Army building (hmmm?), and alongside that there is an under-used open space (parklands) and than there is new building under construction that apparently is owned by a dance studio; but is already advertising for small businesses to move in (hmmm?).

The site has a host of significant trees and is lined on the south side with lines of fabulous trees (wonderful!!!) alongside the not the not so attractive concrete drain – The Dickson Drain (due to be replaced).

Locals view the site as being a community site. The perception is that  the government, at some point in the past, had designated this whole site to be occupied by a range of community facilities offering activities for the community. Wonderful! But what happened is a story of planning authorities quietly making changes without community being informed. This was perfect for a complex range of arts and cultural facilities for the inner north; but alas culture remains off the planning agenda for this area. (the studio buildings were the result of a long and hard-won battle about 25 years ago)

I suspect that the union training centre and their occupants, that include a local office for a large international firm of industrial lawyers, may be more than stretching the definition of community. The word is that the site is used by the union to raise funds through training union members; we suspect that the funds then go back to the corporate body that forms the union – all linked back to the local Trade Union Club— which in this case is acting as the wishful thinking property developer.



One could argue that the church is a form of community facility. But it must be noted that churches have access to special leases all over Canberra. So why is this one on this site? Likewise for the Salvation Army. They could access a special leases elsewhere.

The apartment hotel? Who knows how this was viewed as a community facility? I could comment on all the others , but I think the point is made. The local planning authority and /or whoever handles leases has an ad hoc approach in how this community site is being used. The definition of community covers about anything and is open to be used by those deemed friendly – including an international firm of lawyers.

It would be fair comment to say the local residents have not paid too much attention to this site and meanwhile the government has been redefining its use through how it let out leases to different groups and corporations. For most people, unless you were involved in a particular activity on this site, you tend to walk/drive past and not pay it much attention.

Suddenly the locals paid attention when the government proposed to take away a tree-lined corner of the parkland for use as a car park. The community reacted passionately. The bureaucracy generously allowed the trees to stay and the planned asphalted heat-island car park was shelved.

The government bureaucrats were stunned by the hostile reaction. But did that stop them attempting even more? Alas no.

This episode was quickly followed by yet another proposal to change the lease category for the whole site; officially known as Section 72 Dickson. I have previously posted quite a bit of detail on the parklands and the threat to it as a community site. click here.

The ACT Government has held several meetings with community representatives as well as two larger open workshops on the options for the future of the Dickson Parklands. The government bureaucrats have at times stated clearly that they are committed to being transparent, that no preferred options are being considered, and that they are interested in allowing the community to talk about their aspirations for the Parklands site. Surely this is all true! Surely we would always believe such openness!

The exercise has presented a new dilemma for local residents. It became very clear very soon that the community consensus is that the Parklands site should be maintained as a community site and should be enhanced to allow for more community cultural facilities; and included in this would be improved open space parklands as well as an upgrading of the Dickson Drain as a linear park to connect the nearby areas to the Dickson Shops.

It became quite clear that this community response was not the required response! The planning and development bureaucrats were not happy.



So each time the community’s aspirations for improved community cultural parklands was put forward, the discussions were quickly led back to what sort of new residential units could be built on the site. Was anyone listening to the residents?

People at the workshops were always polite and allowed the paid workshop leaders to have their questions on unit development answered. But people still made their views very clear that residential units were not their preferred options; and that the site should become an even better community cultural parklands for the present and growing number of residents in the surrounding suburbs.

The local groups are presently waiting for the outcomes of these workshops to be published. The residents are pessimistic as we know that based on past performances, that the bureaucrats will use such clichéd terms as:

The community has a range of views on the Parklands site; the community was open to talking about the options for residential development; the community can see the need for more residential units in the area and that the Parklands site could be considered to include such new development.

Of course such reporting would be inaccurate if not a very clear lie.

If local planning history is to repeat itself, then this will be followed by a Ministerial statement, prepared by the bureaucrats, ‘on how the community was consulted and that the government had listened to the diverse views and was going to allow the change of lease to allow for much-needed residential units.’

So one wonders what is the real agenda – and who is being favoured – what back room deal had been driving this change?

Given the history of so-called consultations in and around Dickson, residents are used to such outcomes coming from such ‘open and transparent’ workshops conducted by government bureaucracies. (hmmm – such cynicism!)

The big complication, which is the elephant in the corner, is that there has most likely been deals done with the local union movement over their leases on this site.

In the first instance the unions traded off their lease on the site that used to house their Downer Club (which mysteriously burnt down) for the presently publicly owned car park site in front of their club in the nearby Dickson Centre. Once developed as a union owned car park, this formerly prime publicly owned land will be certain a big money earner for the union /developer corporation.

The second part of this complication is that residents suspect that the union would love to have their lease on the training centre, right in the middle of the Parklands site, changed to allow for new multi-storey apartments. This would be a huge monetary win for the same union /developer corporation.

Given that the chief bureaucrat who oversaw the community workshops was from the housing directorate in the government, the option to have the leases changed to allow for apartments kept being brought back into the conversation no matter how many times it was rejected by residents in attendance.

Should the residents go public and say the ACT Government is hell-bent on getting back room deals done over this Dickson Parklands site despite that very loudly expressed aspirations of the residents?

The dilemma for residents is: Do you call out the government and their representatives as not being capable of listening to local residents?  Do they try to work through the issues in the hope of getting the best result possible? Or do they just give up and get on with the rest of their lives!

After all the planning and development agencies run the whole complicated processes in order that most of the major decisions get made away from the residents. As I have said in the former post, residents in reality get to tinker around the edges on development applications and any other substantial planning matters.

It takes a strong nerve to stand up to the consistent bureaucratic bullying that the ACT Government representatives have been dealing out to residents who do not fall in line with the government development and planning agencies efforts to sell off community sites such the Dickson Parklands. For community representatives to have a relationship with the planning bureaucrats, they must be come part of Team ACTPLA/or whatever agency is involved,  or else they are seen as being against development in Canberra.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Residents aspire for intelligent and aesthetically pleasing and sustainable development. It just that we do not see much of this.

Residents would love their ACT Government to be trusted on planning and development matters. Residents would love to be maturely engaged on planning and development initiatives. It does not happen that way.

Then there was the great Marsden Street Battle – which showed locals just what the planning bureaucracy thinks of residents. click here.

Interestingly the Minister in charge of the portfolio then, who fought dirty with local residents, is now the Chief Minister and in charge of urban development. How much trust is there?

Getting on with life in such circumstances will always seem like the option that will be more beneficiary for any resident’s own health and well-being!

a footnote:

At one particular meeting, the option of having new cultural facilities on the Parklands site was brought back into the conversation. The chief bureaucrat present suddenly made this very firm statement: “There will never be any new arts facilities in Dickson!!”

This was an amazing statement as it clearly indicated that a bureaucrat had overstepped his governance role and was now setting government cultural policies for the elected government. It seemed that this bureaucrat is used to completely negating the democratic process whereby such planning and subsequent decisions should be taken by the elected politicians that the people elect. But alas, we were privileged to witness first hand the manner by which a government loses touch with the aspirations of their own electors — the local residents!

So Dickson is not to have any new arts facilities!

One wonders what this bureaucrat has against the residents of Dickson?

What does the ‘Captain’ think of this call?


Part One of this series on planning and development dilemmasclick here

I had posted previously on the Dickson Shops –  click here.

I have a previous post on the Dickson Parklands  –  click here.

and just for interest – read between the lines in this story on how the local bureaucrats talk to residents – click here. I have heard several such stories over the years. The culture of the planning authority is toxic.


Paul Costigan

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