Governance reform required urgently for Canberra’s urban future

In the last twelve months, many in community councils have had to spend too much time reading through fairly dense planning reform documents.

They have devoted weeks trying to figure out what is going on, attending meetings and responding to calls for submissions – most of which disappear into the chief planner’s basket for things that he finds unpleasant to read.

When planning reform was first talked about, people asked that the discussions include the governance of the system. The answer from the chief planner was a big fat NO.

Last year planning reform documentation was drip fed to the community with short timeframes attached for responses. What was quickly obvious was that key decisions on the new planning (development) system had already been made behind closed doors. Residents were asked to comment but nothing would change. This non-accountable way of doing business is the norm within the planning directorate.

No matter whatever the current pretence at planning reform delivers, there remains the urgent need for a comprehensive shake-up of the governance around planning and development. The major problem with planning under this government is that the planning chief is also the head of the planning directorate and key functions are buried within this complex and hierarchical directorate.

The current planning directorate lacks climate focus, lacks relevance to the 21st century, lacks a design and landscape focus and is devoid of empathy for the city’s residents.

The focus of the current planning reform is about shifting to a system that reflects the chief minister’s naive interpretation of old school trickle-down economics.

This older-world approach to market driven development is what the current federal treasurer listed as being a failure. That outmoded and failed approach to the future does not take account of basic values that underpin what we hope would be the basis for this country.

If the changes as now proposed are accepted, the operations of the ACT’s planning directorate will be based on this failed set of regressive market driven requirements as set out by the ACT’s not so progressive chief minister.

When community leaders asked to discuss governance, they knew that what is required is a restructuring of the planning directorate and the establishment of a new planning authority.

Unless there are substantial changes to how this bureaucracy operates and what functions they are to perform, then planning reform will not deliver real change that is climate and people focussed and relevant to the 21st century.

There needs to be new and separate urban development directorate led by a visionary with a reputation for delivering on design, landscape, climate, biodiversity and people focussed values.

Planning should be subset of this new directorate with equal footing with heritage, climate, water, urban design, landscape, architecture, engineering and a few more. This directorate should oversee the development of and implementation of the full suite of policies for urban development, design, landscape, biodiversity and planning (and a few more).

The ACT’s planning authority should be overseen by an independent body of planning specialists and community representatives. I have serious doubts about how such bodies can be truly independent while there is also the need that such a planning authority should subservient to all government policies. There must be better models. This needs to be discussed a lot more.

One thing is for certain based the recent experiences, the ACT’s planning authority should not be one bloke, the planning chief, with total autocratic power to do whatever he wishes with the permission of the chief minister. A new leadership style is required for the city’s planning future.

As with the best of local government planning committees, the authority should allow for presentations by relevant parties on more contentious and complex development proposals. The underlying principle of decision making by the planning authority must be to be transparent and when appropriate, open to the public to view how decisions are made on important development applications.

The governance trick would be to have the planning authority responsive to the government’s urban development policies as overseen by the new urban development directorate.

The planning authority must be accountable to the elected government of the day. The governance for that to be successful is complex and needs a lot more discussions. These are the discussions and conversation that were denied by the present chief planner and the chief minister.

How is this possible?


This article is a version of the piece originally published online with City News

Paul Costigan is a commentator on cultural and urban matters

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