Greenslabor hopes that no-one noticed the deregulation of planning

With the formal consultations now closed on the ACT government’s planning reforms, many in Canberra’s community groups would be wondering about the motivations of the planning bureaucracy.

As draft documentation was drip fed to the community during 2022, it became clear that a game was being played out at the expense of the residents who cherished the city.

Yet despite the government’s disingenuous double talk, residents still involved themselves in the debates as they hoped that a new planning regime could be designed to deliver a city prepared for the complexities of the 21st century climate issues.

Based on those 2022 experiences, residents’ groups have concluded that they and the government had set out to achieve totally different outcomes. While residents had responded on the basis that debates could lead to better planning and more intelligent development, the chief minister’s agenda had little to do with community engagement and respect for the city, its residents and the environment. It had very little to do with planning.

The new proposed system will be based on the deregulation of what is left of the planning system – being the mess made by the chief planner through consistently introducing variations to overcome the difficulties the former rules posed for developers.

If the new system is allowed through by the ACT Greens, decisions by developers will be based on their interpretation of vague guidelines and references to preferred outcomes. In most cases this will not involve regulations as residents would have experienced in the past and had hoped would be improved – not weakened.

In the last decade the planning authority made development decisions often with little regard to their own rules. This was the basis for the occasional successful appeals by concerned residents. These successes annoyed the chief planner and his cohort as they were working with the developers to make things easier.

The proposed new system will be their solution to having to consider their own rules. If the Greenslabor allow the new legislation to slide through, this city will have a deregulated development process that will operate mostly on the whim of the chief planner. Those decisions will be very subjective.

The basis for any challenge through the established appeals tribunal would be almost impossible. They will also not be able to be challenged by the legislative assembly. (So why bother with elections!)

This has been the agenda of one politician, Andrew Barr, who has been a previous planning minister, an urban development minister and now chief minister and still the real planning minister. He has an almost religious ideological belief the development should not be rules based but instead should have always been a deregulated market driven approach.

For Barr, development is about investment and developers doing what they think is best for the city and less about the aspirations of residents for their families, homes, suburbs and the city.

Thanks to his obedient chief planner, this chief planning minister is about to achieve his ultimate legacy. He is responding to those pesky residents who go on about concept of the Bush Capital or the City in the Landscape.

As has already happened, new suburbs are heat islands waiting to deliver very uncomfortable environments with many not able to be retrofitted for climate change. Under Barr’s new non-rules approach, residents in established suburbs will soon share in the pleasure of living in heat islands.

And a special thanks must go out to the ACT Greens. Thanks to their duplicity of occasionally talking about biodiversity and climate change while looking the other way as the chief minister’s agenda was rolled out, the new de-greening planning reform policies will most likely be implemented.

This progress towards deregulation has happened in plain sight throughout 2022 and into 2023. If the ACT Greens roll over on this one as they have done on many difficult and important issues, the city will need to have a bonfire party to welcome in Andrew Barr’s dream of Canberra becoming even more a tower crammed deregulated heat island compact city.

That bonfire will be the destruction of evidenced based policies and research papers on good design, great landscapes, 21st urban design, green infrastructure, biodiversity and good housing policies and much more. All such policy documents will be deemed redundant by the chief minister’s and the chief planner’s planning reforms.

That is, unless politicians such as Jo Clay and the ACT Greens wish to prove they have a real-world commitment to humanity and the environment while having respect for residents. If so, they need to say NO – enough is enough!

The chief planner’s proposals for reform need to be dropped. Those simplistic and vague deregulated development guides will be destructive for everything sane people believe in. Real professionals need to be engaged to involve residents in bringing about 21st century climate-based planning reforms


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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