Pretending to care about the fate of mature trees

Towards the end of the Inner South Canberra Community Council’s forum last month, a question was asked about whether the chief planner could override decisions on urban trees.

Curiously, the answer was provided by the CEO of the ACT Conservation Council.

The question related to one of the themes for the night, being about the government’s new Urban Forest Bill. A senior bureaucrat had presented on the new bill and this was followed with a perspective from the ACT Conservation Council.

The bill will nominally place new restrictions on tree removal from suburban developments, including where houses are being extended. Sadly, for our planet, this bill includes offset payment in lieu of keeping the trees. I’ll let you work out how that will go!

The first half of the evening was about planning and included discussion about how little trust there is in the Planning Directorate. So, when the conservation council chief explained that it was natural for the chief planner to override decisions about trees, it was as if she had missed the discussions on the lack of trust.

It was odd that she thought she should answer that loaded question given the government bureaucrat who made the presentation was in the room.

The news is that in the future of significant and mature trees, this chief planner will decide what is best for the bureaucrats and developers. Forget making trees the priority!

This is the case with the YWCA’s proposal for assisted housing alongside Ainslie’s Bill Pye Park. When the developer, the YWCA, was sent packing by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the planning rules were changed by the planning bureaucrats so that the large trees and their shade were no longer a solar issue.
The YWCA was free to consider cramming on to the small site their desired number of units to deliver the sought-after profits. This is the Planning Directorate at work today and will be the same lot overseeing the new tree rules.
Despite many submissions asking for such practices to be stopped, greenery and trees are continually cleared for new suburbs and for redevelopments within established suburbs. The ACT government itself, through its own developer, Housing ACT, is good with bulldozing and putting back minimal greenery.
Which brings us to another charade by this ACT Labor/Greens coalition as they pretend to be serious about the fate of mature trees. Consultations have recently concluded on a draft action plan titled “Loss of Mature Native Trees Key Threatening Process”.
There are loads of so-called actions – monitoring, developing, collating, reporting, encouraging, seeking, linking and it goes on.
What was overlooked is that the ACT government is the biggest threat to mature trees, both through its enabling of more bulldozing and because of its preferred action – looking the other way. Mature trees are still coming down to “Build a Better Normal” (thanks, ACT Greens).
The mature-tree document reveals that 6.2 per cent of mature trees, that is 14,455 mature trees, have disappeared over a five-year period. Despite the urgency to deal with this crisis in biodiversity and climate change, there are no urgent “let’s stop this destruction” actions in this action plan.
Mature trees remain under threat and will go while they have meetings, cups of tea, do more monitoring and file reports. It is an action plan by name only.
There’s yet another pretence of caring for greenery. This started life in late 2019 with the introduction of the draft Variation 369.
This was mentioned often over the last two years as a wonderful government achievement to deliver 30 per cent tree canopy – later. Somewhere along the way, exceptions were included for certain suburban developments.
It gets better! Last-minute changes signed by the planning minister mean that most of the city will be excluded from these hollowed-out rules. Despite the rhetoric from the ACT’s planning and environment ministers, nothing being proposed will deliver anywhere near 30 per cent tree canopy and a meaningful diversity of green infrastructure any time soon.
The ACT Labor and Greens politicians love making announcements, touting draft strategies, publishing plans and boasting about what they are achieving. It is hard to fathom whether they are lying, dumb or simpletons being taken for a ride by their bureaucrats and developer mates – or all of the above.
Community groups remain polite and patient in dealing with the increased levels of deception by the planning bureaucrats and their obedient politicians. Let’s hope that the planet, its biodiversity and the next generations are just as patient.

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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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