The ACT planning chief has failed the residents of Canberra

When the ACT chief planner was appointed in April 2017, he explained his theoretical approach to planning. In April 2019 I used those statements to set out ten performance indicators and then scored how he was doing.

The chief planner’s performance indicators included references to – citizen focus; quality public spaces; environmental management; building trust; being genuine with key groups; involving more Canberrans earlier; engaging with residents; that residents know the area better than anyone; not lambasting those speaking up; no surprises; people to be involved earlier to make planning easier.

He failed with a score of 19 out of 100. People said my assessment was too generous. I now agree that they were correct. After the directorate’s 2022 disingenuous consultations on the planning reforms, the only score possible today is zero.

Those performance indicators could be a theoretical list for a chief planner who genuinely wants to work with residents. By contrast, under the leadership of the ACT’s chief planner, the lack of respect for residents has increased and voices are ignored. Government ministers often denigrate those that speak up.

Government politicians have spruiked that the chief planner’s reforms will magically fix almost every planning and development issues raised by residents. There is little in his documents that will deliver improvements to biodiversity, liveability, green infrastructure, good design, great landscapes and increase affordable housing.

There is nothing that demonstrates that the chief planner is citizen focussed – unless you are a developer wishing to deliver more town cramming.

The reform documents were drip fed to residents during 2022. They contained nasty surprises. They remain incomplete. The real intentions are now clear. It is about the devastation of this city’s cherished suburbs in the name of compact city cramming as envisioned by the chief minister.

These reforms are not about respect for residents or the recognition of aspirations residents have for their homes, their families, their streets, their suburbs or their city. The proposals are a leap backwards from delivering good urban design and city planning.

Residents have made hundreds of submissions about planning and development. That time-consuming volunteer work was ignored. The planning directorate is seen as having increased its disrespect of the voices of residents. This chief planner has failed on trust, on engagement and on how to take seriously what people have said in their submissions.

The slow, disjointed and uncoordinated release of stuff complete with shocking surprises, confirmed people’s mistrust of the planning directorate and the chief minister. Having failed the residents of this city, the planning chief’s only remaining defence would be that he has followed the orders of the chief minister.

Others before him have tried that line but have since packed their bags. The chief minister remains in his job.

Given that this directorate has made a complete mess of planning, it is weird that the same cohort was tasked to improve the planning processes. This same bureaucracy continues to this day with the inappropriate use of variations and consistently approves stuff outside their own rules.

Surely anyone sane would not have considered that this lot could deliver an innovative 21st century planning framework. But be mindful that this charade is really the work of the chief minister, Andrew Barr.

Community groups need to re-assess their dealings with this failed government planning agency, especially as its behaviour is getting worse. This is happening with the blessing of the chief minister. Community groups need to stop doing the same thing in response to the disingenuous calls for consultations.

Those years of submissions have been a waste of precious volunteer time and energy. So why keep making the same mistake over and over again.

Community groups need to think about what they value including key climate issues such as the need to increase the biodiversity and greenery throughout new and established suburbs. Residents need to change the way they advocate for good design in architecture and landscapes as well as ensuring that all residents have a 21st century designed roof over their heads.

In these quests the current chief planner and his directorate are the major blockage. They are working against the aspirations of the residents. The planning chief’s only success has been to please the chief minister – so far. The voices of residents remain fundamentally important for this city’s future.

Something has to urgently change in how community groups go about achieving what is good for the city now and for future generations.


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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