The good and bad of Consultation

During a recent Inner South Canberra Community Council meeting, a topic mentioned by several speakers was one of the fundamental problems with the ACT planning system.

It is about how this government and its developers consult with residents.

Not too long ago, the City Renewal Authority commented that its pet project, the West Basin development, was one of the most consulted projects in the history of Canberra. This was not a view shared by most in the city’s community groups.

Community groups are approached by a constant stream of developers and government spokespeople who make presentations, then disappear. This model of consultations experienced by Canberra’s community groups is well established and despised.

This style of consultation is now accepted by the ACT Planning Directorate. It means that once developers or agencies have made their presentation about the decision already made, people are free to make comments, but “What They Say” and “What is Heard” are two different realities.

The reality is that developers then submit for approval what was originally intended. Very little would have changed in response to the so-called consultations. Looks good and boxes ticked!

This is the same planning directorate mentioned by Rebecca Vassarotti at the southside meeting when she spoke of her government’s planning review now underway. She said that the next stage was to be a genuine and meaningful consultation. Knowing how her government misuses the term “consultations” and whatever they do is a façade of genuine engagement with residents, how reassuring was that?

There was a long-winded presentation by the Suburban Land Agency on the progress of the Kingston Arts Precinct. That would be the major development announced more than 10 years ago. In early November came the headline that Geocon was no longer to be involved and the Suburban Land Agency would be the lead agency.

The expectation on the night was that the agency would have something to say about progress since then.

Unfortunately (for the audience) most of the presentation was a verbose ramble through how the agency works, how they consult (that word again) and information about other wonderful things they have done. Was this their version of consultation?

That bureaucratic agency presentation contrasted with an earlier part of the meeting that delivered heaps of information. Individual resident’s groups are given top priority within these southside meetings for them to exchange updates on what is happening in the suburbs.

This is one of the real strengths of community councils that has underpinned their operations. There is so much happening in the suburbs of the inner south. This wealth of interaction and information is rarely included in how the ACT’s planning directorate consults with residents.

The more impressive presentation on the night was provided about the Dairy Road development (next to Fyshwick) by Alice Buck, the Molonglo Groups’ senior development manager. Alice talked about things that you rarely hear from other developers, the ACT’s politicians or their planning directorate bureaucrats.

She mentioned how they value the concept of landscape, that this residential development was not about just about yield (profits) but was very much about place, about amenities and about how the buildings would fit into the landscape.

There was nothing of the usual “we need to build towers as high as possible – and nothing about when those bland boxes are finished, we squeeze a few token plants between them and call that a park”.

The Molonglo Group’s presentation sounded as though they were designing this residential development for humans, to provide real places outside to be enjoyed and for the whole site to sit well besides the nearby Jerrabomberra Wetlands.

There was a consistent message that they were serious about people being engaged in providing expertise and concepts and that so many good ideas had already been incorporated thanks to these engagements.

Will they deliver? We wait to see what they offer with the next stages of the development application.

This style of engagement is a breath of fresh air and a huge contrast to the realities of the practices of the ACT government’s planning directorate and their other developer agencies such as the City Renewal Authority.

Will the just-announced planning reforms be based around a new style of being transparent, about design and having a human-based approach to planning and development?

Again – we wait.

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

Paul Costigan is an independent commentator and consultant on the visual arts, photography, urban design, environmental issues and everyday matters.

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