ACT Chief Planner – to be or not to be?

Paul Costigan 8 February 2017 6

Following a couple of pieces in the local press, one would think that the ACT Government’s planning was in turmoil because key people are on the move. I can see what the journalists are trying to portray – that these changes cause big trouble for the Chief Minister.

Seriously? I doubt it – change happens even within our “favourite” bureaucracies – and when it does the whole world usually does not come to a crashing halt. Maybe there’s a slight ripple on the pond but all the frogs soon settle down again – even in the Chief Minister’s department.

Meanwhile the same newspaper has published a profile of the outgoing head of the Planning Directorate, providing her with a forum to set out her views on planning matters in the ACT. Take a look at some of the statements in the article about Dorte Ekelund stepping down in April.


First a reminder that the head of the planning directorate carries the extra title of being the ACT Chief Planner. The planning authority (ACTPLA) as a section of government has quietly almost ceased to exist and the reality is the “authority” now resides in one person – the Chief Planner. Yes that person is an “authority” of one – lucky them!

What sent a cry of despair around resident’s groups were the brave statements that as far as the current Chief Planner is concerned all is good within the planning system. It works apparently. And there is clear evidence of how it works – according to the Chief Planner.

Dickson developments were mentioned. That would be the development now being fought out in the appeals tribunal (ACAT) for the new supermarket/apartment complex in Dickson.

The planning decisions on this proposal were slated as being a plus. This despite the half a million dollars or more being spent collectively by ACT Government (that’s our money), the developers and those opposing, being the landlord of the Woolworths building, Charter Hall. Local residents have co-joined with the opposing side and have contributed heaps (and I mean heaps!) of time to assist. But it is Charter Hall that is taking the lead on this appeal.

And this is a case of the planning system working? I suspect the planning bureaucracy must be operating in a parallel universe to the rest of us.

The reality is that the Dickson proposal was before ACAT for nine days before Christmas and as it could not be finalized, it is set to continue in March.

To all those who have studied the documents it is clear that the current development application is a re-worked and tinkered-with version of the one originally knocked back almost two years ago. And it is this version that was so easily approved.

Those who have looked closely at this reworked version have identified a mountain of problems. So off it went to the appeals tribunal.

However, the Canberra Times keeps saying that the opposition to the proposal is about residents not wanting new shops and apartments. Not so. It is about asking the ACT Government planners to do their job and apply the rules. Yes, it is true that residents see the proposed building as a monster but the real issue being disputed is that the planning rules are being ignored in far too many ways.

This is not good planning. And journalists should be asking more questions and not allowing myths to be continued namely that the planning system is all good and the problem is simply the pesky residents – who just want the Government to do its job.

And now back where I began – the departure of the head of planning along with the other personnel changes is not a negative and should be seen as a golden opportunity to bring about some real changes to the way we do planning and development here in Canberra.

What an opportunity for a thinking politician in charge of planning and development. Have we got one? That’s another question not being asked.


And as for a new Chief Planner – do we need one? And if so, what are we looking for?

I use the “we” there purposefully – as a chief planner, if they do their job well, can have a very positive influence on the city’s ambience, profile, can address climate change effectively, and can make living here a wonderful and very healthy experience. If they do not do their job – then there’s trouble and we all end up in the tribunal.

Take for instance the current goings-on concerning the bland box being proposed to dominate the very “vibrant” shopping centre of Curtin. (I have been waiting ages to use the much overused term “vibrant”).

A key role of an independent planning authority/chief planner could be to step in early with such a silly proposal and tap the developer on the shoulder and say – “not going to happen – don’t waste yours and my time! Don’t like that answer? Then sell the building and build your apartments elsewhere.

A chief planner should be just that – a chief who leads – who makes things happen rather than sitting back and devising more complicated rules and variations that no one can get their heads around.

I also strongly suggest that any “independent” chief planner should not become a friend of the property industry. They need to be seen as independent and so they need to stay away from all those very cordial industry and property events (and no hiring of helicopters).

Take for instance Northbourne Ave and all that could happen there. The chief planner should be setting a vision for this and be working hard to get people involved in visionary conversations. They should not be another Baron Haussmann – but at least they should set a vision and get loads of good stuff done!

And then there is climate change and how the chief planner should be ensuring buildings have things such as double-glazing and make use of all that glorious sun we have here in Canberra. They should be able to identify and reject all notions of “green-wash”.

And most importantly for me – a chief planner should appreciate and insist on good design in architecture and the surrounding landscape. It is about aesthetics – and more trees.

A new chief planner needs to recognise that the ACT’s zoning approach to planning is an obscure mess and that the city desperately needs a new planning process that is based on agreed neighbourhood principles, is transparent, flexible and more human and planet-friendly.

There’s so much more that any journalist should be raising about the Chief Planner and what they have done, or not done, and what a new chief could contribute to the future of this city.

In fact one key criterion for a chief planner should be that they are a good speaker – that they are people friendly and just a bloody nice person.

Do we need a chief planner? I think so – but you may disagree.

If not – should we revert to the local government model whereby all major planning proposals are discussed in an open forum?

What do you think the key functions of the ACT Chief Planner should be?

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6 Responses to ACT Chief Planner – to be or not to be?
wildturkeycanoe wildturkeycanoe 6:27 am 13 Feb 17

I think the title of “Chief Planner” is not entirely correct and should instead be called “Chief Rubber-stamper”. Does the government actually do any design work or simply tick “yes” or “no” to the developer’s ideas? If the government hired people with design backgrounds and qualified urban planners, used their skills to draw up some specific guidelines for builders to stick to, then the developers wouldn’t be coming up with monstrosities for us to complain about. Why not make a master plan for areas due for upgrades, then release that plan to the developers and tell them that anything outside the given scope would be instantly thrown in the trash? It’d save both the community and government a lot of money.

dungfungus dungfungus 9:09 am 10 Feb 17

This function should be outsourced.

chewy14 chewy14 11:27 pm 09 Feb 17

I fully agree with the article, no opposition should be countenanced, we know what is right.

Benjamin Rose Benjamin Rose 8:49 pm 09 Feb 17

A chief planner would be nice. The ACT in my opinion desperately needs something more substantial with some actual brains qualified in civic planning, suburban design etc. who aren’t just the run of the mill public servants sitting at a workstation all day.

ACT planning department should be split into two parts. One acting as a ‘think tank’ with reasonable eminent domain powers and a second sub-ordinate part handing execution and compliance with the ‘think tank’ department. Think of it as a two-part NCDC. Brains over brawn. As you suggest Paul in your example in Curtin, The brains would tell the developer to play ball or disappear with the brawn following through with the brain’s “suggestion”

Brains – Capital Development Commission (CDC)
Brawn – Capital Works Department (CWD)

A Chief Planner (I’d prefer Chief Commissioner) would oversee both bodies and would obviously be answerable to the Chief Minister and the Assembly.

Grlabttwn Grlabttwn 10:22 pm 08 Feb 17

Town Planning is profession, so a Chief Planner title is a reflection of the public/ civic nature of the position – after all it used to be an Olympic category

A thing about anyone in the chiefdom role, is that they need to have a balanced view on outcomes which can sometimes include making decisions that some in the community may object too, in order to consider wider groups of the community (such an inter-generational).

You talk about ensuring that the Planners should not have a relationship with Developers. Yet Dorte was likely one of the most impartial (almost to a removed position) and yet you are still not happy with the outcomes.

You use the Dickson shopping centre as an example, and yet, one of the objectors is a corporate that is using the system to prevent competition within an immediate catchment.

With your strong art background (to be fair you should disclose your quasi residential group political background in the articles you write), I would have thought you would acknowledge that not everyone agrees on what is good. Art is derisive, so is architecture and built form. Who would have guessed that mid century home would now have nostalgic history.

Many people within the development community including town planners, engineers, architects, urban designers spend years at University and working with our built environment.

Developers are not all evil, they are one of the key stakeholders in the very complex arena of our built environment. We should be encouraging positive development through partnerships, not shutting the door to have the discussion.

Please please consider a positive article on what you do like, rather than simply writing what you don’t. If you can envisage what you would like, and seek to progress these beyond simple clichés, maybe you could convince us of how these utopian views may be achieved. Perhaps if you are successful at communicating this vision – you could be elected and actually make this change.

Many of the evil developers, architects and planners would be more happy to have this discussion, but it often gets shut down from personal motives out shouting the debate.

I don’t know Paul – over to you.

chewy14 chewy14 11:49 am 08 Feb 17

So you’re arguing that the Dickson development is an example of the system not working?

You may be right, where else would NIMBY’s who don’t want any change that doesnt fit their own personal views and businesses trying to reduce their competition be given so much say.

But yes we do need a chief planner, simply to provide advice to government, enact their set policies and ensure the legislated rules are followed.

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