Federal departments’ city-centric blinkers a blow for Town Centres

Ian Bushnell 4 February 2021 16
Colliers search zone

The search zone as identified for new offices for the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, and the AEC. Image: Colliers.

The map above is the reason why some ACT Town Centres fear they may lapse into being just ‘dormitory’ suburbs.

The map identifies Canberra city as the search zone for where new offices for the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, and the Australian Electoral Commission could be located.

Colliers International issued a Request for Expressions of Interest to the market last November, seeking A-grade office space that may include a new build, refurbished building or an existing building.

But the site would be limited to a central location, ignoring the decentralised design of the capital and Town Centres in need of stronger jobs bases.

Gungahlin has been crying out for more commercial space in its Town Centre for years, but the overwhelming majority of new developments have been residential towers with a small amount of groundfloor retail or hospitality.

It has been promised the 300-strong Defence Housing Australia agency, announced with much fanfare in 2018, and staff are due to move in next year.

But an anchor department such as the Department of Social Services in Tuggeranong and the Australian Bureau of Statistics in Belconnen still eludes the Town Centre.

Federal departments have abandoned the Woden Town Centre where available space is being snapped up for apartments, and even the Lovett Tower is being refurbished for residential use.


READ ALSO: Plan to refurbish Woden’s Lovett Tower for 300 units


Gungahlin Community Council president Peter Elford said that for federal departments such as DESE, currently located at 50 Marcus Clarke Street, it was all about the physical location and not wanting to upset staff.

”They don’t want to cause a ruckus by moving the agency from the city and upsetting staff,” he said. ”They want to be close to the central agencies and that ends up dragging them into the circle.”

See Gungahlin Differently

Gungahlin Town Centre: community still hoping for a big government employer. Photo: Region Media.

But that turns the notion of Town Centres and employment distributed across the various districts on its head.

Mr Elford said there has been very little Federal Government investment in the Town Centres since self-government, and there did not appear to be any strategy for how the ACT’s districts will develop, other than leaving it to market forces.

”Are we still building our districts to be a mix of employment and residential, recreation and community?” he asked.

Mr Elford said incentives, including a peppercorn rent for UNSW to establish a city campus on the Reid CIT site, show government can intervene to achieve an outcome.

He said the community still holds out hope that a major agency or department will be established in Gungahlin.

”The unwritten assumption of most residents is that one day there will be a big office block with 5000 people,” he said.

But he fears the proliferation of multi-unit development in the Town Centre and progressive versions of the Precinct Code are reducing the amount of space available for commercial office development.

”How does that build a town centre?” Mr Elford said. “Can you show me a town centre anywhere in the world that has very little employment, and mostly residential, that works?”

Woden Valley Community Council president Fiona Carrick said that without jobs Town Centres become dormitories or places where people just pass through.

But planning decisions need to support employers by providing great public spaces for people to enjoy, Ms Carrick said.

Ms Carrick added that the Federal Government should be working with the ACT Government to improve residents’ quality of life by enabling the Town Centres to deliver services and be the social and economic hubs that they were intended to be.

”It is important to have employment in your Town Centre because it brings people and activity to these strategic hubs that support services and social and economic activity across Canberra,” she said.

Town Centres also provide large employers with great access to labour, and can reduce congestion by limiting the need to travel to the city centre, she said.

”The Federal Government should be working with the ACT Government to improve the quality of life of residents by enabling the Town Centres to deliver services and be the social and economic hubs that they were intended to be,” she said.

Yerrabi MLA Suzanne Orr said Canberra needed a clear commitment from the Federal Government to prioritise investment in all Town Centres, but Gungahlin had many advantages.

”Gungahlin has a lot to offer. We have a growing population keen to see our Town Centre grow, great transport links including light rail and new office accommodation that is of the highest standard,” she said.

A DESE spokesperson said the department’s office leases would expire during 2024 and 2025, and the department had specified ACT accommodation within the Canberra CBD in order to maintain proximity to Parliament and other government departments.

The REOI has closed, and the shortlisting of responses is due to be completed by 1 March.


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16 Responses to Federal departments’ city-centric blinkers a blow for Town Centres
Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 10:41 am 04 Feb 21

With a central location that should encourage more use of public transport. People should think bus, bike or walk before thinking car. Except for those living nearby, if a department is placed out in the suburbs, it's makes it harder for people to get there, especially by public transport. I also imagine many people do move between departments, so it might be great when you buy a house near where your department is is say Gungahlin, but terrible when you then charge jobs and your department is now in Tuggeranong. Or what if your department moves to another town centre? Do you move house every time? If they are in a central place like Civic, where public transport comes from may directions, it doesn't matter much if someone takes a job in another department. And if more people are using public transport, that will lead to more buses and more frequent buses/trams.

Stas Idowu Stas Idowu 7:11 am 04 Feb 21

we dont want a department here in Gungahlin. ACT Govt is enough

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 8:32 pm 03 Feb 21

We are regularly told that Canberra is no longer a public sector town (presumably because of stats which indicate that less than half the workforce is directly employed on the public payroll), and the ACT Government seems fairly keen for the National Capital Authority either to be abolished or further marginalised, and yet it’s apparently still up to the federal government to underwrite economic activity in Canberra town centres.

That doesn’t quite add up, and it raises the larger question of whether Canberra is an attractive or even viable location for employment which is not directly or indirectly funded by the federal government, and doesn’t otherwise benefit from being close to federal politicians and officials. We do have some businesses which answer yes to that question, including some which are world class, but the town centres don’t always seem to be the answer for them (and vice versa), so maybe we should be looking beyond the town centre model for sustainable non-government employment growth.

Rainer Busacker Rainer Busacker 4:53 pm 03 Feb 21

Funny, the govt can decentralise as it did many years ago when departments packed up and moved interstate. Now a bunch of shiny bums stand in the way of progress here in the ACT. Ridiculous.

Chris Vlahos Chris Vlahos 11:01 pm 02 Feb 21

Put everything in the city and you will have another sydney where everyones forced to commute to the one main location causing traffic jams, crowds and long commutes. Been there done that. The beauty of canberra was spreading jobs out amongst town centres

Nicole McGuire Nicole McGuire 9:13 pm 02 Feb 21

Most of the APS is back in the office and ditching the tech they used to work from home. I work as a scribe and remote interviews are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. All onsite again.

Vander Leal Vander Leal 7:56 pm 02 Feb 21

Urban plan: spread town centres. Civic to hold iconic buildings, museum, amenities, and the higher branches of the 3 arms of the democratic power. Pre-2000, all going well, people coming all over to see how a proper urban plan is suppose to look like.

Post-2000: "Bleh boring bush capital... we don't even have a traffic jam, this can't be a real town... we need vivid city centre... let's move everything to Civic to the point people call it CBD, then we'll traffic jams, neglect the other town centres and propose a light rail as solution on a verge of electric autonomous vehicles... But fear not... we'll charge to put new things up, then we'll charge to put the old things down, then we'll charge again so we can revitalise the ghost town centres... Brilliant!"

    Ryan Hemsley Ryan Hemsley 9:09 pm 02 Feb 21

    Vander Leal Stephen Mee The timeline is about two decades off. The real turning point was the release of the NCDC's Civic Centre Policy Plan in the early 1980s, which saw a massive growth in office development in Civic at the expense of the town centres. The advent of self-government may have continued this trend, but it did not start it.

Shayne Borger Shayne Borger 7:22 pm 02 Feb 21

Gungahlin really couldnt support the Department, the roads and infrastructure is not amenable to it.

    Vander Leal Vander Leal 7:48 pm 02 Feb 21

    Shayne Borger but it is to make a rail to get all the people back and forth to Civic? Sorry, doesn't add up. Local offices would mean people staying and coming to Gungahlin rather than ALL leaving in the morning and ALL coming back in the afternoon.

    Garrie Irons Garrie Irons 8:15 pm 02 Feb 21

    The light rail would be a much btter investment if as many people were travelling on it in each direction, each morning/afternoon.

    Not all in one direction in the morning, and all in the opposite direction in the afternoon.

Roderick Saunders Roderick Saunders 7:00 pm 02 Feb 21

Arguing about how to slice up the APS accommodation cake is ignoring the bigger trend that most office work doesn't have to be done in the office any more.

steveu steveu 6:32 pm 02 Feb 21

ACT interests have absolutely nothing to do with the decision.

This is driven at federal level, bu commercial property investors, who have themselves invested in the government of the day.

Rauny Worm Rauny Worm 6:28 pm 02 Feb 21

It is a worry.

What has the Tuggeranong Community Council got to say to this?

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