5 March 2024

Housing and the environment a balancing act but Steel got it right on Stromlo Reach

| Ian Bushnell
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Rebecca Vassarotti

Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti let election politics get in the way of the facts. Photos: Ian Bushnell.

The ACT Greens threw a hand grenade into the approval of a housing estate in Denman Prospect this week, saying the government was in bed with developers and claiming it was willing to sacrifice the environment on the altar of new housing.

Planning Minister Chris Steel’s use of the call-in powers to approve the Stromlo Reach estate development plan from Capital Estates Development drew criticism from the Canberra Liberals about the process, but they can hardly attack the government for expediting greenfield land development for housing when they’ve been advocating it for years.

But the Greens’ hyperbole obscured key elements of Mr Steel’s announcement.

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The first is that this proposal is hardly new. It has been the subject of planning and consultation for years, with subsequent revisions to reduce the scope of development and its environmental impacts.

It will deliver more than 800 homes, a fifth of which will be “affordable”, and a community park and other open spaces, facilities, transport links and land for a new school.

The second is that Mr Steel also announced that the government was moving to protect adjoining blocks with ecologically important bushland.

The Greens have supported the campaign to save Bluett’s Block, some of which are allegedly on the development site, but that is unclear. Some contend that none of Bluett’s Block is actually on Stromlo Ridge.

While it can be argued that development adjacent to Bluett’s Block may damage its environmental values, the developer appears to have done its best to minimise that and Mr Steel has enhanced that with a significant number of conditions.

On top of that, he has sought advice from EPSDD on protecting the adjacent land, including Bluett’s Block. That will involve talking to the leaseholders, including the Australian National University, about keeping it free of development.

Also missed in the brouhaha was Mr Steel’s announcement that Coombs Peninsula would be protected from development and likely incorporated into the Molonglo River Reserve, a significant win for the community and something both the Greens and the Liberals campaigned for during the 2020 election.

These important trade-offs support Mr Steel’s contention that the right balance was struck and the government is listening to the community.

Planning Minister Chris Steel believes he has struck the right balance.

The Molonglo Valley Community Forum agrees, welcoming the certainty the decision provides and the environmental protections, but without the delays.

The Greens also conflated Stromlo Reach with concerns about any development of the Western Edge, throwing into the already volatile mix the threat of bushfire.

For them, medium-density townhouses and apartments within the city’s current footprint should meet Canberra’s housing needs.

But that is not going to cut it. Canberra needs a mix of typologies in various locations. As it is, the infill/greenfield ratio is 70:30.

So what drove the Greens’ outrage? Apparently, they didn’t see it coming.

Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti said she was blindsided, pointing to a degree of election-year dysfunction within Cabinet and a power play from a new Planning Minister bent on doing all he can to get more housing in the pipeline.

Since taking over, Chris Steel has hit the ground running, ticking off a range of items that languished under his predecessor.

What he did not want to see was nearly 1000 homes and important infrastructure for the Molonglo Valley being held up, possibly for years.

This also comes in the context of a housing crisis and all states and territories agreeing to pull whatever levers they can to boost supply as part of the Commonwealth’s commitment to get 1.2 million homes built over the next five years.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr has already foreshadowed the bringing forward of land releases and a big boost to the community housing sector.

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The Greens’ incendiary language is pure politics in an election year.

With the ACT poll just eight months away, the political posturing and brand differentiation will only intensify, but it will come with risks.

The Greens may find their broader appeal diminishing if they persist with an approach that ignores the legitimate needs of Canberrans, obscures the facts and attempts to smear people.

Mr Steel’s considered call-in decision, which he could make because the development application was lodged under the old planning legislation, will be welcomed by the developer and those looking to make Molonglo their home.

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HiddenDragon6:50 pm 01 Mar 24

This episode is hardly a reason for celebration and congratulation – it’s yet another example of a planning bureaucracy which apparently spends a lot of time and public money going around in slow-moving circles, only to be gazumped by ministerial fiat and, in the process, illustrating the reservations expressed here about the people running the system –


This is also a reminder that the ACT ministry, even though (or perhaps because) it could fit in a mini-bus, is dysfunctional.

In theory yes. But by this logic London and New York would have the most affordable housing with the amount of new development and new housing those cities bring to the market.

ACT has many complex factors that drive affordability. History has shown us supply is a factor, but the cost of Canberra housing has usually been driven more by interest rates and growth/decline in employment levels.

The best cities and markets for housing affordability are achieved through consistent land release, effective urban planning and good housing policy. I’m not sure we’ve seen this at both the Territory and Federal level for quite sometime.

devils_advocate4:15 pm 01 Mar 24

“a power play from a new Planning Minister bent on doing all he can to get more housing in the pipeline.”

“Bent on doing all he can”

“To get more housing in the pipeline”

“More housing”

Is that supposed to be a criticism?


I’m usually the first to criticise this “government” but if this is the best she can come up with the Greens really have lost the plot

After a decade of land release inaction and failed new housing development targets, it’s good to hear we have a Planning Minister finally promising to do something (noting in an election year).

After a litany of Chris Steel stuff ups over the last few years, it’s good to see he’s now focused on everyday Canberrans.

But I wouldn’t congratulate him too early on the amount of affordable housing within the plan. The Riotact should have learnt by now that the ACT governments notionally promised amount of affordable housing or public housing is almost always wound right back down the track. Sometimes promises of 130 replacement public housing dwellings ends up delivering zero public housing. Regularly 100 affordable housing dwellings turns into just 4.

devils_advocate4:13 pm 01 Mar 24

Any and all new supply that is brought to market improves affordability.

Seems to me the call is the first decent stoush of an ugly election year. Barr is going to weaponise policy areas to reinforce his effort for majority government.

In my view, the Greens should resign portfolios and occupy the cross bench until the election.

It was the right decision to develop the land. I think the article was pretty balanced, and discussed the other compromises and tradeoffs.

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