An unapologetic National Capital Authority has defended the secrecy around its land swap deal with the ACT that delivered the North Curtin Horse Paddock, but it is holding out the promise of the community being able to access the proposed diplomatic precinct.
NCA CEO Sally Barnes told ABC Canberra this morning that the national interest came first and the Commonwealth had an obligation to provide land for countries pressing to develop new embassies.
”This was a negotiation between governments and sometimes that’s the way it has to go when you’re looking at that big picture,” she said.
”To be quite fair, to go out and ask people about this when it’s definitely our intent [to acquire the land] is disingenuous consultation.”
She said North Curtin was the best option and that other sites in Deakin and O’Malley were not suitable for diplomatic residences.
The advantages of a separate precinct included better security and avoiding the friction experienced when missions had been established in the suburbs.
Foreign governments also wanted their missions to be established in prestigious areas.
”We’ve looked at this from the bigger picture. What the nation needs, and there will be lots of consultation and lots of talk with local residents around how this space can be landscaped, maintain some of those values, some of those natural features the community likes, and make sure that if there are areas people want to walk through we can factor that into the design,” Ms Barnes said.
The ACT Equestrian Association, residents and nature lovers are furious at how the land swap involving West Basin on Lake Burley Griffin was negotiated and announced. They say the NCA did not want the plans to be made public in case it jeopardised the outcome.
They are angry that an important green space, recreational area and wildlife corridor is going to be developed.
The NCA has been seeking land to satisfy the demand for missions for many years and approached the ACT Government about three years ago about the prime North Curtin site.
It appears the NCA was able to use the ACT’s West Basin redevelopment plans as a bargaining chip in the negotiations. Last June Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the Territory was being held to ransom on the issue.
At that stage neither party would reveal which site the NCA had settled on, but according to Commonwealth legislation the NCA holds the upper hand when it comes to land in the Territory.
The Australian Capital Territory (Planning and Land Management) Act 1988 states that ”the Minister may, by notice published in the Commonwealth Gazette declare specified areas of land in the Territory to be National Land”.
In effect, once the Commonwealth decided on the land it wanted, the ACT had to come to the party, although in 2013 the NCA was forced to dump plans for a much smaller estate at Yarralumla on its own land after an outcry from residents which prompted a parliamentary inquiry into the management of diplomatic estates in the ACT.
At that time the NCA said it would still need more land beyond its Yarralumla proposal to meet the growing demand.
The ACT Government said in a statement that the Commonwealth Government sought to simultaneously resolve the West Basin land matter through this process.
Ms Barnes said the outcome was mutually beneficial.
“It seemed to both governments that these were two things that would both be good from a national perspective and a city perspective to progress and this was the time to do it,” she said.
”Everyone realised that we’re an international city, that we have these international obligations and that it would diminish the city’s standing worldwide if we couldn’t meet those obligations.”
The deal was clinched towards the end of 2020 and announced by Federal Government press release in March, giving the Commonwealth a 25-year supply of land for embassies.
The NCA had originally wanted the entire site but the ACT was able to retain the eastern portion which was earmarked in the Light Rail Stage 2 business case for possible future development.
It also negotiated a two-year deal for horse owners so they would have time to find alternative agistment, although the planning and development process was probably going to take that long anyway.
The ACT Government statement said the deal would deliver on the NCA and ACT Government’s shared vision for West Basin involving the reclamation of the lake bed for parkland and public use.
The ACT Government’s plans also include the construction of about 2000 apartments set back from the waterfront.
The government said the deal ensured it could continue to implement the long-held vision for an urban waterfront at Acton and continue developing a City to Woden Strategy.
That includes light rail, which will require Commonwealth approval and a future National Capital Plan amendment.
Consultation on an amendment to the NCP to facilitate the proposal will take place in the next few weeks, followed by the development of any estate plan.
”We’d like it to be world-leading in terms of design, bringing in the needs of the local community about how they can get through the area, how we maintain green space, what sort of species they put there, then working with embassies to see how much land they can commit to and need. It’s really up to those countries to bring forward plans to get them approved and start building,” Ms Barnes said.