It’s not just the planning system that’s broken, it’s time for a new Minister

Ian Bushnell 11 October 2021 21
Mick Gentleman

Lacklustre: Planning and Land Management Minister Mick Gentleman calling in the Canberra Hospital expansion. Photo: File.

If there is any single issue in the ACT that fires up the community it is planning, which is unsurprising given Canberra is the national capital and the most planned city in the nation.

It is also a city that is still growing and changing. And change can be difficult.

Land is also Canberra’s currency, and how it is released and developed and re-developed, has ramifications for government, the quality of its services and the wellbeing of its citizens.

Planning is a key area for any government. It requires a minister who is across a complex brief, pro-active and involved, with the drive to engage productively with both the bureaucracy and the community.

Sadly it appears that is not what the ACT has.

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Mick Gentleman has been Planning Minister since 2014, adding Land Management in 2016, and while it can be a thankless task when there are such diverse views, his performance has been less than inspirational, and it appears communities from Gungahlin to Molonglo have lost faith in him.

Those developing areas have been plagued by poor planning that has left community services as afterthoughts, and in Gungahlin’s case, seem to have it condemned to dormitory town status.

A common theme also appears to be cherry-picked consultation so that the community ends up getting the exact outcomes that it did not want.

The Gungahlin Town Centre refresh was largely instigated by the community, resulting in Draft Variation 364, which the Gungahlin Community Council believes should be abandoned because it fails to represent the community’s views, particularly on the amount of land that should be reserved for job-generating commercial space.

The recent Legislative Assembly committee report on DV364 calls for, among other things, the scrapping of a provision that would reduce commercial space retained from 100,000 square metres to 65,000 square metres.

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The GCC has been in a running battle with the government and the planning authority over the creep of high-density residential development in the Town Centre, worried that there will be no space left for commercial and office space.

Its frustration with the Minister culminated in a claim that Mr Gentleman had given up creating the economically vibrant Town Centre that was promised.

There has also been frustration about the slow pace of land release for community and recreational needs in Gungahlin, particularly near the Casey Group Centre.

The GCC says the government seems to be unwilling to use whatever levers it can to foster employment in the Town Centre or give the community any certainty about the facilities that are needed, such as setting specific requirements in leases so services and recreational needs are met.

The community will have to wait for yet another study before there can be any action.

Coombs shops

The empty Coombs shops is a testament to planning failure. Photo: File.

In Molonglo, Coombs is a case study in how not to plan a new suburb, with an empty shopping centre and community space that was too expensive to be used.

The government has had to intervene so the space is affordable, and has committed to build a community centre as part of the new Coombs and Wright Village. Interestingly, Mr Gentleman was not involved in either initiative.

After promising at the 2020 election to fast-track the Molonglo Group Centre, the government has delayed a land release for a further two years.

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The rub here is that it is blaming the community, saying it wanted more consultation and just one complete release instead of a piecemeal approach.

That has infuriated the Molonglo Valley Community Forum, which has been frustrated by the lack of communication from government.

And according to the latest Indicative Land Release, blocks are still going to be released in stages.

For the established areas, the issues are more about infill development, density and the fudging of planning rules, but unfortunately, the pattern of poor communication, ignoring community feeling and inertia is the same.

Where Mr Gentleman has imposed his will this year – calling in the Canberra Hospital expansion and the new Kenny High School – it appeared more like window dressing as their approval was hardly in doubt.

As stated at the beginning, planning is Canberra’s hot potato and it is impossible to please everyone, especially as the gap between older and younger Canberrans’ expectations appears to be more pronounced.

But that just means whoever is in charge needs to have the drive, commitment and communication skills to be upfront with the community and have a much more interactive, dynamic relationship with the planning directorate.

In the Assembly on Friday, Mr Gentleman left it to new MLA Marisa Paterson to head off a motion on the Molonglo Group Centre from Liberal Giulia Jones, making a paltry contribution himself that Mrs Jones roundly condemned.

Mr Gentleman seems neither comfortable, knowledgeable nor genuinely interested enough to be effective. And to some, it comes across as arrogance.

Or perhaps he has been there too long and grown accustomed to deferring to the directorate.

He seems on safer ground as Police and Emergency Service Minister, although Corrections is a tough job for anyone.

But there are too many fronts opening up around the Minister, and he has too few allies in the community.

While the alternatives are few, it is time he moved on from the role.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr already carries a heavy burden, but he would bring gravitas and intellectual capacity to the role that is missing, and he does not really have to be Climate Change Minister.

The other possibilities are the rising Chris Steel, whose Transport and City Services role would sit comfortably with Planning and Land Management, or Suburban Development Minister Yvette Berry.

Whoever is in the role will have to drive the Planning Review to its conclusion, heal rifts with the community and do something about the delays to community infrastructure that residents in Canberra’s newer areas are enduring.

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21 Responses to It’s not just the planning system that’s broken, it’s time for a new Minister
realist realist 4:49 pm 13 Oct 21

Oh No Ian, you are not suggesting Andrew Barr should take over Mike Gentleman’s job – what a disaster that would be. The Developers would have total control of Canberra and you could forget about any planning. We would end up with complete chaos and more and more “little boxes on the hillside”.

John Murphy John Murphy 10:27 am 13 Oct 21

I am very disappointed with the way Gungahlin town centre is looking the grass is out of control My wife and I have lived in Gungahlin for 4 years local business is struggling they need support the high rise buildings are springing up everywhere as for the tram my wife and I use it quite often saves parking which is quite expensive in the city.

Nora Preston Nora Preston 8:54 am 13 Oct 21

Chris Steel is also Planning Minister with Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith joining in too. They should all get kicked out of the Government. What a mess. However Gentleman could be protecting the environmental laws that Chris Steel ignores, and that’s not all that he ignores

jwinston jwinston 12:05 pm 12 Oct 21

Rehire the retired and reanimate the dead NCDC staff – that’ll fix the problems…

BA Allen BA Allen 5:50 am 12 Oct 21

Plan for retirement seeya

Grga Norman Grga Norman 8:01 pm 11 Oct 21

We need a non happy person

Gabriel Spacca Gabriel Spacca 5:15 pm 11 Oct 21

No point replacing the minister if the planning process is still borked. Fix that first.

franky22 franky22 4:44 pm 11 Oct 21

The Minister strikes me as a certified dyed in the wool plodder worthy of a Yes Minister episode.

Kevin Cox Kevin Cox 3:10 pm 11 Oct 21

It is not the minister’s fault, the developers, or the Labor Party. All political parties have forgotten the principles on which Canberra was founded. The founders built Canberra without it being a capital drain on the rest of Australia. The increase in the price of land from sheep farm to city supplied the Capital with the capital to build it. John Gorton appeared to be the first politician to break away from the mould and speed up monetising the land values and ensuring the government received the increase in land values upfront.

Unfortunately, we can’t increase the price without making the city first, and all politicians, bureaucrats, economists seem to have forgotten it. Blocks of land are sold in the furthest reaches of Canberra at a price per square meter greater than the price per square meter of land in Red-Hill.
It is not confined to Canberra. It is a worldwide failure of the financial system. The financial system is inefficient, but we have been brainwashed into believing that it allocates capital efficiently. House prices increased in Canberra by 20% last year – but the houses are the same, and the population of Australia and Canberra did not increase by 20%.

We cannot fix planning until we fix the financial system. That is relatively simple to do if we have the political will.

Jane Kim Jane Kim 2:48 pm 11 Oct 21

Great article Ian. We agree; he needs to go, along with a lot of staff in the planning area. A clean sweep might help. As a Minister he’s ineffective in this role. We think he’s lost interest; that’s certainly the impression he gives.

The Molonglo Group Centre needs to be developed NOW, not started in two years time. The sooner the Coombs shops are populated the better, too. The residents of Molonglo Valley deserve some amenities and shops.

    Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell 5:42 pm 11 Oct 21

    Jane Kim the ACT politicians are all on gravy tram of Canberra.

shannos shannos 2:38 pm 11 Oct 21

Deferring to the Directorate is an MO that means in turn deferring to developers and ignoring Planning and Environment. The Director General has been in this role for over 4 years and must share the blame along with the NCA Chief Planner. They could display their.joint approval for their planning decisions by relocating their residences to Coombs. That way they can meet up regularly at the one and only “convenience” store and congratulate themselves .

ChrisinTurner ChrisinTurner 1:16 pm 11 Oct 21

I think it all comes back to a previous Minister telling ACTPLA that their primary job was to make it easy for developers. This was a statement made by the head of ACTPLA to a citizens meeting I attended some years ago.

Brindie Brindie 1:05 pm 11 Oct 21

The Minister must go and there must be a clean sweep of the incompetent Planning Directorate. It’s interesting that this article references both Gungahlin and the Molonglo Valley (MV) as the MV is experiencing many of the issues that Gungahlin residents experienced in the early years. The only exception that is that MV has had lots of over-sized apartment buildings with insufficient parking constructed from commencement, whereas that problem came later on to Gungahlin. Improvements won’t be made unless the current Minister is sacked and the ACT hires some planning professionals that aren’t beholden to developers.

Henry Kivimaki Henry Kivimaki 12:59 pm 11 Oct 21

Idealy the LibLab monopoly needs to go. Especially the greens.

54-11 54-11 12:15 pm 11 Oct 21

The problem is that the Directorate is only as good as the Minister, and on the flipside, the Minister is only as good as the Directorate.

Unfortunately, both sides of the equation are dysfunctional.

So just changing the Minister, who is as useless as the proverbial, will not fix the problem.

Jim Mc Vicar Jim Mc Vicar 9:31 am 11 Oct 21

Need a new government

    Mal Briggs Mal Briggs 11:38 am 11 Oct 21

    Jim Mc Vicar if only there was a credible alternative.

Dhruv Jagad Dhruv Jagad 9:27 am 11 Oct 21

Same apply for Andrew Barr too

Anthony Briscoe Anthony Briscoe 8:21 am 11 Oct 21

Should not be a minister for anything he is useless

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