ACT Labor may be spruiking their green credentials after wedging the Opposition in the Assembly last week over housing affordability and the Liberals’ thought bubbles about opening new development fronts west of the Murrumbidgee in Tuggeranong and in Kowen Forest in the north, but it also needs to look at keeping its own house in order.
Planning and Land Management Minister Mick Gentleman was quick to put out a release on how Labor would save the grasslands and forest from the voracious Liberals who have argued that the government’s infill obsession and brake on land supply is pricing families out of the housing market and corralling them into apartments.
It’s a pitch that has appeal in an environment where Canberra’s already high house prices keep rising but the Libs have been coy about how much land they would release and how much they would like to see prices come down.
They’ve been looking longingly over the Murrumbidgee for years and don’t want to rule out Kowen, which is why the Liberals didn’t support a Labor motion to protect the two areas from development, only saying that they will protect land that is ecologically significant.
Mr Gentleman, who conveniently is also Minister for the Environment and Heritage, said: “We remain committed to a responsible land release program that protects our local forests, grasslands and reserves and avoids costly congestion and urban sprawl.”
Maybe he should have taken a closer interest in that bit of urban sprawl that is the developing suburb of Jacka in Gungahlin, before the Suburban Land Agency devised its master plan and submitted a development application for the next stage.
Jacka, named after the World War II Victoria Cross recipient, is about to be a planning battlefield that will achieve Canberra’s development trifecta – European heritage, Aboriginal sites and biodiversity threats.
The rural leaseholder of heritage-listed Elm Grove, Paul Carmody, who won a previous heritage battle over the property, is challenging the SLA’s plans, which he argues, put medium density housing on his doorstep. The stoush is likely to end up in the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
This will be no surprise to the SLA, with which Mr Carmody has been engaging for some time.
At stake, says Mr Carmody, is box gum woodland of the kind the government, including its Greens minister Shane Rattenbury, has made much of protecting, the heritage values of the Elm Grove Precinct and the viability of the working property.
This will play out according to process, and with a DA lodged, Chief Minister Andrew Barr may not be so keen to air his views as readily as he did on the appropriateness of Geocon’s Kingston tower proposal.
But the Jacka situation serves again as a lesson on how developers, this time the government, continue to push the envelope, ignore the evidence, this time from the government’s own agencies, and put in motion a costly process for all parties that could have and should have been nipped in the bud.
Mr Carmody is right to say a more whole-of-government approach should be employed, with agencies working with each other and better utilising the data and research already on record.
Whether his case stands up remains to be seen, but it seems an all too familiar path that developers take and for all sakes, it’s time it stopped.
Canberrans want cheaper houses, but they also want heritage values, both European and Aboriginal, respected, as well as the environment protected.
This tension isn’t about to abate but before Labor starts accusing the Liberals of wanting to bulldoze the bush, it should be ensuring that what happens on the ground reflects its high-sounding policies and principles.