The conduct of the former Land Development Agency continues to haunt the ACT Government with a new report from the Auditor-General identifying probity issues and a lack of transparency in its purchase of rural land on the western edge of Canberra.
ACT Auditor-General Dr Maxine Cooper said in her report, Assembly of rural land west of Canberra, that there had been a disconnect in the priorities of the work undertaken by the former LDA and the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate (EPSDD).
The audit also found that probity was lacking, and there were probity risks in some of the actions of the former LDA in its purchase of the properties, as well not enough documentation.
Dr Cooper said that between 2014 and 2017, the LDA spent $43 million buying 3,378 hectares of rural land, of which 3,274 hectares is in the Western Edge Study area, as a potential future urban development front, although there is no certainty of this. The land was identified in the 2012 Planning Strategy as the subject of future investigation but six years on this has not commenced.
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“Given the ownership by the ACT Government of the rural lands, planning studies that will inform the update of the ACT Planning Strategy (2012) need to be independent of existing land tenure and cover the whole of the Territory,” Dr Cooper said.
Dr Cooper said the ‘disconnect” between the LDA and the EPSDD meant either there would be delays in the identification and release of potential urban development fronts or ‘suboptimal’ use of resources in securing and maintaining properties that may not become a future urban development front.
‘In the future, the ACT Government needs to give priority to better managing the integration of the timing of planning studies and land purchases,” Dr Cooper said.
Dr Cooper found there was a lack of accountability and transparency in the engagement and management of agents’ services, and in the negotiation and decision-making leading to the purchase of the Fairvale property in the District of Stromlo.
“Basic procurement and contract management practices for the engagement of agents and advisors were also absent in some instances, with some services provided free of charge, and with inadequate management and scrutiny by the Agency, while some services were paid for without any evidence of them being requested or required. The LDA’s management of the purchase of Fairvale was irregular and presented a probity risk,” the audit found.
The audit said the long-term land use for the Western Edge Study area needed to be defined.
“It is important that the Chief Planning Executive progresses a Territory-wide, independent planning study so that there is an updated planning context for decisions regarding the long-term land use of the Western Edge Study area. If such a study is undertaken, it is important that the community is aware that the Chief Planning Executive has advised that it would be independent of existing land tenure,” it said.
The nine properties that were the subject of this audit are:
- Lands End (Blocks 1591 to 1597 District of Belconnen)
- Milapuru (Block 19 District of Stromlo)
- Fairvale (Block 518 District of Stromlo)
- Huntly (Blocks 412, 413, 426, 487, 489 District of Stromlo)
- Wintergarden (Blocks 1491, 1492, 1587 District of Belconnen)
- Winslade (Blocks 435, 439, 440, 441 456, 476 District of Stromlo)
- Pine Ridge (Block 1600 District of Belconnen)
- The Vines (Block 1582 District of Belconnen)
- Wagtail Park (12 hectares of Block 1601 District of Belconnen).
The Government has said not all of the purchases would be used for greenfield development, with the land earmarked for a range of uses including environmental offsets or environmental management outcomes such as habitat preservation or improvements, or for the provision of utility infrastructure.
The report made nine recommendations directed towards the Suburban Land Agency, which was created out of the former LDA.
The audit report can be found here.