8 June 2020

Libs go out on limb with trees pledge but policy green shoots are promising

| Ian Bushnell
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Alistair Coe and Mark Parton

Canberra Liberals’ leader Alistair Coe, right, with colleague Mark Parton at the million trees announcement. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

It was a welcome relief to see the Canberra Liberals make a policy announcement instead of complaining about the Barr Government’s refusal to speed up the winding back of COVID-19 restrictions to keep pace with NSW.

It has been somewhat mystifying to see Opposition Leader Alistair Coe doggedly pressing the point for ever-diminishing returns. We would all like things to return to normal, including Chief Minister Andrew Barr, who bears the burden of responsibility, on advice from the Chief Health Officer, for deciding when social distancing can be relaxed further.

Mr Coe could be accused of being all care and no responsibility in this matter.

Which is why his pledge to plant a million trees over the next decade and guarantee a green space within 10 minutes of home was good to hear.

Finally, with less than five months to the election on October 17, we were getting a taste of policy after weeks of coronavirus politics.

Yes, it had all the hallmarks of a media stunt – the big headline, the tree planting photo op, minimal detail and the policy uncosted – but the Liberals instincts are right even if their execution is a little cheesy, and may seem to make them easy prey for an entrenched government that has all the advantages of incumbency.

While it may be a challenge to prosecute the case that there aren’t enough trees or parks in the bush capital, particularly when the government is in the middle of a very visible planting program, the urban forest has been allowed to deteriorate and whatever work is underway or planned is a case of playing catch-up, even if there is a target of 30 per cent canopy cover by 2045.

The government rolled out the stats to counter the Liberals green space claims but Mr Coe rightly identified Woden and Gungahlin town centres as areas where tower and pavement dominate.

And it is questionable just how much greenery will be available in the new Woden CIT campus where space will be at a premium.

Canberra’s jam-packed newer suburbs have not fared so well as the older ones for trees and parkland, and the government’s infill plans have many established open spaces in their sights.

Rightly or wrongly there is the perception that the government is prepared to sacrifice open space for development, and the numbers show clearly a preference for higher density housing.

And for those ending up in apartment blocks, whether that be in town centres or in high-density suburbs such as Wright, access to attractive and thoughtfully designed green space will be crucial.

Planning and development can be a devilish business and for many communities the government is no angel.

One only has to look to the machinations around West Basin and the North Curtin Horse Paddocks to see obvious fault lines.

The Liberals are right to tap community unease about where this all heading but it is not just about trees and parks.

It is about the spaces within blocks, around them and the verges. Blocks are being built out to the perimeters, leaving little room for shade trees or gardens, and developments are maximising yields at the expense of good design and green space.

Street trees are only one part of creating a healthy urban environment and if we are going to have multi-storey residential precincts they should also include courtyards, gardens, green walls and anything else that will soften the impact of concrete, steel and glass.

Communities across Canberra complain about ad hoc development, master plans being ignored and a lack of overarching planning to achieve integrated outcomes.

Here is fertile ground for the Liberals to plant some serious policy seeds and offer the viable alternative Canberra deserves.

Greens MLA Caroline Le Couteur has presented a bill to the Assembly with a shopping list of changes to the way development applications are conducted, after years of a parliamentary agreement with the Labor.

That could be seen as an admission of failure as much as anything, and an opportunity for the Liberals to say they can do better.

But they will need to do more than a photo op to convince voters that they will protect the bush capital or fix the planning system.

And it doesn’t matter which party is in power, it will still have to grapple with the ACT’s fundamental fiscal challenges and the needs of a property sector vital to its economy.

It may be hard ask to persuade voters that a party devoted to cutting red tape, being open for business and opening up new development frontiers for young Canberrans to buy stand-alone homes can also safeguard the environment.

But that is the task, and with its green space policy there is still time to grow the detail that the government was so keen to say was missing. The Liberals will have to do that across the board if they wish to be taken seriously come October.

A million trees sounds great but there is work to be done if they are to bear fruit.

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George Watling8:06 pm 08 Jun 20

The reality is in Australia we need shade trees to survive our very hot summers. Studies have shown that a) heatwaves kills more people in Australia then bushfires and floods, b) deaths from injuries increase in hot weather, c) air-conditioning by itself can’t can cope with heatwaves, d) there can be a 17 degree difference between the shaded and non-shaded parts of the street in Canberra.
– Exploring 167 years of vulnerability: An examination of extreme heat events in Australia 1844–2010
– Heatwaves are Australia’s deadliest natural hazard and many of us are unprepared
– How rising temperatures affect our health
– Car accidents, drownings, violence: hotter temperatures will mean more deaths from injury
– The reality of living with 50? temperatures in our major cities
– CSIRO 2017 – Mapping surface urban heat in Canberra

HiddenDragon7:11 pm 08 Jun 20

“And it doesn’t matter which party is in power, it will still have to grapple with the ACT’s fundamental fiscal challenges and the needs of a property sector vital to its economy.

That really is the heart of the matter, and without other sources of revenue (e.g. from a stronger and more diverse private sector economy) to match the ever-growing costs of major programs like health and education, ACT governments will always be inclined to maximise the revenue from every square metre of leased land in this town.

That doesn’t mean that things couldn’t be done somewhat better than at present, but any improvements will likely be marginal/incremental due to the relentless financial pressures.

You are right. And the thing that I find rather amusing the the misguided belief that reliance on property is just an Andrew Barr/Canberra thing. It is a thing for almost all governments in the country, federal/state/territory and local. The issue for Canberra is it is a combined Territory/local government so more cross over compared to day NSW government.

In NSW councils need the rates revenue from development and state needs the stamp duty, in Canberra the Territory needs both.

George Watling9:09 am 10 Jun 20

Unfortunately maximizing revenue from every square metre of leased land in this town is going to jeopardize the health, well-being, and quality of life of people who live here. We need a sensible center approach not the current ‘bulldoze the lot and concrete it all’ mentality of our current ACT Labor/Greens alliance government. Have high density around town centres, leave our existing greens spaces alone and blocks, and make sure new blocks/dwellings have enough space for trees and gardens. Its pretty simple.

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