Chief Minister Andrew Barr may not like to hear this but he has a lot in common with former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Joh was a great crane watcher, as is our Chief Minister.
If Joh could see the Brisbane city scape dotted with cranes he was happy in the knowledge that the economy was ticking over just nicely.
He was far from alone in this respect. Years later Victoria’s Labor Premier John Cain would say the same thing and a few more premiers since have practised the not so subtle art of crane watching.
Joh believed a can-do attitude, cutting red tape and clearing the way for development was part of his job description, although he may have bent the rules here or there to make things happen.
Now I don’t suggest that any plain paper bags have ended up on Mr Barr’s desk or that he doesn’t have a strong commitment to consulting the community and working within the ACT’s planning framework, but recent comments about future development in the ACT should sound alarm bells.
He may have been just stating the obvious but Mr Barr is a consummate media performer and he can ‘feed the chooks’ just as well as the old fox used to.
When he told ABC morning radio recently that there was only one way for the landlocked ACT to go and that was up, he was getting way out in front of the debate about urban development and housing in the Territory.
You would have thought he was talking about Hong Kong or Singapore, not the nation’s capital.
Clearly setting the Government’s agenda, he was arguing that the ACT had no choice given its limited land area and development bumping up against its borders but to densify, particularly with high-rise residential towers in Civic, the town centres and along our transport corridors.
It may have been music to the ears of the big property developers and the CFMEU, but it should strike a jarring note for anybody concerned about the quality of life and public amenity in the ACT.
Last week, The Planning and Land Authority (ACTPLA) approved a two-tower development for Woden, 26 and 18 storeys respectively. There are more planned close by, some up to 28 storeys. Geocon’s redevelopment of the Tradies site proposes a ‘landmark’ building that has nearby apartment dwellers wondering what kind of behemoth will cast its shadow on them.
The community is heartened at the renewed interest in Woden but despairs at the loss of services, facilities and public amenity with no sign from the Government that it intends to maintain or provide any for the hundreds of new residents that will fill the towers.
Out Gungahlin way another high-rise building was approved earlier in the month, this time 14 storeys, adding to the phalanx of towers in one section of the Town Centre. Again the community welcomes the investment but shudders at the scale of the developments there and questions their siting.
In Civic, we are promised another 20,000 residents in the next decade and the developments to house them are growing apace.
Down the light rail corridor of Flemington Road and Northbourne Avenue, one high rise development after another is being announced.
In Belconnen, the Sirius apartments will rise over Lake Ginninderra. It seems like only a matter of time for Tuggeranong.
Mr Barr and the Labor Party never believed the numbers added up for light rail as a transport option but realised what a great vehicle it could be for their catchcry of urban renewal. Onward to Woden and, with the Chief Minister saying he is already turning his mind to Stage 3, Tuggeranong.
You have to sympathise with any ACT government given the Territory’s limited revenue sources and its high maintenance citizens. Property is the only game in town and the Chief Minister and Treasurer is rolling the dice big time to keep the economy, so susceptible to Federal public service cutbacks, on the boil.
To that extent, Mr Barr is an unqualified success, to which this month’s economic data, including record jobs growth, attests. The jobs and growth mantra isn’t restricted to the Prime Minister.
And it is not all bad. Northbourne Avenue in particular will be better off without its aged and ugly public housing blocks, as will Civic. Rejuvenation is happening and welcome.
But the residential towers boom seems to be overshadowing other housing needs and choices and placing enormous pressure on our urban and green spaces, as well as distorting the visual amenity. Community leaders across Canberra generally accept densification but are crying out for better design, more strategic siting and more coordinated planning than what they see as an ad hoc building by building approach.
The Griffins’ vision for Canberra was for a compact city, even with trams, but the city was meant to coexist with its environment, not dominate it.
It seems these days that Canberra can’t even build a media box at Manuka Oval without making some grandiose multi-million dollar statement.
High rise might provide great returns and large numbers of residences but as a social instrument it has failed in great cities such as Paris and London, and the creep along the transport corridors of Sydney and Melbourne is creating a growing unease.
The vertical village is a myth and the so-called preference for apartment living is a marketing ploy as housing choices shrink in the face of skyrocketing prices and rents. While singles and couples might opt for a unit in a funky downtown area with restaurants and bars, families, given a real choice, want a house and back yard, or at least a townhouse with some green space.
And they are prepared to cross borders to find it, especially with house prices in Canberra rising at double the rate of units last year.
Instead of the constant focus on high rise development, the Government needs to speed up the release of land for detached houses and encourage more low-rise developments designed to promote social interaction. With more supply we might be able to see whether the price of land, which many say is too high anyway, actually falls or whether other measures are necessary to help young Canberrans into their first home. Further reforms to stamp duty even might assist more turnover of homes within existing suburbs. And even dual occupancy is preferable to urban aberrations like Wright.
It needs to rebuild its planning resources to achieve better outcomes.
It needs to accept that while building more units creates more housing, it doesn’t necessarily provide shelter that is desirable or affordable. This market failure, of which the investor-fuelled apartment boom is a part, needs to be addressed with more public and community housing investment because there is a growing proportion of the population shut out of the housing market paying income-gobbling rents.
The sense of urgency Mr Barr’s argument implies does not address these needs but is an attempt to shepherd discussion down a certain track.
There is land – in the Molonglo Valley, Gungahlin, the East Lake area, West Belconnen and across the border Mr Barr refers to as a barrier. Perhaps he can use the Canberra Region concept to discuss cross-border arrangements for people who are priced out of the market, aren’t sold on apartments and want their own patch of dirt. Of course, they would not be ACT ratepayers but the border is only a line on a map and people are voting with their feet.
Mr Barr is happy to promote Canberra as Australia’s most livable city, and Lonely Planet’s third best city in the world to visit. But perhaps he should take a breath and reflect on why this is so. Will it still be thus if Canberra simply becomes just another city, dotted with cranes?
Are we building too many apartment blocks? Is it the only way to deal with urban sprawl? Do we need to curtail suburban development and preserve our remaining open spaces? Have our planners lost the plot?