NCA chief says the agency is critical to protecting Canberra’s heritage and future

Genevieve Jacobs 26 July 2019 31
Sally Barnes

NCA chief Sally Barnes says the agency must protect Canberra’s values and landscape amidst rapid change. Photo: George Tsotsos.

National Capital Authority head Sally Barnes has hit back at claims that the agency should be abolished, saying that she wishes “I had a dollar for everyone who has said thank God for the NCA, and that includes developers who tell us we saved them from themselves”.

As another round of argument over the role of the NCA in Canberra development flares up, its chief executive is adamant that we need to be “a sophisticated city in a bush landscape, not a tinpot town”.

If you ask Canberrans about their priorities for the city, she says, it’s “landscape, landscape, landscape and landscape”.

Barnes arrived in Canberra in 2014 with a passion for open spaces and a childhood legacy of being “dragged around Pettit and Sevitt villages” by her design-conscious parents.

“This was the best of both worlds, a sophisticated regional city,” she says. “I remember thinking to myself “Hmmm…this is really not how I thought it would be.”

She took charge of the NCA at a time when Canberra’s growing pains are evident, as are some tensions between the agency and the ACT government particularly as the Northbourne corridor changes rapidly and light rail expands across the Lake.

But she says that nostalgia about the old NCDC days means it’s easy to forget they undertook little to no public consultation while commissioning and constructing the city’s public infrastructure during the boom years.

Today, it has to be a very different picture because the NCA must work with both the ACT government and private owners on sites that often have sky-high real estate values.

“Those owners have rights too, so we work on instilling values about good design and heritage. Our role is to look after the Commonwealth’s interests in Canberra. That overlaps with the people of Canberra and the ACT government, in that we all want a capital we can be proud of that reflects the nation’s democratic values,” Barnes says.

“We get that the government wants a dynamic city and we don’t want to keep spreading out. The NCA is not anti-change. But we start from a different place by saying let’s understand the heritage first. Then we ask what a good design would look like, and how it can be built on that specific site.”

But the problem is that while the NCA can construct a robust framework for design standards and must act to protect the Commonwealth’s interests, they’re not able to approve developments.

That role lies with the ACT government, and if the Territory gives that approval for a private development, the only remaining avenue is an ACAT challenge from the community.

Barnes characterises the relationship with the government as collaborative but says the NCA must be a credible regulator, their legal role under the National Capital Plan. “We need to be quite clear about what we do and why, and what our standards are for development proposals. I am conscious that we are also funded from the public purse, so we have to be accountable in front of Senate Estimates twice a year for what we spend and how we spend it”.

She does concede, however, that the NCA probably needs to sharpen up its messaging to the general public. “We need to keep working on how we explain ourselves. That’s not unusual in a highly technical organisation”.

The next priority for the agency is a thorough examination of the tree canopy in the urban forest, acknowledging that some species are coming to the end of their lives while others, like the hebes on ANZAC parade, are increasingly affected by climate change.

“We need to plan the next phase and not let the situation drift,” she says, offering the example of the National Library poplars on the lake shore, which are nearing the end of their natural lifespan and are also now a listed noxious weed in the ACT.

“Do you plant like for like? What can we replace them with that matches their form and function in the landscape?”

Overall, Barnes says she is an optimist about the city’s fast-paced development.”It’s a time of change but I am working for everyone who wants a national capital that’s more than just a town.

“We’re doing a job for all Australians”.

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31 Responses to NCA chief says the agency is critical to protecting Canberra’s heritage and future
Loonce Yu Loonce Yu 10:26 pm 05 Aug 19

Sally says "if only we had a dollar every time said thank God for the NCA", you'll still get a $1.

Ken Meaney Ken Meaney 3:46 pm 30 Jul 19

As John Stanhope has often said the relationship between the ACT Government and building developers is far too close. GEOCON and others erectng their souless shoe box like towers often built right up to the road without any space for greenery of any sort are ruining much of Canberra. I've never marched or demonstrated for anything but I would to protest

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 6:36 pm 29 Jul 19

People who think that the NCA is part of the vast right wing conspiracy (even though it was created by a Labor Government) should be turning their thoughts to how they will persuade a future federal Labor Government to abolish or further curtail the scope for federal intervention in what happens in Canberra – and they might be surprised at who will be reluctant to give ACT governments a freer hand over the planning and development of Canberra.

Mark Dando Mark Dando 1:45 pm 29 Jul 19

This is a bit cheeky. Described by one commentator as 'Geocon puts a pickaxe through the 'Bush capital'. More or less a declaration of war by Canberra's biggest property developer against the NCA, Canberra Times and the rest of the anti-development lobby.

Stephen Saunders Stephen Saunders 9:32 am 29 Jul 19

Some ‘thank god NCAs’ in this lot, Sally. Mostly Barr-haters. Others think the same as I do – prissy, amateurish, obstructionist.

When it came to the plan (a modifiable bunch of lines on a piece of paper) and the rail (potentially valuable real-world transit upgrade to the heart of a national zone), you seemed to vote for the former and its ‘lines of sight’.

With ugly developments which really are broadly destructive (Brindabella Park, ASIO HQ, the three soviet towers at Northbourne & Mouat) either it’s outside your plan, or it’s inside your plan, and you’re not useful.

Elizabeth Ann Thurbon Elizabeth Ann Thurbon 9:19 am 29 Jul 19

More shade please and save and restore the Sydney and Melbourne buildings

    Alex Satrapa Alex Satrapa 9:39 pm 01 Aug 19

    The NCA is only responsible for things inside the parliamentary triangle.

    Elizabeth Ann Thurbon Elizabeth Ann Thurbon 9:53 pm 01 Aug 19

    Alex Satrapa that’s a shame.

Mark Dando Mark Dando 9:08 am 29 Jul 19

The low level of NCA's technical and aesthetic expertise is shown by Sally Barnes' explanation at a meeting of the Inner South Canberra Community Council as to why they're reluctant to allow trams to run in front of Old Parliament House: 'If only the trams could be green rather than red'.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 6:32 pm 29 Jul 19

    Was that why the bridge on the path near Duntroon had its red colour over-painted with grey? (Grey? Been awhile since I have been there. Painted a boring colour anyway.)

Russell Nankervis Russell Nankervis 8:43 am 29 Jul 19

I am so glad the NCA exists. This is the Nation's capital. It must be reflective of our culture and values and the NCA oversee all of that.

    Hamish Sinclair Hamish Sinclair 1:59 pm 29 Jul 19

    Russell Nankervis what culture whose values?

    Russell Nankervis Russell Nankervis 5:36 pm 29 Jul 19


    Bernie Douglas Bernie Douglas 9:32 pm 29 Jul 19

    I get the purpose of the NCA. But any one that has worked in Government knows that they are utterly obstructionist and show a very poor understanding of urban planning and transport infrastructure.

    Hamish Sinclair Hamish Sinclair 7:02 am 30 Jul 19

    Russell Nankervis lol aboriginal? English? Dutch?

    Hamish Sinclair Hamish Sinclair 5:26 pm 30 Jul 19

    Bernie Douglas unlike act planning ?????????

    Bernie Douglas Bernie Douglas 9:44 pm 30 Jul 19

    Hamish Sinclair Even the valid criticism in the ACT Government's lack of town/transport planners is not even comparable to the performance of the NCA. For example. they have shown time and time again that they are not willing to give unequivocal commitment to a preferred route which is adding greater cost and risk to stage 2; certainty and not flip flopping is in the interests of all Canberrans.

Darron Marks Darron Marks 8:24 am 29 Jul 19

Until she can demonstrate that she can secure federal funding to pay for those expensive "mandatory adjustments" I think the cost to act taxpayers is something they need to consider more carefully.

    Amanda Evans Amanda Evans 8:40 am 29 Jul 19

    Darron Marks perhaps you could go and read some history before commenting!

    Darron Marks Darron Marks 4:45 pm 29 Jul 19

    It is fine to have standards but if they wish to block projects then it should be of Federal importance to help subsidise those modification on what is land that has Federal jurisdiction.

    And yet the current Federal government commits nothing in comparison to Federal labor that if elected would have given $$ 200 Million dollars to the light rail stage 2 project.

    Point is they have alot to say about what can and cannot be constructed due to federal jurisdiction. I think it is about time they started providing some federal funding for their specific "requirements"

    John Tozer John Tozer 9:36 am 30 Jul 19

    Darron Marks - you just gave me all the reasons I need to support the retention of the NCA!

    Darron Marks Darron Marks 2:27 pm 30 Jul 19

    I support their existence but not their inability to secure federal funding for modification to land they deem to be federal land.

Ben Roberts Ben Roberts 7:59 am 29 Jul 19

The NCA is obstructionist and does nothing for the people of Canberra. They lack transparency, consistency and accountability. I loath so much of what Barr and his cronies are doing and have done to Canberra, but the NCA is neither useful nor accountable.

    Amanda Evans Amanda Evans 8:46 am 29 Jul 19

    Ben Roberts no they're not... not at all. Without the NCA, we would have trashed our brand in a second with the way many think that it's somehow a good thing to trash our greatest assets and our heritage.

    Do you understand how the NCA came about? or what its charter is? Do you know your Canberra history?

    Ben Roberts Ben Roberts 10:05 am 29 Jul 19

    All good points. Thank you for your feedback. Yes, as a long term Csnberran who has recently left because of what Barr et al are doing to the city, I am well aware of its history. I think Libby makes a good point - caught between a rock and a hard place. I would just like a little more common sense shown in its decision making.

    Bernie Douglas Bernie Douglas 9:34 pm 29 Jul 19

    Vital transportation infrastructure is trashing the city? And yet more buses is the solution? Do people realise that Canberra has the lowest uptake in bus patronage and extra buses do nothing to improve traffic flow and congestion.

    Bernie Douglas Bernie Douglas 11:32 pm 29 Jul 19

    Also, people forget that maintaining near empty buses and the salaries of drivers costs money; something that has been completely absent from the critique of the new system.

    John Tozer John Tozer 9:39 am 30 Jul 19

    Bernie Douglas - if you think that tram is “...vital transportation infrastructure...” you have already swallowed the pill and I can safely ignore you!

Shayne Borger Shayne Borger 7:45 am 29 Jul 19

Jason Preston it's because they're toddlers...Chuck tanties when they can't get their way. The NCA is protecting them from themselves n keeping Canberra from Barr


Jason Preston Jason Preston 7:19 am 29 Jul 19

Every time the Labor Government comes up against the NCA, they call for its disbandment.

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