Is it just me, or are others struggling to respond to the many discussions that the ACT Government is trying to have about planning and development in the ACT?
The Government is clearly keen to talk to the community about the future of our city. They are inviting us to share our thoughts on ideas such as urban villages, increase in density along Northbourne Avenue and new uses for urban land. It’s pretty hard to get traction though, when this is occurring at the same time where there seems to be hostility towards parts of the community, reports of hostility towards the traditional media, and all the time uncomfortable questions continue around previous land deals. This convergence is creating confusion and undermining an important conversation we need to have about the future of our city.
Clearly, the government is feeling the heat in relation to explaining what occurred through the controversial land swap between the Government and the Tradies Club in Dickson. While eyebrows were raised at the early suggestion that ‘there was nothing to see here’ after the release of the Auditor General’s report into the deal, we are now being presented with new justifications for why the deal went ahead. This week, the Chief Minister has suggested that the deal was all about community facilities and social housing rather than revenue. While the idea of putting a Common Ground homelessness project on part of the land that these deals were part of (Section 72) has been occurring for some time, it is hard to imagine that the whole area would be given over to community facilities and social housing. This ongoing saga again highlights the need to get an Independent Anti-Corruption and Integrity Commission up and running as soon as possible. It strengthens the case for ensuring that this body has powers to look retrospectively at issues that are still in the public interest – an ACT Greens’ call that is currently being resisted by ACT Labor.
The current situation also demonstrates that there is a need to rebuild the trust of the community and create confidence that our planning processes have integrity and are being made in the public interest, rather than for vested interests. Without this, it will be increasingly challenging to have meaningful conversations about the city’s future – a conversation that the Government is clearly trying to have with the community, and one that is important for us all to engage with.
Canberra is always evolving – it is a different place to what it was 105 years ago and 50 years ago, and this is not a bad thing. As we head towards the mid-century, our different lifestyles and different challenges as a community mean we must adapt and shape the city differently. Our preferences and expectations mean that most of us want very different housing options to those of our grandparents – and our grandkids will probably want different things too. The challenges of climate change mean that we will need to modify our habits and be open to new ways of living including increased density in parts of the city. As we continue to struggle with the issue of housing affordability, we need to think creatively and innovatively about ways we can ensure everyone can have a place to call home.
This discussion of the future needs to be framed by an understanding and a shared view on how we change and adapt while retaining the character of the city that we love – the livability which makes it such a great place to live and means that we are different to Australia’s larger cities.
For all the talk of new engagement models, it’s hard to see how we can have these big conversations about values and aspirations in the current climate. It’s difficult to reset the discussion around the future built form of ACT without adequately dealing with the issues of the past and rebuilding the trust. It’s difficult to have meaningful and respectful conversations when groups in the community interpret the Government as saying that their views are less valid than others. Its almost impossible for communities to respond adequately to conversations occurring around local development when the sheer volume is overwhelming and happening in small chunks and without the articulation of the vision we are working towards.
I think its time for a reset. Let’s take a breath and work out what our aspirations are for our city in the long term. Then we can work together to make it a reality. What do you think?
Rebecca Vassarotti is an active member of the ACT Greens and ran as a candidate in the 2016 Territory election.