10 April 2006

Planning changes in the ACT

| Chris S
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There has recently been a spate of articles in the Canberra Times relating to ACT’s planning system.

First off, Jenny Stewart wrote what I consider to be a standout article (“A pell-mell rush to develop Canberra”, CT, 23/3/06) outlining much of what is wrong with planning in the ACT. As an academic, Jenny was thoughtful and considered in her article, which suggested that when change occurs, it is permanent and therefore government must ensure that it is orderly, appropriate and transparent.

Jenny Stewart referred to the complexities associated with the various layers of planning (we have state-like planning responsibilities, together with assessment processes that would normally be done by local bodies, with the NCA thrown in for good measure), and how the development industry is able to take advantage of the opportunities that are inherent in a system where the public is increasingly excluded from the planning process, and where planners themselves are often unsure of which set of rules to apply. During the term of the current Planning Minister, Simon Corbell, consultative processes have been steadily whittled away, to the point where the interests of existing residents have been over-ridden by the profit-driven interests of the development industry. The sub-title of Jenny’s article is that “It’s often not clear whether the ACT’s complex planning rules are guiding development or the other way around”. She cites a number of concerns, including the loss of what is regarded as the typical Canberran “feel”: its scale, open spaces, the lack of congestion and overcrowding; problems with the way the planning system is managed by ACTPLA; the deals that used to be under the Carnall government; the complexities of the system and how easy it is for developers to take advantage of that; and how crucial public consultation is to allow for a balance between those who want (usually profit-driven) change and those existing residents who believe that they have pre-existing rights to be able to enjoy their neighbourhoods. In particular, there is a conflict of interest that needs to be carefully managed, in that the ACT government, cash-strapped that it is, needs to maximise its returns from land sales, and can do that by allowing more and larger buildings on particular sites. Jenny Stewart refers to problems with the now “streamlined” (read much reduced) consultative processes which are far from satisfactory, and often what is consulted upon is quite different to what is actually built because of changes that occur when proposals go through the planning process. She cites the example of the Woden Skytower as to what can happen when things don’t go right, and reflects that the proposed Woden East development could go the same way.

This resulted in a response from Neil Savary, chief planning executive for ACTPLA (“territory’s planning laws can and will be clarified”, CT, 30/3/2006). He acknowledged the complexities of the planning system, pointing out that a process is currently underway to “reform” the planning rules. Quite rightly, he points out that “Engaging with the community is an important element of any planning system, not only in relation to some types of development applications, but in the production of strategic planning documents…”.

It is this latter statement by Neil Savary where the problems lie – a number of what are known as “short-term planning reforms” and the substantive part of the major reforms, is predicated upon removing opportunities for community review of planning proposals.

A few days later, Catherine Carter Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia (ACT) (“There are no underhand deals in plans for Canberra”, CT 4/4/2006) defends the current planning system and the current “reforms”. She is probably quite right when she says that there are no “underhand deals”, as under Corbell and Savary, there is no need (as often occurred under the Carnell administration). Corbell and Savary, aided and abetted by ACTPLA, have opened the development doors and already acceded to demands by the development lobby to curtail what Carter describes as “…uninvolved parties to be able to veto or delay costly development projects in which they have no material interest, other than as observers with a vague desire to preserve a preconceived concept of suburbia”. In other words, anyone who has views on unbridled and destructive development needs to get out of the way of the development juggernaut being driven by greed-riven developers, and for whom ACTPLA have set all the traffic lights to green.

The next burst in this story is by the (relevance-deprived) Ron Gilbert, who writes on various matters but ensures his title of “former deputy chairman of the Trade Practices Commission” is for all to see. Ron is back on his old soap-boxes of the ACT leasehold system, and his desire for abolition of betterment charges. Ron’s arguments about the latter have recently been shot down by his development mates in Giralang, who have allowed the shopping centre to run down, as there are greater profits to be had turning the centre into high-rise than running it as retail activity. Corbell, for once, has made the right decision, by repealing the change of use concessions when redeveloping shopping centres into housing. However, Ron is on the right track with one aspect of his article, which is the administrative capacity of ACTPLA to properly administer the changed planning rules. They have made a pigs ear of this role in the past (both as PALM and now ACTPLA), because there is a fair amount of flexibility built into the Territory Plan and subordinate planning rules, and their exercise of judgement was so scattergun that no-one has ever had any faith in the resulting planning decisions. One has only to read cases that go to the AAT to know that often, ACTPLA doesn’t even know which set of rules to apply, let alone to be able to apply consistent, fair and objective decision-making to the process.

Finally, we just saw at the weekend a release of Draft Variation 260, which results from a very unsatisfactory, and at times, fiery, neighbourhood planning process through 2003. The significant changes are removal of some Residential Core (A10) Areas from Garran, Griffith, Hackett and Yarralumla, some additional A10 areas in Garran, and changes to B2 commercial areas in Kingston.

From all of this, it shows that there is a change to the way in which communities are being consulted on developments occurring within suburbs. Instead of residents being able to comment on individual DAs as they used to, there is a move to put in place a planning framework that will allow proposals to proceed according to a given set of rules.

That sounds good in theory, but the points made by Jenny Stewart show that community oversight of planning rules and planning decisions must be an integral component of the planning system, and diminution of those consultation processes will lead to further poor planning decisions.

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“From all of this, it shows that there is a change to the way in which communities are being consulted on developments occurring within suburbs. Instead of residents being able to comment on individual DAs as they used to, there is a move to put in place a planning framework that will allow proposals to proceed according to a given set of rules.”

It’s important to realise that this doesn’t remove the development applications (DA) review system altogether. The idea is to lower barriers when people want to do non-controversial developments.

For example, in a standard residential area extensions like decks, pergolas or extensions that don’t add a storey might be exempt from DA review. On the other hand, a proposal to add a storey to a house probably won’t be.

Similarly, in an A10 area, multi-unit developments that meet the ACTPLA’s restrictions for exemption could also be excluded from DA review.

Criteria for exemptions are relatively strict, because if development applications exceed these boundaries, they may still be approved. However, these will typically require DA review by the community before being allowed.

As far as I can tell, most of the planning system changes are at the low end — reducing the red tape required for single block developments. Larger developments will often still have to go through a community consultation process.

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