28 February 2024

Steel's use of call-in powers to approve next stage of Denman Prospect sparks housing brawl

| Ian Bushnell
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The Estate Development Plan for Stromlo Reach

The estate development plan for Stromlo Reach: more than 800 homes, two parks and a school. Image: CED.

Planning Minister Chris Steel has used his call-in powers to approve the next stage of Denman Prospect in the Molonglo Valley.

But the decision has been criticised by an environmental group and the Canberra Liberals, as well as sparking a row with Labor’s governing partner, the ACT Greens, after Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti said she had been blindsided.

Known as Stromlo Reach, the proposed 84-ha estate, to be developed by the Airport’s Capital Estate Developments, will deliver 839 homes, including 295 single residential blocks and 544 apartments and townhouses across 15 multi-unit sites, a fifth of which will be “affordable”.

Stromlo Reach will also include 14 open space blocks for community recreation, including a village park, community facilities, transport services and land to deliver a new school.

READ ALSO ‘It’s a disaster waiting to happen’: Concerns community bushfire preparedness has fallen by the wayside

Mr Steel said he had used the call-in powers, one of the last times a Planning Minister will do so, to prioritise housing for Canberrans.

“This development application delivered not just more housing supply, but more affordable housing across a range of different typologies from single residential dwellings right through to multi-unit apartment options for Canberrans,” he said.

However, Mr Steel said he had imposed a number of conditions to maintain the environmental values of the site as much as possible.

He said these related to issues like creek connectivity, tree replacement, consideration of burrowing animals including wombats and the Pink-Tailed Worm-Lizard, as well as bushfire management.

“This decision strikes the right balance between providing new housing to the community and more affordable housing to the community whilst also considering the environmental values of the area,” he said.

The estate, across Blocks 11 and 12, contains a portion of a piece of bushland called Bluetts Block, which community activists have been urging the government to preserve.

Mr Steel said the approval conditions would require an asset protection zone to be put in place around the block, including some fencing to try to protect the area’s environmental values as much as possible.

He had also sought advice about the next steps in protecting adjacent blocks 402 and 403 Stromlo, which were heavily wooded and environmentally valuable.

Chris Steel outside the Assembly

Planning Minister Chris Steel: balancing act but more housing is his priority. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

But Friends of Bluetts Block said the proposal took in part of one side of Bluetts Block and had the potential to lead to further intrusive and damaging impacts deeper into this high-quality bushland.

It was seeking more information on the minister’s conditions.

The group said it had suggested a range of amendments to the plans that would allow housing development to progress in ways that minimised the damage to this area.

Mr Steel said Capital Estate Developments would need to develop a construction environmental development plan and it may need to make some changes to the estate plan, particularly around tree replacement.

Mr Steel acknowledged that housing was a key election issue and that the government would be doing all it could to increase supply.

“It’s something that we’ll continue to take action on and you’ll see that in the actions that we take and the promises that we make at the election as well,” he said

view from Bluetts Block

“Ecologically significant” bushland at Bluetts Block, next to the proposed Stromlo Reach estate. Photo: Ann Walker/Friends of Bluetts Block Facebook.

Mr Steel said that may well include using the Territory Priority Projects mechanism to speed up the delivery of new housing.

Under the new planning system, the minister will no longer have call-in powers but can declare a proposed development a Territory Priority Project.

Mr Steel’s move has angered the Greens who claimed the developer had last year requested a call-in from the office of previous Planning Minister Mick Gentleman.

ACT Greens spokesperson for planning Jo Clay said the decision was a slap in the face for Canberrans concerned about environmental protection and bushfire risk and showed Labor was in bed with developers.

Ms Vassarotti said she had not been consulted and that the precious bushland on the western edge should not have to be sacrificed for more housing that would be prone to bushfire.

“The western edge of Canberra contains several threatened ecological communities and protected species,” she said.

“This specific site is right next to the ecologically significant Bluetts Block. I have previously raised my concerns about this with the minister directly.”

Ms Vassarotti said Canberra’s housing needs could be met through medium-density infill development.

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Canberra Liberals planning spokesperson Peter Cain said using the call-in powers indicated that the new planning system was not up to scratch.

Mr Cain said it highlighted the government’s lack of transparency and consultation with the community.

Capital Estate Developments’ director of project delivery, Nick McDonald Crowley, said the approval would help address the housing supply shortfall in the ACT.

“We are now going through a detailed design process, which we anticipate will be lodged and approved by the end of the year,” he said.

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Pleased to see the Government actually developing land to increase supply, rather than placing so many of their hopes and dreams for housing on infill.

Capital Retro9:29 am 29 Feb 24

Right in the path of the next cycle of bushfires.

For once, the Greens have got it right.

We have a minority government. The Greens and the Liberals also have a call in power. A vote of no confidence.
A planning department that relies on call in powers isn’t a department but just a front for the minister

Interestingly, rather than, after making the decision, what does Minister Steel do?
After having a previous request from the developer for ministerial call in rejected, does Steel provide some transparency on the changed need for the use of call in powers on this development project?
No – he goes on leave.
Makes you wonder what’s special about this developer? Does the association with the airport (“the Airport’s Capital Estate Developments”) have anything to do with it?
Sadly, I don’t think Green MLAs will be so aggrieved by the decision that they will “sh*t in their own nest” and, follow the inevitable lead of the opposition, to challenge the minister. No doubt Rattenbury will shore up his position in the ministry by calling calling his colleagues back into line. Once again, the lack of transparency will win over and yet another questionable ministerial decision will be swept under the carpet.

devils_advocate6:48 pm 28 Feb 24

Greens: housing is unaffordable, we need a rent freeze!

Planning minister: how about if I add hundreds of new homes to the total supply of housing, which is the only way to actually improve affordability – both in terms of renting and buying?

Greens: I’ve been blindsided!

So there is no way to build houses without using the call in powers?

devils_advocate10:11 pm 28 Feb 24

Oh yeah heaps. In fact you don’t even have to build them, you just have to get rid of the major disincentives, excess regulatory burden and deadweight losses, and the market will do it for you.

None of those things will happen on the Green’s watch, though!

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