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Time to strengthen ACT Assembly governance over Canberra

By Kim Fischer - 9 November 2015 19

Google maps: Ginninderra Field Station

The CSIRO recently announced its intention to redevelop its 701 hectare Ginninderra Field Station site into a residential estate containing up to 10,000 houses.

The Field Station site is located between Fraser and Crace and is currently zoned as “hills, ridges and buffer space”. However, the National Capital Authority (NCA) have changed this in the current draft of the National Capital Plan to “urban area” at the express request of CSIRO. This may not seem like a big deal until you realise that the approving authority for any development on this site will also be the National Capital Authority, and not the ACT Government.

As I explained in a recent article for The Canberra Times, once this amendment to the National Capital Plan is approved, the CSIRO can essentially do what it likes. Since the Ginninderra Field Station is a National Land site, it simply has to get the NCA to rubber-stamp its plans:

The NCA does not have to seek approval from the ACT Government or reference the Territory Plan. It does not have to align with the ACT’s planned land release program or environmental standards. It can literally write its own planning rulebook.

To be fair, the CSIRO has good intentions, and is working within the current legislative framework. And at information sessions in September, a CSIRO general manager made a big deal of its voluntary consultation activities with residents and the ACT Government. However, it is very clear where the power lies.

The need for “National Land” status makes sense in some special cases, such as exempting Defence sites from normal ACT planning processes. But in a supposedly self-governing jurisdiction, it is inconceivable to me that the Federal Government should be allowed to take land it no longer needs in the heart of suburban Canberra and do whatever it wants with it. (The NCA is accepting feedback on the draft Plan until Friday 13 November. If you think this is as wrong as I do, please let them know your feelings.)

This is only part of the bigger picture though.

Our framework around self-government was set up a quarter of a century ago. It hasn’t kept pace with what we need locally or federally.

There is no justification for the NCA to ever approve developments that aren’t expressly needed for Federal Government purposes. The Act relating to National and Territory Land status in the ACT should be amended to ensure that land must revert to Territory Land status in the event that it is no longer required for Commonwealth purposes. This wouldn’t affect ownership but merely ensure that the planning controls instituted by our democratically elected Territory government can be honoured.

With improved conversations and conventions, the relationship between the ACT Government and the NCA could be cooperative and highly productive. The NCA should have been our best advocates, standing with the ACT Government in arguing for better compensation from the Federal Government on the Mr Fluffy issue.  And given the significance of Northbourne Avenue as the entry way to Canberra, the NCA can still help the ACT Government lobby for Federal Government funds in support of the transformative light rail project.

Similarly, I was really pleased that the Department of Finance is now forcing the Department of Immigration to evaluate local impacts of a potential move out of Belconnen before any new tender can be released. But we should never have had an 18 month process of extreme uncertainty for residents and businesses that also left tenderers who engaged in good faith with the tender process hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket.

The bigger problem is that we are still essentially operating under the arrangements drafted by the Federal Government prior to establishment of self-government. Now that we are moving to a 25 member assembly, it is an appropriate time for a broad review that strengthens self-government arrangements in the ACT.

Should the National Capital Authority have fewer powers, and instead become the “National Capital Advocate”?

What’s Your opinion?


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19 Responses to
Time to strengthen ACT Assembly governance over Canberra
watto23 11:03 am 11 Nov 15

rubaiyat said :

dungfungus said :

This is a good move as it will break the monopoly the ACT Government has on selling new residential blocks.
There are also rumours that massive residential developments are being planned for Sutton and Bungendore.
Of course, one has to understand that there will be thousands more people required to support the sales and I can’t see this happening unless Canberra builds factories and starts coal mines.

I don’t think you have thought this through dungers.

There is a strong probability that the CSIRO will spend any money it makes on science, and not the proper kind that you did when you were back in school, you know with slide rules and bunsen burners and stuff.

Well yes, probably not factories and coal mines, but Canberra needs to have more industries and high tech industry is something that a highly educated society like the ACT could support. The CSIRO while doing research also helps enable startup tech business. There have been a few over the years but more in the ACT would be welcome IMO.

dungfungus 10:53 am 10 Nov 15

HenryBG said :

Let me join some dots for you guys, which might help explain why allowing bureaucrats to make these kinds of decisions is even worse than letting our toy-town government make them:

On the very eve of self-government, another land-use change was made, allowing church land in a prime location to be used to build a clump of units, with no betterment fees being raised, and with all the services access being paid for by the ACT ratepayer.

This clump of units is a ghetto for cranky pensioners whose morose and unfriendly demeanour is entirely out of character with the neighbourhood, but, to make matters worse, they are so averse to colour, light and happiness that they have been instrumental in having our rate$$$ wasted on pointlessly decimating the beautiful colony of peacocks of Upper Narrabundah.

I assume that you are now lining in that “clump of units”? It sounds fine for someone like me also.
Is there a vacancy?

rommeldog56 7:10 am 10 Nov 15

Masquara said :

Years ago, before the NCA area of control was established, the new ACT Government had plans to build houses all over the side of Mt Ainslie. Frankly, we are much safer with the NCA than Jonny Stanhope’s old mates.

Spot on – yes, the NCA get it wrong too sometimes, but handing over all planning decisions to this inept ACT Government, who seem hell bent in turning Canberra into a high density European type city (without the small footprint and the history), full of jerry build high rises (many of which will look like slums in the future because of the lack of attention by the ACT Govt planners to design/astheticts), is even worse.

Masquara 9:29 pm 09 Nov 15

Years ago, before the NCA area of control was established, the new ACT Government had plans to build houses all over the side of Mt Ainslie. Frankly, we are much safer with the NCA than Jonny Stanhope’s old mates.

miz 9:27 pm 09 Nov 15

Frankly I am so disgusted with the ACT Govt that I think it’s got to be good to have them stymied via the NCA from time to time.

HiddenDragon 5:44 pm 09 Nov 15

“…The Act relating to National and Territory Land status in the ACT should be amended to ensure that land must revert to Territory Land status in the event that it is no longer required for Commonwealth purposes..”

Would the equivalent happen to land no longer needed for Commonwealth purposes in the other Territory and the States?

Whatever the answer to that question, with an ACT Government which behaves, at times, more like a fixed-term dictatorship, nice arguments about democracy may not particularly stir the Canberra public into indignation over this episode.

dungfungus 5:11 pm 09 Nov 15

rubaiyat said :

dungfungus said :

This is a good move as it will break the monopoly the ACT Government has on selling new residential blocks.
There are also rumours that massive residential developments are being planned for Sutton and Bungendore.
Of course, one has to understand that there will be thousands more people required to support the sales and I can’t see this happening unless Canberra builds factories and starts coal mines.

I don’t think you have thought this through dungers.

There is a strong probability that the CSIRO will spend any money it makes on science, and not the proper kind that you did when you were back in school, you know with slide rules and bunsen burners and stuff.

Are you saying the CSIRO will be all cashed up and be able to buy lots of sleek computers with climate change modelling software?
They call that science do they?

rubaiyat 4:52 pm 09 Nov 15

dungfungus said :

This is a good move as it will break the monopoly the ACT Government has on selling new residential blocks.
There are also rumours that massive residential developments are being planned for Sutton and Bungendore.
Of course, one has to understand that there will be thousands more people required to support the sales and I can’t see this happening unless Canberra builds factories and starts coal mines.

I don’t think you have thought this through dungers.

There is a strong probability that the CSIRO will spend any money it makes on science, and not the proper kind that you did when you were back in school, you know with slide rules and bunsen burners and stuff.

dungfungus 4:41 pm 09 Nov 15

Kim Fischer said :

dungfungus said :

This is a good move as it will break the monopoly the ACT Government has on selling new residential blocks.

It’s really important that we keep the functions of the LDA and ACTPLA clear and separate in these discussions. The LDA makes land available for purchase; ACTPLA are the planning authority that approves developments on both greenfield and brownfield sites (except on National Land).

With the Ginninderra site, the CSIRO would still be the owner even if it reverted to Territory Land status. The difference is that as Territory Land, ACTPLA is responsible for approving any proposed development, not the NCA. Only ACTPLA will be democratically accountable for the outcome through the ACT Assembly.

Regardless of its status as Territory Land or National Land, the CSIRO doesn’t have to go through the LDA.

No other State has this problem. The Commonwealth can’t ignore State planning powers except in very rare cases (eg airports). The current situation is almost as if your next door neighbour could build a house in your backyard without your consent.

Are you suggesting that the ACT Government won’t be charging rates on this land?

Kim Fischer 2:32 pm 09 Nov 15

dungfungus said :

This is a good move as it will break the monopoly the ACT Government has on selling new residential blocks.

It’s really important that we keep the functions of the LDA and ACTPLA clear and separate in these discussions. The LDA makes land available for purchase; ACTPLA are the planning authority that approves developments on both greenfield and brownfield sites (except on National Land).

With the Ginninderra site, the CSIRO would still be the owner even if it reverted to Territory Land status. The difference is that as Territory Land, ACTPLA is responsible for approving any proposed development, not the NCA. Only ACTPLA will be democratically accountable for the outcome through the ACT Assembly.

Regardless of its status as Territory Land or National Land, the CSIRO doesn’t have to go through the LDA.

No other State has this problem. The Commonwealth can’t ignore State planning powers except in very rare cases (eg airports). The current situation is almost as if your next door neighbour could build a house in your backyard without your consent.

HenryBG 2:25 pm 09 Nov 15

Let me join some dots for you guys, which might help explain why allowing bureaucrats to make these kinds of decisions is even worse than letting our toy-town government make them:

On the very eve of self-government, another land-use change was made, allowing church land in a prime location to be used to build a clump of units, with no betterment fees being raised, and with all the services access being paid for by the ACT ratepayer.

This clump of units is a ghetto for cranky pensioners whose morose and unfriendly demeanour is entirely out of character with the neighbourhood, but, to make matters worse, they are so averse to colour, light and happiness that they have been instrumental in having our rate$$$ wasted on pointlessly decimating the beautiful colony of peacocks of Upper Narrabundah.

Kim Fischer 2:24 pm 09 Nov 15

Paul Costigan said :

A query. Have you a vision on how planning and development should be handled across the city? (and I appreciate that a full answer may require a new post)

Thanks for your questions and comments.

I think it is a simple question of principle: either the Federal Government wanted us to be self-governing, or they didn’t. We can’t stay on training wheels forever and hide behind the NCA to avoid accountability for the actions of our democratically-elected governments. People can and do have a real impact on what governments do through grassroots efforts.

In terms of planning and development more broadly, it has been interesting to talk to lots of people from different suburbs over the past year. What I’ve found is that people will often move to a suburb where its characteristics and identity matches their own priorities. I live in Florey because I wanted a backyard that was also near to transport, schools, and shops. People in Fraser like that it is a quiet suburb with easy access to bushland. People in Crace like that it is new and has a strong community focus.

When it comes to planning approvals, it is important to distinguish a sentiment of “Personally I wouldn’t live there” from “No one could want to live there”. A good mix of housing options is essential when our community is equally diverse.

I acknowledge that there is a clear and obvious incentive for property owners and developers to push the boundaries of the rules to maximise their profits. The job of ACTPLA is to have appropriate and transparent rules and review processes to meet community expectations, on balance (given that making some people unhappy will be almost inevitable).

rosscoact 12:59 pm 09 Nov 15

The proposed CSIRO land release is another disaster that we’ll (ie the ACT taxpayer) have to shell out for without getting any return. 10,000 new homes developed without consideration of the capacity of the road networks (a la the airport). When the problems need to be fixed with the roads the CSIRO will be long gone.

Thank goodness the tram is coming because the Barton highway will be a nightmare

dungfungus 10:41 am 09 Nov 15

This is a good move as it will break the monopoly the ACT Government has on selling new residential blocks.
There are also rumours that massive residential developments are being planned for Sutton and Bungendore.
Of course, one has to understand that there will be thousands more people required to support the sales and I can’t see this happening unless Canberra builds factories and starts coal mines.

Paul Costigan 10:00 am 09 Nov 15

Dear Kim

I agree that there are outstanding matters to be sorted in related to agencies having sway over land and planning matters in Canberra.

Then there are the issues of clubs who gain changes to their leases in order to proceed with developments despite the disagreements with surrounding neighbourhoods.

We have green spaces and parklands being challenged in the name of intensification of residential areas. This is silly given that as intensification happens these spaces become even more important – and even the ‘degraded’ ones will be required to be upgraded and enhanced for use by the higher number of apartment living residents.

Most residents are happy for intensification to happen but are seeking quality and appropriate design (which is rare amongst new developments). Most urban infill pays very little attention to the numerous environmental and climate issues. The quality of the build is often questionable.

So when a respected and much loved body such as the CSIRO takes on development, many residents would agree that they should hand such land back, but that would mean handing it over to the agency with a reputation that works against neighbourhood aspirations resulting in inappropriate developments.

For this reason many remain silent as they know that the ACT Government agency would be an even more difficult body to deal with.

I agree that the ACT Government should be able to consider national functions and responsibilities in its decisions on lands and development for any precinct across Canberra. Given it is now 2015, in theory the NCA should have become redundant. But this is theoretical point of view as the current government is yet to demonstrate maturity in its handling of the complexities of urban development issues.

A query. Have you a vision on how planning and development should be handled across the city? (and I appreciate that a full answer may require a new post)

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