29 March 2023

Why do community councils get such a bad rap?

| Zoya Patel
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Fiona Carrick, Woden Valley Community Council President. Photo: Fiona Carrick.

Local voices like Fiona Carrick from the Woden Community Council have raised the profile of community councils. Photo: Fiona Carrick.

I’ve been perplexed for some time by the negativity often thrown at Canberra’s community councils.

These volunteer-run groups provide an avenue for locals to have a voice about government decisions that affect their neighbourhood, to connect with the community in their area, and to influence and engage with their home suburbs across a wide range of issues.

And yet, if you only listened to developers and bureaucrats, community councils are all undemocratic NIMBY-led organisations packed with older white men who have no connection to the reality of the communities they claim to represent.

While useful as a way to discredit the councils and their work, I would argue that this stereotype bears little resemblance to reality and certainly doesn’t match my own experience.

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Full disclosure here – my partner is a committee member of the North Canberra Community Council. I have been a member of my local residents associations in various suburbs over the years. But the story of our own initial engagement with councils is, I think, a great example of how the myth of their exclusion of young people and diversity is unfounded.

In 2019 we had just moved to Downer and were walking our dog to the local cafe one morning when our kelpie, Charlie, stopped to say hello to a labrador. The dog’s owners, an older couple, paused and said hello, and we mentioned we were new to the suburb. The gentleman was engaged with the Downer Community Association and told us about the group and where it met.

My partner went along to their next meeting. He was immediately welcomed, included, and swiftly encouraged to step in as interim Secretary, as the position was vacant. Since then, he has been engaged in community councils and has been supported, included and encouraged the entire time.

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Throughout our years of engagement, I’ve read the communications from community councils with interest and been staggered by how much advocacy work the volunteers in these groups undertake: submissions to development applications, engaging in presentations and consultations from government, developers and community organisations, providing detailed updates to members about complex legislation that could impact them, and sharing news and information about local activities and events. This is important and very useful work and is being undertaken by engaged volunteers for the benefit of their neighbourhoods.

When people argue that Community Councils are undemocratic because they are unelected, it’s worth noting that they also do not have any inherent power or influence the way a local council would. These are volunteer-run organisations – if you feel they don’t represent you, nothing is preventing you from joining them and contributing to their discussions, submissions and advocacy.

Indeed, compared to the cohorts they often go up against when it comes to development in Canberra – developers, government, and even community organisations with deep pockets who have capital and significant influence over our local environments – community councils are the underdogs. At times, their advocacy even relies on individual members contributing their own money to finance legal costs to represent community interests.

There will always be a diversity of opinions within the community; inevitably, any single group can’t represent everyone’s views equally. But Community Councils are a vital way to ensure direct representation of our communities in the ACT, where there are very few other accessible forums available to us.

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My one attempt at an attendance at a local council meet to comment on an apartment was basically dismissed by the person running it. He kept going on about the height and objecting to that. I couldn’t see a problem with that, as where it was to be built, it wouldn’t shade anyone. I brough up solar access. Apparently that wasn’t important. (I think I heard the development was rejected because of lack of solar access. Oh hum.)
It was my first and last time at a meet and as a ‘blow in’ I wasn’t going to fight my case too strongly. I didn’t think I had earned the right to, as others had put in the work. It was very dominated by one person. To be fair though, a person who has put in the effort. Still doesn’t encourage real discussion.

just because i’m young and pro-development (y.i.m.b.y.) i seem to have been ostracized and excluded from anything involving planning decisions in my local area, woden. i look forward to having my voice heard (for once) at the public meeting on the 5th.

Michael Cuddihy8:16 am 31 Mar 23

Excluded and ostracized? Strange.

Cause there have been a very regular stream of articles on this site, on the Canberra Times and on ABC radio that have given a high degree of prominence to pro development, pro infill YIMBYs and their developer coalition partners in the Missing Middle. Plus the current default policy and planning setting for this Government is development and infill.

You can also go to the Missing Middle letter writing and submission writing workshops if you find that the rest of the community dont agree with your ideas.

Michael Cuddihy9:28 am 31 Mar 23

Another idea would be to set up a Woden /Curtin Missing Middle lobby group. You could try door knocking around Curtin to drum up some support for the Edge Street that “clarifies” the western edge of the suburb and removes green space and the current bike path. I am sure that that might help you to get a deep understanding of other people who also feel ostracized and excluded from planning.

We could also organise for every person to have their say on the vision for Canberra.

We could organise an event where people could nominate themselves, put forward their ideas and others could vote for the best candidates.

We could call it an election.

Perhaps that could be a good way to get a truly representative feel for what the whole community thinks.

Michael Cuddihy5:42 pm 31 Mar 23

100% agree that elected representatives should and absolutely do run Canberra. That is how democracies work.

I think we can safely say that vastly more power and authority is held and exercised by Parliamentarians and the ACT Government than by Community organisations that are run by volunteers and which attempt to influence and communicate with Government.

Citizens and plebs (like me and many others who are on this site) can only try and influence those who actually hold and use their power or public opinions.

Sometimes they work together like in the Missing Middle lobby group and in Community Councils.

Michael Cuddihy5:55 pm 31 Mar 23

Canberra is a town that seems to have whole suburbs full of organisations that exist solely to influence Fed Gov government and parliamentary decision making. Charities, interest groups, professional associations, public affairs teams for large corporates, unions – the list could go on and on.

Democracies and governments are always surrounded by people and organisations trying to persuade elected representatives of the merits of their case.

In no way do I think community groups are anti-democratic, they are part of the democractic process which is probably why Community Councils receive very limited support and funding from the ACT Government.

BTW – I have never been part of any community council or Residents Group. The most that I have done is write the odd letter or submission and show up to Government “consultation” events.

Fiona Carrick6:49 pm 31 Mar 23

Hi Malcolm, we would love to have you at our public meeting expressing your views.
We support development (people need homes), we just want it to be done well.
There are competing interests for land, and public spaces and community facilities need to be considered in the densification process.
It is good for our physical and mental health to have places to meet. We would like to see the return of our indoor sports stadium, our pool in the form of a new aquatic center and a cultural facility for art and music in the heart of Woden.
See you next Wednesday.

Fiona, while we have never met, I have read some of the submissions that the Woden Community Council has made.

Somewhat similarly, I think there does need to be more development including medium density support development but dont think ACT PLA has ensured that this has been done well in infill locations, which is the main agenda these days.

There are lots of great examples of medium density development all through Woden. But most of these were greenfields developments. Obviously, there has also been a large amount of high density development in Woden town centre.

I always notice the emphasis that the Woden Community Council places on public spaces and the need to preserve existing community facilities, and to replace the many sporting facilitiies that have been removed to make space for apartments blocks.

To be honest, I think the higher density in Woden was required, but there has not been nearly enough focus on preserving community amenity and replacing community facilities that are literally destroyed for development of residential dwellings.

I hope Malcolm does attend your meeting and that you all have a constructive exchange of ideas.

HiddenDragon7:30 pm 30 Mar 23

Interesting article, and another reminder that the decision of the Hawke government to combine state and local government functions, with a single chamber legislature, in the ACT self government model has its shortcomings.

The comments in response to Ernst Willheim’s contribution go a long way towards explaining why there is such an aggressive push on to eliminate rights of appeal against planning decisions, and also why developers and officials are reduced to attacks which are ad hominem and ironic (noting that the ACT government and planning system are run by old/ageing white men) on some of the people who dare to stand in their way.

Yes, we need local councils as the ACT politicians want to do the things that bring them power and status, rather than the basics that we need regarding council services eg footpaths, roads, vegetation, parks, community amenities.

Michael Cuddihy6:24 pm 30 Mar 23

BTW – If you want to read a sad history of infill in a inner north suburb to get a sense of what awaits many communities who may have the marked for infill with the dreaded yellow highlighter in the District Strategies (ie Future Investigation Areas), then read the Downer Community Association’s submission to the Inner North District Strategy.


Michael Cuddihy6:20 pm 30 Mar 23

Great article. The shade and criticism thrown by developers, government, and even activists with different agendas quite relentless and has reached a fever pitch during the current arguements and debate about infill, ‘upzoning’ etc.

You are correct in saying that community councils are the underdogs, with stretched volunteers working against professionally town planners, marketing departments etc working for developers, the Govt and various other grant and charity funded Community Organisations (eg ACTCOSS, ACT Shelter, Better Renting, Conservation Council, Living Streets, Pedal Power, YWCA etc) that are better funded than the miserly community councils.

Isn’t it crazy that our local rates and taxes fund organisations that oppose community groups and local residents?

For those of us who live in other parts of Australia, we see the Territory Governments as ‘local councils’ so your community councils are like precinct committees.

I am not sure that it is community councils who are the problem. Canberra’s community councils seem to have well intentioned and knowledgeable members on their boards from what I have mostly seen. It depends on who is leading them and their level of positive engagement with the government to progress local issues.

I do remember there was a rather unlikeable person elected to the chair of the Belconnen Community Council about 13 years ago. He was well aligned with the Canberra Liberals and close buddies with Zed. He was new to Canberra and was not interested in local community issues, only pursuing his own political ambitions and picking disputes with the government. He had a small number of vocal supporters at meetings and was elected to the council on what many considered dubious and dishonest grounds. The local Belconnen community saw through him and there was a re-election, and he was never re-elected!

It is the small NIMBY community groups that are the problem. They pop up mostly during elections and get media space on trivial issues thinking everyone is in agreement with them.

Ernst Willheim4:43 pm 30 Mar 23

The ‘older white men’ and NIMB phrases may aptly describe some eg the Griffith Narrabundah Association has for some time invested enormous energy seeking to prevent community housing in their toffy leafy suburb

You sound like ACTPLA Ernest, and like them, you couldn’t be more wrong. ACT Housing and the ACT Planning Authority (ACTPLA) have continued to submit Development Applications (DAs) to build 3 substandard supportive housing onto single blocks in RZ1 areas in Griffith/Narrabundah. On every occasion to date, the ACT Civil & Administrative Tribunal has dismissed the DA as not meeting ACTPLA’s own rules, or did not meet Australian Standard for Adaptable Housing or the Government withdrew the DA before it was rejected by ACAT. You should really be complaining to the ACT Government suggesting that maybe they could do their job properly and submit proposals for quality social housing that meet their own rules and planning guidelines.

Here are the facts. In 5 decisions the GNCA has appealed to ACAT 4 have been overturned and one was an ACTPLA withdrawal. The DAs were found non compliant. It is difficult to squeeze 3 dwellings on a standard block. The GNCA does not not oppose dual occupancies. In one Griffith street more than half the street is community housing and it is planned to make it 70% through dual occupancy. The residents, not the GNCA, are taking that to ACAT. The term ‘NIMBY’ has been discredited among informed commentators. Community associations say “NOABY – not in anyone’s backyard.” The GNCA, like other community associations, has many members who identify as women.

Facts follow. The GNCA has appealed to ACAT 5 times about 3 dwellings on a standard block. 4 DAs have been found non compliant and the other DA was withdrawn. The GNCA does not oppose dual occupancies. In a Griffith St the residents oppose one because it will make the street 70% social housing. The term NIMBY has been discredited by informed commentators. Many members of the GNCA identify as women.

Mike of Canberra10:40 pm 30 Mar 23

I am familiar with some of the situations that have caused the Griffith Narrabundah Community Association (GNCA) to become involved in public housing issues and I can only say “good luck to GNCA”. I know people living in the small street in Griffith that is currently under threat of having a quota of around 70% public housing imposed on them. The ACT Government is fond of attaching very creative labels to such housing – the current favourite being “supportive housing”. This apparently innocuous label is applied specifically to “people with disabilities”, obviously a group that need and deserve the community’s help and support. What we’re not told is that Housing ACT (HACT) is abusing the term “disabilities” which can encompass a range of situations including “recovering drug addict” (read “drug dealers and recidivist criminals”). What’s more, Housing ACT’s (HACT) obsessive secrecy means that neighbouring residents are likely to be kept completely in the dark about the potential risks associated with such housing. But how would HACT officials like to experience a home invasion orchestrated from one of the HACT properties in the street? How would they like to be greeted by a young man suffering an overdose from the drugs being pushed by the residents of a drug house? How would they like to be locked out of their street while police armed with semi-automatic weapons hold the said drug dealers at gunpoint? How would they like to deal with rat plagues emanating from another HACT property whose tenant has never been required to meet her own lease agreement conditions? This is what this small street, presently containing 61% public housing, has experienced. Puts “toffy and leafy” suburb to the test doesn’t it? We need a government that competently deals with these complexities – it’s certainly not this one!

Michael Cuddihy6:59 pm 31 Mar 23

Interestingly, the ACT Civil & Administrative Tribunal has several times found against ACT PLA and the community housing providers because the various proposals did not meet ACTPLA’s own rules.

Which seems to be such a pattern that ACT PLA has sought to change the appeal process to avoid further uncomfortable accountability therapy from organisations that apply the law like ACT Civil & Administrative Tribunal.

Nick Stevens11:35 am 02 Apr 23

Maybe it is simply people needing a home, the denigration, by you and others is appalling.

Ernst Willheim4:41 pm 30 Mar 23

The ‘older white men’ and NIMB phrases may aptly describe some eg those in the Griffith Narrabundah Association desperately trying to block community housing in their toffy leafy suburb

Michael Cuddihy8:55 pm 30 Mar 23

It does seem odd that some members in the community feel like there is a free pass to criticise and stereotype one specific group in the basis of skin colour, age and gender. Older white men.

Thanks for writing this up. I don’t fit the ‘demographic’ you described, and I have no regrets joining my community association (and as rep for the NCCC), and I encourage others to join their community associations. The more diversity the better and in my experience they are very welcome to hear other perspectives. For example, renters are under represented.

It’s an awesome avenue to advocate for community initiatives and get involved in fun events.

Capital Retro8:12 am 30 Mar 23

I’ve lived in north Tuggeranong for 35 years and I have never been contacted by the Tuggeranong Community Council who appear to be only concerned about town centre issues.

I note you have a kelpie, Zoya. They are an amazing breed but yours also talks? Incredible.

@Capital Retro
“I’ve lived in north Tuggeranong for 35 years and I have never been contacted by the Tuggeranong Community Council”
Just another whinger denegrating Community Councils. What effort have you made to voice your thoughts to them, CR?
Checkout their website (https://www.tuggeranong.org.au/) and instead of griping why not get involved.

Capital Retro9:19 am 31 Mar 23

About 20 years ago I contacted them to ask why they had not challenged the ACT government on a decision made that adversely affected hundreds of residents in the area I live in. We were unaware the intention of the government and when we complained to the agency involved they said community consultation was carried out by their planners (outsourced) and they reported back that there were no complaints yet no one I contacted about it was contacted by the planners. The agency said a copy of the intention had been sent to Tuggeranong Community Council but when I phoned TCC they said they hadn’t received it.
As I said, the TCC is only concerned about town centre matters so, why “get involved”.

@Capital Retro
“… yet no one I contacted about it was contacted by the planners …” By your own admission, CR, it sounds like a problem with the consultation process undertaken by the planners (20 years ago) rather than the TCC. Given that issue occurred 20 years ago (long time to hold a grudge), perhaps things have changed in the TCC?

Wow… you didn’t get a response almost a quarter of a century ago… and you are still not over it?

20 years ago? A lot has changed in Canberra since then including the demographics, so it’s likely that those on the community council have changed and the issues have changed. Why not see if you can have an impact now?

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