30 January 2018

Yah for the golden years of the NCDC

| Paul Costigan
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Canberra street trees. Photo: Paul Costigan.

Often when posting on planning and development in Canberra, someone will comment that things were so much better when the Commonwealth, through the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) ran the joint.

Canberra was well managed under the NCDC. True.

So are planning and development matters better or worse today under an ACT Government?

I suspect that if Canberra had continued to be run by the NCDC that things may be worse today than they are under our own elected government. There have been very few government planning agencies that have been able to resist what has become the new normal in the last couple of decades – being the overwhelming and ever-present lobbying efforts of the property industries.

Why would a Commonwealth agency such as a 21st century NCDC be any different – especially given the very neoliberal and conservative nature of the present Federal Government?

Think on this – what would Barnaby be able to do to Canberra if he had direct control of every aspect of its governance?

I fully acknowledge that the NCDC (and the former versions – there were several) was right for its time for Canberra’s development. Some great aspects of our urban environments reflect this. Canberra’s urban forests are a direct result – and are now under threat.

However, I can think of a host of things that are not so good.

This year we are going to hear the rumble of the first light rail/ tram. In some of the original planning for this city there was to be network of trams – an integrated public transport system. This did not happen because of decisions by the Commonwealth.

Sadly the NCDC was influenced by Big Oil. Instead they opted for cars and bigger roads – as did most cities at the time as a result of pressure from the oil and vehicle industries. Canberra – along with many cities – is still to recover from those ill informed decisions. In Sydney it saw the demise of a fantastic tram network – that they are now struggling to reintroduce.

An outstanding omission by the NCDC planners was to plan for local arts facilities. Many of those we see today, the Tuggeranong Arts Centre, the Street Theatre, Megalo, ANCA studios and more came into existence directly because of later advocacy by the arts and local communities.

It seemed that the NCDC was OK on trees, roads and other urban matters – but the value of the local arts was completely foreign to its planners.

Canberra street trees. Photo: Paul Costigan.

Another curiosity was the types of trees that were included in suburban development. In many of the older inner suburbs, there are now very large non-native trees along the suburban streets. Where they got this right, these trees meet up over the roadway and created cooler climate zones – especially on these super-hot days.

Later planners went for less street trees and often chose natives, particularly gums. I have observed that in many instances these are under stress, do not provide a lot of shade when it is needed in summer and of course they are famous for suddenly dropping a large branch or two.

I love our native plants – but that does not mean they are suitable for every location in an urban area – and not as it turns out for many streets. The more shade the better.

The NCDC was also responsible in the earlier years for development – and the building of government housing.

I do not think we could say that the designs chosen have lasted well. Anyone today taking on a government-designed house knows that it requires a complete refit to become suitable for the extremes of climate in the Canberra Region.

There are many stories of people struggling in those early Commonwealth-designed homes trying endlessly (and not winning) to keep either the heat out in summer – or in winter attempting to get any part of the house warm. It was near impossible to heat a whole house successfully.

Unfortunately, while I do not join in lauding the ‘golden age’ of the NCDC, the present planning and development agencies leave a lot to be desired and have disappointed and upset many residents.

Recent evidence makes it clear that the ACT Government has a long way to go to being a steward of the urban environment and overseeing planning agencies that are not seen to be overwhelmingly influenced by the property industry – rather than be responsive to the residents.

Much praise to all the good things delivered by the Commonwealth in Canberra – through the NCDC and agencies before them.

But please keep the praise in context – and be real.

And yes the grass was greener then. But do we need so much green grass? Now that’s another whole story.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Let us know by commenting below.

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Latoya Wedlake4:33 pm 16 Apr 18

Hi Paul, perhaps you could explain the building work you are carrying out on your own property/nature strip? I live next door and have been woken up on Sunday morning at 7am with building work. … and have piles of concrete on the drive next to my property left unsecured

michael quirk10:56 am 03 Feb 18

Paul Costigan’s comments on the NCDC are timely.

The NCDC provided a great planning legacy on which to build including the development of new towns each with a centre containing major office employment, retailing and community facilities; a network of group and local centres; peripheral parkways, the inter-town transport spine linking the town centres with central Canberra, well planned suburbs connected to cycle and pedestrian networks and a highly valued open space network. Its planning and development policies provided high amenity to residents and responded the community’s preferences for low density living and the availability of cheap fuel.

At times the Commission’s planning was ahead of community preferences and land identified for higher density housing had to be replanned for lower density housing. The framework facilitated the timely and efficient delivery of social and physical infrastructure and avoided the “sprawl” that characterised the development of other Australian cities. It was the go to planning and development agency in Australia.

At the core of the NCDC was expertise in planning, design and development. If such expertise has been maintained within the ACT government there would have been a more effective response to the parameters shaping the development the city. Such expertise may have led to higher levels of employment in Gungahlin, a more modest development of commercial space at the Airport, better designed redevelopments, land release programs responsive to the housing demands of the community and designed to archive strategic planning outcomes rather than raise revenue and the provision of a busway rather than the unnecessary, expensive and soon to antiquated light rail.

The planning strategy for the city is in need of urgent review but the bureaucracy lacks expertise and only seems capable of implementing the half baked ideas of politicians rather than giving sound planning and development advice.

Holden Caulfield9:28 am 31 Jan 18

“There are many stories of people struggling in those early Commonwealth-designed homes trying endlessly (and not winning) to keep either the heat out in summer – or in winter attempting to get any part of the house warm. It was near impossible to heat a whole house successfully.”

This was hardly an NCDC-only issue. While I wasn’t around at the time, find me any run of the mill family home in Canberra older than 40-odd years that wasn’t as you describe. Many are hardly any better in 2018!

The NCDC was a faceless organisation which was a law unto itself. There was no public input, no accountability, no appeals against its decisions and no knowledge about exactly who was working there. They were known as the local planning politburo.

The development of Tuggeranong was one of the NCDC’s most spectacular disasters. Originally known as Village Creek when first proposed in 1969, those plans were junked the following year and new plans drawn up for Tuggeranong. There were supposed to be suburbs on both sides of the Murrumbidgee, and the Town Centre and Hyperdome were supposed to be in its geographical centre. When the entire development west of the river was scrapped during the oil shock recession in 1974, the Town Centre still went ahead. As a result it is now on the western fringe of Tuggeranong rather than centrally located.

Another NCDC disaster was O’Malley. Streets and houses were supposed to extend right up to Mt Mugga Mugga at a time when blasting was still happening at the quarry. All of west O’Malley had to be scrapped as a result, and it wasn’t until self government and the closing of the quarry many years later that any sort of development was able to go ahead there.

Nobody could possibly want to go back to the bad old days of the NCDC. Self government in the ACT hasn’t been perfect, but at least we now have accountability for planning decisions and the whole process is a lot more transparent than when Sir John Overall and his army of faceless bureaucrats were doing whatever they liked and not having to answer to anybody.

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