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The report and recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on the ACT issued its report on the role of the NCA in July 2008. The Hon. Bob Debus MP, Minister for Home Affairs, indicated that the Government would respond by December 2008. He and the acting Chair of the NCA, Professor Don Aitkin, together with Senator Lundy who chaired the Committee, have all recently expressed in public strong positive sentiments about “all Australians share a high regard for Canberra” (Debus), “the vision splendid for the National Capital” (Lundy) and “the unfinished business of Canberra” (Aitkin) and “the special quality of human beings, their buildings, the site and the environment existing in a special harmony” (Aitkin).

The report of the parliamentary Committee stated as the first objective “to ensure the Commonwealth protects the unique design of Canberra because it represents the intrinsic character of the National Capital.” At paragraph 1.17 this unique design is described as “Griffin’s plan.”

This was the third major inquiry in four years by the Committee into the performance of the NCA. They established the case for reforming the NCA to be more accountable and responsive. The 2007 report called upon the NCA to review and revise its so-called “Griffin Legacy” Amendments to the National Capital Plan. By 2008 the public disquiet and deep-seated problems associated with the NCA merged with concerns about the dual planning system instituted upon ACT self government in 1989 and growing public perceptions of falling standards in Canberra’s metropolitan planning, infrastructure, public architecture and sustainability.

Issues addressed in the Committee’s report include the NCA’s role and governance, consultation with the community, protection of Canberra’s heritage, Canberra Airport, location of Commonwealth government offices, the transport system, the dual planning system and strategic planning for National Capital and sustainability.
The report gives an even-handed representation of all the wide interests conveyed by written submissions (136) and witnesses (50 over seven public hearing days). The general tenor of the report could be characterised as pragmatic, conservative, moderate, balanced. It is strongly evidence-based and conveys a strong, comprehensive and determined dynamic towards a much improved National Capital planning system. The direction and scope are commendable.

The principle recommendations are more orthodox NCA governance, increased NCA accountability through the Parliamentary Committee on the ACT and much enhanced responsibility of the NCA through the creation of a National Capital Consultative Council (NCCC). The NCA Board should consist of a Chairperson and seven members, with a minimum “two members from the ACT region.” One Commonwealth appointee at least must have relevant expertise.

The NCCC “would have representatives from the Commonwealth Government and the ACT Government, the community and business. The Council would be co-chaired by the responsible Minister and the ACT Chief Minister.”

There is a recommendation that the Commonwealth establish the position of Commonwealth Architect within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
These recommendations presuppose a new Commonwealth Government commitment to the National Capital and to closer collaboration with the ACT government. The complementary recommendations on the dual planning system, statutory amendments and memoranda of understanding, are however about weak rather than strong integration.
Moreover, there is a confusing and complex recommended set of new and revised “Land Use Plan, Integrated Plan, NCA Plan, single integrated overarching document, Implementation Strategy and policy plans” rather than an emphasis on a new Metropolitan Strategy Plan and one integrated planning organisation. The perpetuation of the problematic dual planning system is compounded by a recommendation for a “geographic re-alignment of land administration with planning responsibility.”

The recommendations for control over Canberra Airport, location of Commonwealth government offices and formulation of a transport plan are similarly incremental and questionable. Sustainability is to be achieved through a “principle imbedded” in legislation, the new and revised Plans and Strategies, transport plan and an MOU on administrative collaboration. The Committee avoided the issue of security-related developments such as the ASIO/ONA complex and federal Parliamentarians have recently reaffirmed their exemption.

The NCA’s record on public consultation is abysmal but the Committee’s recommendations do not advance the cause, other than community representation on the NCCC.
The Committee refrained from making recommendations on general funding and professional planning resources, other than “NCA be resourced to participate in working parties and reviews as required” and the ACT Planning and Land Authority to be resourced for planning under delegations in National Capital “Designated Areas.”

It is hoped that many of these issues will be debated in due course. Already ACT Senator Gary Humphries (a member of the Committee) has organised a public forum for 17 November 2008 to discuss the recommendations. The Inquiry and the directions recommended in the Report are constructive and dynamic. The Government’s response is keenly awaited.

Brett Odgers 11.11.08