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Brett Odgers and Bruce Kent pose this question one year after the Rudd Government promised to fix the National Capital’s planning system. An edited version of their article below was published in The Canberra Times in early January 2010.

The National Capital Authority’s Public Forum at Parliament House on 26 November 2009 showed that the Canberra community takes a keen interest in the planning of the National Capital. It also demonstrated the deep and ongoing problems in planning the city.

The manifest problems in Canberra’s planning system (the subject of Professor Jenny Stewart’s article, The Canberra Times, 7.12.09 p.9) are due in large degree to the settlement over self-government in 1988 but have intensified over the past few years.

The opportunity to review the division of governmental responsibilities for Canberra was not taken last year on the 20 years anniversary of ACT self-government. However, the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories report The Way Forward (July 2008) recommended some reforms in NCA governance, consultation, coordination with the Territory government and compatible plans.

The Commonwealth Government’s response on 12 December 2008, accepted 13 recommended reforms in full or in principle and noted another five. However, they were referred to a task force, to report within three months on NCA functions and governance reforms, and an intergovernmental committee was to report within 12 months on the alignment or coordination of the Territory and federal planning bodies and statutory plans. Both committees have been working behind closed doors.

The issue of most concern to the JSC and at the recent NCA Public Forum was the inadequate provision for meaningful consultation between the NCA and community stakeholders. The Canberra community is, as one would expect, highly sensitised to the bureaucratic ‘pipeline effect’ – the tendency of plans and developments to become virtually unstoppable in the minds of their authors once they have been approved in principle or even at the concept stage. It was in order to counter the ‘pipeline effect’ that the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC), which shaped Canberra before the advent of self-government in 1988, was advised by a National Capital Planning Committee (NCPC).

This body consisted of the NCDC Commissioner, together with two architects, two engineers, two town planners, and two other persons ‘with special knowledge and experience in artistic and cultural matters’, appointed by the Minister from lists provided by professional bodies. Throughout the life of the NCDC the NCPC regularly reviewed all the major matters of planning and development under reference from the Commission before they entered ‘the pipeline’.

The current impasse between planners and citizenry in Canberra would be allayed if a similar body were established, along the lines of the National Capital Consultative Council recommended by the JSC. It would include representatives from the two governments, the community and business and be co-chaired by the federal Minister and the Chief Minister. It is to be hoped that this Council, agreed in principle by the federal Government a year ago, will be confirmed by Minister Brendan O’Connor, not only to defuse counter-productive disputation within Canberra but also to strengthen the arm of the beleaguered NCA against pressure from government departments and developers.

Washington DC is guided by such a National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). It also has democratic processes for the development of monuments and memorials in the National Capital. The land bank of suitable locations is precisely monitored and identified. Canberra has no such care and scrutiny.

A related matter which vitally affects the development of the National Capital is the location of responsibility for ACT planning and development within the appropriate Commonwealth portfolio. The issue was broached in Recommendation 8 of the JSC Report that there should be consultation about the Canberra Airport Master Plan between the NCA and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government. In view of the inability of recent incumbents of the Home Affairs portfolio to pay sufficient attention to National Capital planning and development matters, there is a strong case for relocating responsibility for the ACT to the infrastructure, urban and regional planning portfolio.

The JSC recommendations on ‘the dual planning framework’ between the Commonwealth and ACT governments and ‘vision for future planning’ were decidedly weak and regressive. The Government’s response was even more ominous, being cast in terms of ‘simplification and removing duplication.’ They were an invitation for the Commonwealth to eliminate ‘areas of special national requirements’ and hand over (‘uplift’) to the Territory government portions of the ‘designated areas.’ It presupposed delegation and cooperation; and envisaged combining the Territory and National Capital Plans into one accessible document.

Canberra needs an integrated, unified and capable planning organisation geared to the idea and the ideal of the National Capital, strategic planning, deep sustainability, a real land use and transport strategy and specific controls over, say, location of federal offices and the National Capital Open Space System. The Territory Plan, the Spatial Plan and the National Capital Plan are all long overdue for substantive review and for sustainability integration into a metropolitan strategy.

Twelve months ago, however, all that the Commonwealth Minister could foreshadow was ‘The Commonwealth will consult with the ACT Government on matters relevant to the holistic development of Canberra as the National Capital.’ How confident can we be about the awaited decisions on The Way Forward by the Rudd Government?

Brett Odgers and Dr Bruce Kent