There they were, shaking hands in an unholy alliance at the Property Council lunch this week — the Liberal Minister for Planning, Brendan Smyth, and his Labor Opposition counterpart, Simon Corbell.
In this election year there they were brown-nosing themselves to the development lobby, attempting to outdo each other on what concessions they could give to make it easier for developers to make money — Smyth representing the moneyed classes and Corbell representing the unions which gain power from representing the people who do the constructing. It was the alliance for short term monetary again over the long term amenity and lifestyle of the bulk of the people of Canberra.
Both have promised the Property Council that they would curtail the right of of the residents to to appeal against development proposals.
Where has Simon Corbell been these past three years? Has he no idea of the fury out there in the suburbs as a residents feel powerless against the onslaught of the unbridled in-fill, redevelopment and change of land use. Now he is proposing to further curtail any chance residents have against developers. This system is already egregiously stacked against residents. Developers with greater resources and greater experience of the system invariably get their way. Moreover, developers get tax deductions for all of their costs involved and the planning process. Meanwhile, residents who were quietly minding their own business only to find that suddenly their landscape is to be radically changed for the worse, have to dig into their own resources of time and money to resist what they see as unsuitable and intrusive development.
When Corbell came out in favour of reducing residents appeals rights, Smyth could hardly believe his ears. The Liberal Minister labelled his Labour counterpart’s comments as “an excellent step”. He said he would have no hesitation in committing the Liberal Party to support any Labor move to reduce the rights of Canberra residents.
You have to be immediately suspicious when the two major parties agree on anything.
There is at least some joy. Residents hoping that a change of government in October would bring that some relief now at least know before the election that it is a delusion. The Labor Party now deserves a flight of a votes to the Greens, the Democrats and independents who will do something to restore quality and direction to planning and development.
The great majority of residents in Canberra have no difficulty with concept of redevelopment and changing land-uses. When you look at the objections from residents that come through the letters column and through reports of appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the theme are not protest against all development per se, but rather against the size and style of the developments. The complaints centre around the way developers bulldoze every plant on a block and then build to the uttermost limits of the planning rules and even beyond if they can get away with it, irrespective of existing styles and density.
Residents are infuriated by the disregard for the existing ambience and the incapacity or unwillingness of the planning of authorities to apply even modest standards of architectural and building quality.
The only brake on rampant development is residents’ appeals. If residents did not object the planning authorities would approve virtually anything.
As former National Capital Development Commission commissioner Tony Powell has pointed out there is now no planning in Canberra. Rather, there is just development control.
And even that development control is third rate because it is predicated on ticking off compliance of one-size-fits-all rules. There is little or no will in the planning bodies to apply high standards of design and building, despite the wads of platitudes which come out of the minister’s office “”economic and environmental sustainability”, “”interesting areas”, “”effective energy use”, “”attractive and sociable community focal points”, and all of the other meaningless mumbo-jumbo which leaves the impression of creating excellent living spaces while all the time allowing third-rate built forms that condemn occupants in the long term to high energy bills and poor use of space. Worse, when residents do object they end up in a quasi-legal forum, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, not an expert planning and building body.
Corbell’s position is marginally ameliorated by requiring development conditions and a master plan for an area to be in place before his automatic-development-approval rule applies.
“We should surely be about ensuring that if a development application meets the conditions imposed it should be approved in a timely and decisive manner,” he said.
His fundamental position is on all fours with most developers’ view of the world – - namely, have a set of rules for a section or a suburb and if the development complies with the set of rules it goes ahead regardless. This thinking was the greatest flaw in the original Territory plan, and nothing has been done to change it. This is the idea that you have a footprint within a site, within which the builder can do virtually what ever he wants. In is a crass, one-size-fits-all approach that denies the human factor and ignore the fact that every site is different and should demand individual attention. This is the essence of good architecture – - to extract from the site the best for the the needs of the humans for the long term.
The essence of most developers’ mentality, however, is very different — that is to erect a building as a commodity as cheaply and efficiently as possible for the short-term appeal of an immediate sale and hang the consequences of what might happen in the distant future when the buyer misses out on the opportunity of better use of the space and materials.
Smyth and Corbell have got it completely wrong. For the long-term benefit of the people and the community they should build up planning authorities with the skill and resources to demand standards and to resist objections when they refuse developers permission to build for the fast buck.
They should insist that redevelopers sit down with residents before their “”designers” put pen to paper and show either why the residents should be ignored or how their concerns have been incorporated.
The present system helps no-one. People redeveloping often get caught up in a mire of delaying and expensive residents’ appeals. A better planning authority would guide them in a way that would avoid costly wrangles. Continuing with rules and footprints will not. If developers do sensitive, quality work, residents’ objections will disappear.