Don’t tinker with the essential Canberra

by Crispin Hull on May 8, 2010

EVERY year at Budget time, the ACT Government tinkers about a bit. Some money goes here and some is taken from there. It is an accounting exercise and a political exercise and all too often the big picture gets lost.

Canberra is at a fairly critical juncture now. Sadly, it is almost inevitable that the Federal Government will do nothing to head off mindlessly high population growth and the states and territories will pay the price. Some people will profit greatly from it, of course. Most won’t, and indeed will be worse off.

Canberra, perhaps, has most to lose. The ominous growth threatens to trash some of the things that make Canberra special, that make Canberra Canberra — unique, not just another city.

This Budget neither made the trashing process irreversible, but nor did it do much to defend those unique Canberra elements. At least it made reference to them, so we should at least be alert and alarmed.

First, what are those critical elements that make Canberra what it is, as distinct from, say, Wollongong, Newcastle, Geelong and Sydney.

They should be fairly obvious: no front fences; no building above 618 metres above sea level; assignment of specific species as street trees; clarity of axes up main routes to high points like Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain; ordered land use preventing odd-ball commercial uses in residential areas; building ratios which allow enough spare land around dwellings to permit large trees; the national capital open space system which dedicates green belts between the seven mini-metropolises: North and South Canberra, Woden, Weston, Tuggeranong, Belconnen and Gunghalin.

Some of these are Griffin-inspired. Some are creatures of the National Capital Development Commission. The street trees are down to Weston and Pryor. The originator is not sacrosanct; but the ideals should be.

You may find two or three of these seven critical elements in other cities. But only in Canberra do you find all of them. Erode them and the city becomes just another urban blight, like Sydney without the harbour – a congested rat-hole.

Canberrans and people who come to Canberra know this is a unique city. Love it or hate it, it is on its own. At least no-one can say it is “just another city”.

My guess is that most people who live here or visit like it or love it without knowing why or what it is that makes Canberra Canberra. Well now you do.

In this Budget, the Government deferred its tree-maintenance program. Bad move. It says to citizens that street trees don’t matter. They do. Why can’t I have a conifer outside my place; I don’t like raking up the leaves from the Chinese elm? Sorry, if even a third of people take that attitude then Canberra will become more like any other city, like Albury or Bourke.

Why can’t I have a front fence to keep my rottweiler in? No, this is Canberra, not Wodonga.

And then the salivating dorsal fins are after the big view. Why can’t I have a McMansion half way up Mount Ainslie with lights for all to see at night? Why can’t we build on those useless green bits between the mini-metropolises? No, the building line, the axes and the open space system give all 350,000 of us the calming joy of always being able to look out and up and see some green rather than undulating tiled roofs.

Some trashing of the ideal is now, alas, irreversible. The sharks have conned governments into allowing a 50 per cent building ration in the suburbs. We will pay with fewer trees. They have allowed a more densely developed centre.

They have fed off each other as the denser centre has increased property values and rents but also increased rates and land tax. Property owners and governments share an interest in high population growth, inner-city congestion and high-density development. Too bad for the people who have to commute there.

It is now too late to do much about it. The ASIO building could have been built in Gungahlin – on the same military-political logic that put the military’s Joint Operations Command in Bungendore. Other government buildings could have been dispersed.

But no. Well, let’s at least face up to the consequences – the costs usually fall on the less well off. We now have to accept that all-day parking in Civic is off limits to all but the privileged and wealthy. Pouring more money for more cars on commuter roads is an utter waste – ask any Sydney town planner. A critical mass has now been reached with city employment that each worker cannot bring half a tonne of steel with them to work each day. Let’s not waste any money trying.

Make the left lane of Northbourne Avenue southbound buses-only from 7am to 9.30am and the left lane of Northbourne Avenue northbound buses-only from 4pm to 6.30pm. No big capital cost is required. Just a few signs and some cops. Workers who bring their half tonne of steel to work will watch the buses go by. If bus fares are cut the option will become obvious.

Alas, it means the end of the lunch-time errand in the car. But we have to accept the price of earlier developer-government collusion.

The Budget mentioned change-of-use-charges. There is a glimmer of hope here. The interests of developers and the Government do not line up. The developers would like to be able to build whatever they like wherever they want for wherever a buck can be made. The government now wants them to pay for the increase value in their land when they are permitted to have a more profitable use. The higher the change-of-use-fee the less likely the development.

But given the Federal impetus for population growth, people have got to live somewhere. The critical thing for Canberra citizens is to make sure it is not in the National Capital Open Space System or above the 618m contour – the things that will enable us to remain the Bush Capital even with a population of 500,000.

It is not all gloom. We are at least blessed with a political system that gives citizens some clout – the multi-member Hare-Clark system.

The next election will not be just a Liberal v Labor contest. Far from it. It will be more a Labor-Green contest. The Libs have six seats – two in each electorate. They cannot do any worse. Labor will not be chasing their seats. Labor can only win seats from the Greens.

In this environment, voters can make it clear that unless Labor is willing to resist the salivating dorsal fins and protect the seven dearly held elements of Canberra, they can forget about winning any seats from the Greens. And they ain’t getting any seats from anyone else.
CRISPIN HULL
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 08 May 2010.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Michael Sim 05.11.10 at 3:38 pm

Where does this figure of 618m come from? Even Enrico Taglietti repeats this number in the Canberra Times 11 May 2010.
Many suburbs are at an elevation over 618m, such as Gordon, Macgreor, Fadden, Isaacs.
Do you mean building heights in the centre of Canberra so that they are all lower than Parliament?
I thought there was a rule protecting the hilltops which make Canberra the Bush Capital but this must be more like 700m. I also remember seeing something to the effect that it was the elevation of the water reservoirs that set the building line. Or is it the “Inner Hills” of the Territory plan that defines where the reservoirs are? A bit of a chicken and the egg situation!
Certainly we need to save the nature reserves and open spaces. They are less protected than you would think.

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