Introduction to inquiry into the ecological carrying capacity of the ACT and region

On 8 September 2011. the Standing Committee on Climate Change, Environment and Water held the first sitting of an inquiry into the ecological carrying capacity of the ACT and region. Representatives of the ACT Government and Regional Development Australia (ACT) addressed the committee. A full transcript of proceedings can be downloaded from the website. Some brief extracts from the inquiry follow




 (Reference: Inquiry into the ecological carrying capacity of the ACT and region)

8 September 2011


MS M HUNTER (The Chair)

MS M PORTER (The Deputy Chair)


 Ms Gallagher: I think the view is, and there is an acknowledgement, that the ACT does not control our population. For a government to say, “We think it should be this,” and we use figures in our planning, is useful, but at the end of the day we are not going to put the borders up and lock everybody out once we reach a certain point. We cannot.

In terms of the data that is before the government, it is essentially natural population growth. So the effort and focus by the government should be on how we prepare for that, on the change that that number of people in Canberra and the surrounding region will have on our city, and managing that change carefully. The projections are rising to about 430,000 or 440,000 by 2030 within the ACT. In the immediate surrounding region at that point it would be closer to 600,000. So that is informing all of the decisions we take about our health infrastructure, our urban infrastructure, our schools, everything. We are using that as a guiding light.

My own view is that it is difficult for a government to say, “I think we should be this size, and this size only.” We have to be mindful of the fact that we cannot control that, and we do not control the levers that might influence that. People keep having babies and living longer.

THE CHAIR: There is some tension that has grown within the community around growth versus the argument that we should not be growing to that size, that it is putting pressure on our environment and that it is forcing this change on our community, which is about urban infill and so forth. How do you see that those concerns can be balanced or worked through?

 Ms Gallagher: I think you are right. I think this balance is going to be a job for every government right up to when we see the population growth figures change. We can predict forward the next 20 years at least. Governments in the ACT are going to be balancing those difficult issues. Canberra is changing, and change is hard, particularly for people who have a firm view about what Canberra was and what it should remain. I think the key here is for the community leaders—that involves all of us—to manage that change as sensitively as we can. That does not mean no change, but it means where change occurs that our processes and procedures are right to ensure that we are taking the community with us, even if they disagree.

One of the things that annoy people the most about infill, in my sense, is the redevelopment within suburbs where you have six units being squashed on a block next to a suburban house. That seems to be the cause of a lot of concern. We have to get better about this. In terms of the benefits that can be brought from infill development, I think all of us need to concentrate on the major transport corridors. That should be the focus of our effort—encouraging redevelopment in places where it makes sense to people and where they can see that it makes sense.

I think that is a way of going carefully with the community but allowing the city to develop and have a new side to it, without causing that suburban angst that seems to come from those suburban redevelopments. I am not saying that you would not do any suburban redevelopments but that the government in the short term should be concentrating on those areas where I think there is agreement that we should see, in particular, increased residential occupancy.

THE CHAIR: You mentioned earlier community engagement—engagement with the community and so forth. I want to pick up on Mr Seselja’s questions. How are you building up those relationships so that when a funding round, for instance, comes around or, for whatever reason, there might be something that you want to consult on and get people’s feedback and advice to government—it might be some information that government wants to get out—how are you going about building those networks and letting people know that you exist and building the communication?

 Mr van Aalst: That is probably what the secretariat spend 70 per cent of our time doing—talking to people. I often get jibbed for having too many coffees with people, but that is what it is all about—talking to people and letting them know what is available and what is coming up. Our committee is meant to be comprised of 10—we are a couple short at the moment; we have eight—who are community members as well and who have extensive networks in their own right. So they have good connections right through lots of different community groups.

We held, on 17 May this year, what we called the Canberra leaders consultative forum. We had around 100 people attend on that day from over 50 or 60 different organisations from around the ACT. That was as a result of us tapping into the database that we had, and we have built it up since then as well. We had representation from a wide range of organisations right across the spectrum, from ACTCOSS through to the Canberra Business Council, government agencies, the Housing Industry Association, the MBA, and local community councils—Gungahlin Community Council, Belconnen Community Council. So we had a wide range. I am sure we did not get them all, but it is a continual work in progress to spread the news. But our database is building quite nicely and we have some good ways of getting some information out these days.

THE CHAIR: Going back to those grants, I understood what you were saying was that the RDA itself cannot put in for the grants; that is not your role. It can be local government, in this case the ACT government, or community organisations. From what I could see when we discussed it before, the majority of projects that went into the process were ACT government proposals. Is that something that you are going to be looking at as far as ensuring it just does not become a funding stream for ACT government proposals and bypasses what might be some fantastic innovative proposals out there in the community? It could be from some of our tertiary institutions, for instance, or it could be from community organisations.

 Mr van Aalst: Absolutely. I think because the time frame on the first one was so short and no-one even knew the program was coming, the government agencies were the ones that were ready with projects quite quickly. They could open the top drawer and pull out three or four that they wanted to progress. It was also neatly attuned with the budget cycle. It actually worked quite nicely. The not-for-profits that we talked to during that period just were not ready. They were not prepared. In the interim, we have been having conversations with a few different groups and that will ramp up because it was announced yesterday that the next round will open in November and will probably close on Christmas Eve or something like that.

Mr van Aalst: which is sometimes a hard fit, especially for small not-for-profits, because the minimum value you can ask for under this fund is half a million and the maximum is $25 million.

Mr van Aalst: We also, depending on the specific topic or theme that comes up from time to time, took the opportunity last week to host this high-speed rail forum. That was based on the fact that the first phase of the commonwealth study, the six-month study, was completed. There was a gap of about two months before they started the year-long phase 2 study. We fairly quickly mobilised and pulled together as many interested people in that space, people interested in high-speed rail. We got 130-odd people together at a function last week, in association with the Business Council, all of whom had a strong interest in high-speed rail. They all wanted to understand what the report was about, where the federal government was up to and how they could actually get involved in the process as part of the year-long phase 2 study.

I think, as Craig mentioned, we had RDA involvement. There was someone from Sydney, the Illawarra, Southern Inland, the South Coast, Riverina and RDA Hume, which is the northern-most one in Victoria. They all came along. We had representatives from regional cities all the way from Wagga to Cooma, Goulburn, Wollongong et cetera. We pulled a really great interest group together that had a common interest in learning about the high-speed rail issue. There is a role, I guess, for the RDA to get involved in trying to understand what it all means. If a government is ever brave enough to put some money towards developing high-speed rail in Australia, we can actually lobby for something to go from Canberra to Sydney—

THE CHAIR: $25 million. You mentioned that you recently met up with Greening Australia, for instance, and the connections you can make there. This is obviously an ecological carrying capacity inquiry so it does have an environmental aspect to it. Is there any focus at all on natural infrastructure? It could be around plantings and bringing back some sort of biodiversity in some area for a profit, or it could be, if there is going to be an infrastructure project, seeing that there is some offsetting. Is that any part of your thinking or discussions at all, or is it just simply focusing on the concrete bricks and mortar infrastructure?

Mr van Aalst: I think there is some flexibility in the guidelines about a description of infrastructure. However, my understanding is that there were over 550 applications for the first round and a whole heap of them were wiped out pretty early because they were seeking funds for something that they could have got funding for through a regular program. My guess is that in relation to a lot of the NRM funding—certainly this came out in our talks with the NRM Council—they seem to have access to a far greater range of funding pools than we do. It may be the case that any applications for funding under the RDA fund may not be deemed eligible because they have access to funding for similar types of things under NRM funding sources. That certainly does not preclude it, but if we worked with someone that wanted to do some environmental infrastructure, for example, one of the key things that we would ask is, “Are there any other sources for this funding?” Because, if there are, under the RDAF guidelines they would get wiped out pretty early on in the assessment process.


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