May 2022 Newsletter

One of the novel aspects of debates about local planning laws and regulations is how technical and complex the rules are, requiring one to have an incredibly strong grasp of the Territory Plan, of ‘development codes’, ‘zone objectives,’ what is or is not permitted in particular zones, and the roles of different government agencies. Yet despite their opacity, these rules have fundamental implications for our streets and suburbs. They shape where we live and how we navigate our city, and yet it often feels like one must need tertiary qualifications in planning to understand them.

In the past month, this gap between the complexity of the laws and their relevance to our daily lives has been brought into stark contrast by the saga over Variation 369. This variation to the Territory Plan is part of the suite of changes required to implement the ACT Government’s election commitment to establish a minimum requirement for tree canopy on residential blocks. This reform is vital for reducing the proliferation of ‘Mc-Mansions’ that are built right up to the edge of the property and will ultimately add to the urban heat island effect that will only get worse with climate change.

Variation 369 had gone through its consultation phase during 2020, resulting in a Recommended Variation in October 2021 followed by information sessions for industry in February 2022. However, just after it was approved by the Minister for Planning in May 2022, and tabled in the Assembly, several NCCC members noticed that the wording and structure of V 369 had been significantly amended. While the intent of the late wording changes had apparently been to exempt the small minority of owners and builders who had purchased their land prior to the rule change, it soon became evident that the changes created not just a broad and open-ended exemption but also a giant loophole that effectively exempted all houses and multi-unit buildings, in new and established suburbs, from the rule change indefinitely, and also accidentally quashed the main private open space and site open space rules for the whole of the ACT.

Through our Deputy Chair’s engagement with the other community councils, professional bodies, and planning law experts, and subsequent discussions with the Minister’s adviser and ACT Government directorate for planning, this loophole is able to be closed, with houses and units in established suburbs to be covered under the provisions from 1 September 2022 (for now, we’ll just have to take the ACT Government’s word for it that the application of stricter tree canopy standards to new suburbs and greenfield areas will be genuinely dealt with in the next Territory Plan).

What is clear though is that if not for NCCC identifying this loophole and able to draw on a wealth of knowledge of planning laws, no one would have raised concerns and undertaken to repair the loophole (certainly not those who would stand to benefit from them).

While some developers like to assuage themselves with the myth that Community Councils are comprised of dilettante retirees (which is an amusing notion to the millennial who writes this newsletter), the reality is that we are all volunteers who have to work around our normal work hours (often interacting and negotiating with people who engage with these issues exclusively during work hours).

It is a shame that so much seems to depend on the capacity for residents with professional planning backgrounds to devote significant amounts of their personal time on a volunteer basis to address these fundamental issues.

We hope there is not a repeat of these back room deals resulting in ill-conceived wording changes to critical legislation in the future, given that it does not engender trust between communities and government and in this case means that the community has patiently waited over 3 years for promised rule changes that are being postponed by at least another year in the places where they matter most.

NCCC updates

  • ACT Planning Review consultation closes on 15 June: A reminder that the ACT Planning Review consultation period closes next week, on Wednesday 15 June.
    The Planning Review (and subsequent revisions to the Territory Plan) is not unlike Variation 369 described in the above section, in that both issues are incredibly technical and hard for a layperson to engage with and, yet, have significant implications for our streets and suburbs. The Planning Review will inform the rules and regulations that guide the development of Canberra over the coming decades.

Broadly summarised, the Planning Bill proposes transitioning from a ‘rules-based’ approach to an ‘outcome-based’ approach to planning and development in the ACT. Ian Bushnell at The RiotACT has written a succinct summary of the broader context and key changes proposed.

The NCCC will also be making a submission on the Planning Review, which we will share in the next newsletter. We strongly encourage you to lodge your own submission to the ACT Planning Review consultation at the YourSay website.

If you want to read more analysis of the proposed changes first, we recommend checking out the Canberra Planning Action Group’s website, where a number of opinion pieces have been published reviewing the proposed changes.

One of our members has also alerted us to the fact that the submission page requires you to submit personal information such as your gender before making a submission, which definitely doesn’t sound like data mining… We also note that the related Privacy Statement states that you can submit under a pseudonym if you would prefer.

  • Turner Block 4 Section 57 to go to auction in June: You may recall from the previous newsletter that the Suburban Land Agency delivered a presentation on their plans for the Turner block (adjacent to Haig Park) and, in particular, their proposal to designate a proportion of the units as ‘build-to-rent’, which could provide secure and more affordable rental options for tenants.The Canberra Times recently reported that the Turner block is now on sale, with the auction expected to take place in late June.

    The NCCC wants to see more affordable housing along the Northbourne Corridor (indeed, it’s not clear why it’s not mandatory for all new apartment builds along the corridor to provide a minimum proportion of affordable units) and we look forward to seeing how the build-to-rent scheme is implemented at the Turner site, in order to secure this outcome.

  • Forced evictions under the Growth and Renewal social housing program: CityNews recently featured a depressing story regarding one of the elderly women subject to forced eviction under the ACT Government’s ‘Growth and Renewal’ public-housing relocation scheme. According to data collected by Canberra Community Law, 87 percent of the 340 Housing ACT tenants facing eviction are women living alone or with children.

In March, the NCCC released a statement calling for those tenants who wish to stay where they are for the time being (and that this may mean for the rest of their lives) be removed from the current relocation list. For many tenants, who were told by Housing ACT that they had a ‘home for life’, the prospect of being forced to leave has caused distress, anxiety and confusion. You can read our statement (which also calls out some of the claims made by ACT Housing about the alleged necessity of their approach) here.

The NCCC also co-signed (along with many community groups) the open letter from the ACT Council of Social Services to Minister Berry, ACT Minister for Housing, and Minister Vassarotti, ACT Minister for Homelessness and Housing Services, which called for the Growth and Renewal Program to be re-designed as a voluntary program, and to also improve the standard of communication with the affected tenants.

The mass sell-off of public housing blocks in inner city areas under the banner of ‘growth and renewal’ is exacerbating a trend of gentrification where the economic value of the land appears to be constantly prioritised over the social and public values of having a diverse and mixed community, especially in areas with high real estate value. It has not escaped the attention of many in the community that the new social housing never seems to be built in prime real estate locations.

Magda, the impacted tenant featured in the CityNews article, believes the relocation is really about “the money that they will get from the land.” The NCCC believes that the ACT Government still has an opportunity to reform its social housing policy to address this perception, and we note that Minister Vassarotti advised earlier this week that tenants will now be able to apply for a discretion which means they may not have to move and that Housing ACT will soon be providing information to affected tenants on how the discretions work and can be applied for. The NCCC will keep members updated on this process as it unfolds.

  • NCCC Facebook page: The NCCC has had a Facebook page for some time, but we’re using it more regularly these days to communicate with NCCC members and North Canberra residents on a range of topics. As well as providing information on the NCCC’s views and activities (such as upcoming presentations), we use the Facebook page to link to useful advice that NCCC members want to share with other residents. For example, knowing your rights in strata disputes, or knowing how to install EV chargers in your apartment basement, or guides on handling disputes with neighbours over issues such as on-street parking.You can find us on Facebook at this link, or by searching for and ‘liking’ @NorthCanberraCommunityCouncil.

You can find out about new DAs in your area, including information on how to lodge a submission, by accessing this ACT Government website or by visiting the NCCC website.

Local news and updates

  • New laws for cat containment and registration: The ACT Government has extended the cat containment requirements to all of the ACT, applying specifically to cats born on or after 1 July 2022. Cats born before then do not have to be contained unless they live in one of the 17 current declared cat containment suburbs. The updated rules also include the introduction of annual registration for all cats. You can find out more information about the cat containment rules at this ACT Government website.
  • Petition to the ACT Legislative Assembly on the proposed Tarago incinerator: Jo Clay MLA is sponsoring a petition that was initiated by the residents of Tarago in regional New South Wales in opposition to a major waste-to-energy incinerator development 35km east of the ACT. The proposed incinerator would burn 380,000 tonnes of Sydney’s waste each year and operate 24 hours a day.

While the incinerator is being built in NSW, most Canberrans would be aware that the prevailing easterly ‘ocean breeze’ winds that Canberra experiences most evenings (particularly in summer) would cause the pollutants to blow across and spread pollutants throughout the ACT and surrounds. The petition, which closes on 30 June, can be signed here.

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