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Are ACT Community Councils being sidelined?

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

A short history of ACT Community Councils

Prior to self-government the planning and development of the National Capital was managed by a succession of Federal Government statutory entities whose staff brought a high level of expertise and professionalism to the profession of town planning.

However, the imposition of self-government in 1989 led to the formation of two distinct planning bodies. The present National Capital Authority (NCA) administers the National Capital Plan. The local ACT Planning Authority administers the (subordinate) Territory Plan.

Self-government also led to the formation of a platform whereby the local community could give voice to their aspirations and concerns whilst contributing to the evolution and well-being of their neighbourhoods. Initially, Local Area Planning Advisory Committees (LAPACs) were established and underpinned by successive ACT governments. However, the election of a new Labor government in 2001 was followed by the disbanding of LAPACs, and their gradual replacement by Community Councils.

Review of the Territory Planning System: 2020 Parliamentary Agreement

ACT citizens went to the polls in 2020. Following that election, Labor entered into a power sharing arrangement with the Greens for the third time in order to form government.

Under the terms of the latest agreement there is a commitment to complete the Territory Planning System Review, “in consultation with” the people of Canberra. Indeed, one of the stated aims of the review is to improve existing community consultation processes and the community’s involvement in Canberra’s development.

Is there a role for Community Councils?

Community Councils were originally formed at the behest of the ACT Government. Each of these (now) eight Community Councils is charged with giving voice to the interests and concerns of the local community. In order to assist councils in this role the ACT government provides a modest yearly grant. This grant offsets expenses including incorporation, insurance, publicity, website maintenance, hall & room hire and newsletters both online and hard copy.

Despite Community Councils being identified as peak local community representative entities, they do not feature in the 10th Legislative Assembly Agreement in relation to the aim of improving existing community consultation processes. Meanwhile, councils are reporting that they are facing increasing pressures brought on by the deteriorating state of town planning in our city. Combined Community Council meetings are now sharing a growing list of common concerns and negative experiences.

Volunteers serving on councils must learn to navigate two levels of government, two planning entities, and various local government departments (which appear to operate in silos). Potentially added to this mix are private consultants working on behalf of federal and local government departments, statutory entities, and developers operating in the public and private realm. From time to time it is obvious that consultants and others are not even aware of the stated aims of community councils. This makes for a very complex environment!

To illustrate the problem

Members of Community Councils have only recently been made aware of the immediate significance of the ACT Government publication titled, ACT Planning Strategy 2018. The official line states that this 2018 strategy builds on the earlier ACT Planning Strategy 2012.

The reader is informed that the planning strategy has been updated following “extensive research, discussion with stakeholders, and consultation with the community...”

Why District Level Planning?

It appeared that the authorities were relying on community councils to suddenly bring this one hundred and sixteen page ACT Government publication to the attention of the community. Why does the community need to know of this publication? Well, from page 93 of the documents there is reference to ‘district level planning’. Note: ‘district level planning,’ is not defined in the accompanying glossary.

Some three years after the ACT Planning Strategy 2018 was signed off by the Minister for Planning, residents of Canberra’s ‘districts’ have been invited to participate in local workshops, conducted by a government consultant, in order to identify the characteristics of each district. Coincidently, eight districts have been identified, corresponding with the overlay of the eight Community Councils. Could the ACT government’s Planning System Review and Reform Project be the answer?

Were the peak local community entities, the eight Community Councils, offered briefings by the planners who were progressing the latest planning strategy? Was informative material forwarded to the Community Councils in order to be broadcast on their websites? Were hard copies of these documents distributed widely in order to capture the attention of those who are not routinely online? Whatever the answers to these questions, the workshops were rolled out, in rapid succession, across the eight ‘districts’ identified in the Planning Strategy 2018.

A District Level Planning Workshop: The public workshop process in the inner south was capped at fifty random attendees. The committee members of the Inner South Canberra Community Council (ISCCC) were not offered, or even guaranteed, a place. Applications to register received the following reply (in part):

Thank you for registering your interest to attend the District Planning in the Inner South workshop. We received strong interest in the event and, as a result, have well exceeded our capacity. A random selection process will be undertaken to identify attendees …

Many well-informed members of the community who applied to attend were rejected. On the night, only thirty people attended dropping to eighteen well before the workshop wrapped up. Three people attended via Zoom, while one of the three attended in person. Maps and other relevant material were not provided beforehand and were not disclosed on the night. When the report was published, the community representatives who managed to secure a place at the workshop were not satisfied that the views of the attendees had been captured. Relevant maps on the government website were altered, more than once, after the workshop. Requests for an extension of time to enable Community Councils to reach out to their local communities to inform the consultation process resulted in a token seven day extension!

An abuse of process?

Some would describe the conduct of these workshops as an abuse of process! Indeed, the next Combined Community Council meeting was revealing. Feelings were running high. The inner south workshop experience was not a one-off. From all accounts it appeared that this latest attempt at ‘consultation’ had only served to deepen the mistrust which, for some time, has been a feature of the community’s involvement with government, planners and developers.

Community Council representatives are volunteers who spend a great deal of time, week in and week out, endeavouring to keep up to date with the latest government manoeuvrings while giving voice to local issues and concerns. This latest experience of council representatives with the ACT Planning Authority begs the question: What was the point of these workshops? Why persist with public recognition of Community Councils if they are not genuinely part of community consultation? Was the conduct of the district planning exercise indeed an abuse of process?

Reflecting, once again, on the Labor Greens agreement, which forms the framework of the government partnership, there is a commitment to finalise the Territory Planning System Review, “in consultation with” the people of Canberra. However, it is difficult to predict what the next step in the review will be. The people of Canberra certainly don’t appear to be part of the process.

A Community Council Response:

However, following the disturbing district planning workshop described above, the ISCCC has proactively reached out to the local community in an effort to give residents a chance to genuinely have an informed say in their future.

Where to now?

After extensive consultation at committee level, a district strategy, based on past committee work encompassing the inner south, was drafted and posted on the council website. The local community was notified of this draft document via local residents’ group email lists and recipients were invited to respond prior to the next ISCCC meeting. This document is still being nuanced prior to being forwarded, uninvited, to government authorities.

Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of Community Council representatives, all of whom volunteer their time, an observer might conclude that the system is broken!


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