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Why does Canberra look like it does? (Part two)

Updated: May 4, 2022

The material for this article up until 1988 is mainly sourced from Paul Reid - Canberra following Griffin: a design history of Australia’s national capital – first published 2002 by National Archives of Australia. The discussion of strategic planning issues is based on material provided by former government strategic planner Mike Quirk.

This traffic study by Voorheers & Associates 1967 led to the development and implementation of the Y-Plan.
This traffic study by Voorheers & Associates 1967 led to the development and implementation of the Y-Plan.


The NCDC was established in early 1958. It was charged with planning, designing and constructing the city of Canberra, given wide powers and good, annually recurrent funding.

The first Commissioner, John Overall, was not concerned with the spirit of the Griffin plan. He accepted the demands of modern traffic and he believed in Garden Cities rather than geometry. He was anxious to get on with the job: “If you have authority and expert advice, don’t seek public approval, just do.”

The NCDC took up the challenge of providing for the rapidly expanding population of Canberra in a series of new towns extending into the surrounding farmland. Canberra became one enormous garden suburb. The planners of Canberra now had political endorsement (following the report of the 1955 Senate Select Committee) of a design that had been freed from the constraints of Griffin.

The NCDC’s broad outline plan for the future Canberra, known as the ‘Y-Plan’, was greatly influenced by traffic planning in 1967. It was in the form of a ladder with peripheral parkways enclosing a series of new towns of approximately 100,000 inhabitants each. The new towns were intended to be as self-sufficient as possible, with offices, service industry, retail and education for the local population. There were to be inter-town public transport routes linking the town centres, but NCDC showed little interest in developing these. There was also a supporting centres hierarchy, integrated pedestrian and cycle networks and a National Capital Open Space System.

NCDC’s planning was an effective response to the planning parameters of its time, especially the availability of cheap fuel and a preference for low density living. However, the NCDC was less successful at dealing with redevelopment issues in the central area. It prepared a number of ‘Policy Plans’ to control redevelopment of specific areas, such as Civic Centre and Torrens Street Braddon, and had various fairly simple ‘codes’ for residential development, car parking etc, but it never produced an overall statutory planning scheme.

In 1982 the Fraser Government appointed a committee of three experts in city planning to review the role and function of the NCDC, in response to community concerns about its lack of accountability and political, bureaucratic and industry suggestions that the planning of Canberra was complete and its development could be taken over by the private sector. The committee found the NCDC should be retained but run by a board of five, three appointed by the Federal Government and two by the ACT House of Assembly. The committee report was received in 1983 by the new Hawke Government which was determined to give the ACT self-government.


In July 1988 the Hawke Government abolished the NCDC, with much of its staff and functions transferred to the new ACT Government, but with a small unit (then called the National Capital Planning Authority - NCPA) remaining within the Federal Government and being charged with protecting the city’s national capital significance.

So in 1989 the responsibility for the city was once again divided among a number of bureaucratic organisations, but to ‘keep an eye on things’ at the Federal level the Parliament established a Joint Committee on the National Capital.

The NCPA published the first edition of the National Capital Plan in December 1990. This was not a ‘vision’ for the future, but rather a compilation of NCDC planning policies intended to assist in managing the existing city.

In 2004 the renamed National Capital Authority (NCA) published ‘The Griffin Legacy’, which proposed a number of significant projects including ‘Extending the City to the Lake’ building on planning work for the Acton Peninsula in 1992: “A plan to carry city life to West Basin and replace the hospital with a national institution” (the National Museum of Australia).


Soon after self-government the (ACT) Land (Planning and Environment) Act 1991 was introduced. It was quite comprehensive, in a comparatively modest 273 pages. A new Territory Plan was also compiled from the left-over planning polices of the NCDC and some new material, but this document seems to have vanished from the ACT legislative history.

The (ACT) Planning and Land Act 2002 established the ACT Planning and Land Authority, which revised the Territory Plan and produced the Spatial Plan (2004) and the ACT Planning Strategy (2012) in response to the forces shaping Canberra’s development including difficulties in dispersing employment, demographic changes, greater environmental awareness and changing housing preferences.


The major policy shift was an increased emphasis on redevelopment, to reduce the amount of travel and car use and associated greenhouse gas emissions by placing additional population close to existing employment. Redevelopment was seen as also supporting public transport, walking and cycling; making better use of existing social and physical infrastructure; easing infrastructure demands on the fringe; widening housing choice and contributing to a more diverse, vibrant, urban environment.

However Canberra has become an increasingly difficult place to live, work, travel around and to find affordable housing. The implementation of redevelopment policy has been flawed, with widespread community concern over major development proposals including City to the Lake and the poor design and construction of redevelopments with inadequate greenspace, access to sunlight, protection from overlooking and noise and diminishing the quality of residential streetscapes.

Concerns have also been expressed about the failures to develop significant employment at the Gungahlin Town Centre (partially a result of uncontrollable development at the Airport), justify light rail, provide sufficient public transport and social housing, and justify ad hoc land purchases to the west of the city.

Unfortunately a recent Planning Strategy “refresh” does not provide a sound basis to guide development as it fails to analyse the merits of alternative residential and employment strategies and housing preferences or demonstrate light rail is the most cost effective approach to increasing the use of public transport.

Planning since self government has become dominated by short term revenue considerations reflecting the influence of the election cycle and the unquestioning acceptance of advice from the development lobby and bureaucrats in Treasury and the Chief Minister’s department. Planning agencies have been relegated to development facilitation.


The ACT was influenced by the various National-level movements for regulatory reform in the 1990’s, including the Local Approvals Reform Program (LARP), the Development Assessment Forum under COAG and the Australian Model Code for Residential Development (AMCORD). The latter was in a ‘performance-based’ form, which was adopted in the Territory Plan development codes subsequently.

When an ACT Labor Government was re-elected in 2001 the new Planning Minister, Simon Corbell, decided that both the planning legislation and the Territory Plan should be comprehensively overhauled. Unfortunately there seemed to have been no instruction for the new legislation to be a model of clarity and brevity. The result was:

· Planning and Development Act 2007 [now 671 pages]

· Planning and Development Regulation [now 346 pages]

Both the Act and the Regulation have been republished more than 80 times over the last 10 years to include the hundreds of amendments that have been made to both documents. It is notable that Schedule 1 of the Regulation contains 109 pages of Exemptions from requiring Development Approval!

There is of course separate legislation on other matters relevant to planning and development, eg.:

· Tree Protection Act 2005 [102 pages plus the Tree Register and Disallowable Instruments]

· Heritage Act 2004 [156 pages, plus the Heritage Register]

There is substantial repetition between these acts (particularly Enforcement provisions) and very little cross-referencing.


In the current Territory Plan, not including the overall maps (which are separate to the Plan’s written statement and are found through ACTMAPi), there are 2,400 pages of zoning provisions, codes, precinct maps, district maps, structure plans, concept plans, etc. There are 39 pages of Definitions. According to the 131 pages of ‘End notes’ there have been 59 (formal) Plan Variations and 290 ‘Technical’ Plan Variations since 2008. About half the total volume of the Territory Plan is taken up with 116 “Suburb Precinct Maps and Codes”. These vary widely in scope and complexity, from 1 page up to 52 pages.

Sitting uneasily over the top of this mountain of ACT Government documents is the National Capital Plan, which purports to be the “strategy and blueprint giving effect to the Commonwealth’s interests and intentions for planning, designing and developing Canberra and the Territory”.

In fact it is largely an aspirational document with very limited direct effect except for “Designated Areas” (generally National Land, the Central National Area and the Inner Hills) and areas subject to “Special Requirements” (the Main Avenues and Approach Routes, City Centre, Kingston Foreshore and Haig and Telopea Parks).

Development in the latter areas is administered by the Territory planning authority “in compliance with” National Capital Authority approved Development Control Plans (if any). It seems to be difficult to find a listing of such DCPs through the NCA’s website.

There is in practice very little connection between the National Capital Plan and the Territory Plan and there are significant differences in style, terminology and form of planning controls. There has been talk over the years about ‘integrating’ these Plans, but it has not happened.


The lack of integration of the two primary Plans and the sheer volume and complexity of material facing anyone trying to use the current system would suggest another wholesale review is required. Unfortunately the recently announced “ACT Planning System Review and Reform project” specifically does not deal with these issues, nor with other defects with the current system such as:

· It seems to be too easy for the planning authority to amend the Territory Plan through ‘Technical’ Plan Variations. All Variations should be subject to public consultation and review by the Legislative Assembly.

· The Residential Zones material (section 3 of the Plan), which affects more Canberrans than the other sections, is particularly voluminous and complex. There are various zoning provisions occupying 20 pages and then three separate codes (dealt with below) totalling 131 pages.

· The Residential Zones Development Code contains provisions about supportive housing, retirement villages, boarding houses, subdivision etc. but also, oddly, ‘secondary residences’ even though these can only be developed in association with single dwelling housing, which has its own code (see below). Secondary residences apparently do not have to comply with the Building Design, Parking and Site Access and Amenity (solar access, private open space and noise attenuation) controls required under the Single Dwelling Code.

· The Single Dwelling Housing Development Code, which should be the simplest, runs to 49 pages. The ‘Building envelope’ and building setback controls in particular extend over 15 pages plus 12 pages of diagrams, covering a range of different sized blocks approved at different dates, in what seems to be an absurd degree of over-elaboration of control.

· Some controls, such as ‘Plot ratio’ have only mandatory Rules and no Criteria to allow consideration of alternative solutions. This type of control is crude, difficult to calculate and check and has been abandoned in other jurisdictions.

· In the case of several other controls the Criteria are effectively meaningless, eg.: “Buildings are consistent with the desired character”. This is a defined term, as follows: “the form of development in terms of siting, building bulk and scale, and the nature of the resulting streetscape that is consistent with the relevant zone objectives, and any statement of desired character in a relevant precinct code.” Good luck in applying that!


The ACT Government has made some positive moves to improve development approval processes, for example:

· Introducing compulsory pre-development application (DA) consultation requirements for defined, large scale developments.

· Setting up a high level National Capital Design Review Panel (NCDRP) in conjunction with the National Capital Authority (NCA) to provide advice on significant development proposals.

However there are problems with these initiatives and other features of the current processes that make it difficult for observers to be satisfied that development approvals are fair, well considered and will result in high quality outcomes. Some of these problems are:

Pre-application consultation The current mandatory pre-DA consultation should be extended to ALL DAs in the Merit and Impact assessment tracks and the guidelines for such consultation should be revised accordingly. All DAs in these categories are potentially contentious and pre-DA consultation would assist affected residents understand the proposed development’s impacts and seek design changes as necessary before the formal DA processes. This process should be run by or on behalf of the planning authority. The general experience to date of developer-led pre-DA consultation is that community comments are ignored and the planning authority just accepts the glossy but insubstantial reports by the developer’s consultants.

Design Review Panel It is now mandatory for proposals to develop buildings of five or more storeys to be reviewed by the National Capital Design Review Panel (NCDRP) prior to lodgement of a development application.

Although the advice of the panel has been valuable in achieving better results on some projects, this seems to depend on the willingness of the proponent to embrace the panel’s advice and whether the planning authority is prepared to insist on this. The panel also seems to have a tendency to focus only on specific design issues rather than desired planning outcomes. For example, a recent development proposal for an eight storey building at Kingston shopping centre where the building height ‘rule’ was two storeys did not attract adverse comment from the panel. Its meetings are also not open to the public and it is not required to take any account of community concerns about development proposals.

Public access to DAs and Territory Plan requirements Current DAs are generally accessible on-line. The clarity of information is variable and some details can be hard to read on screen. The Territory Plan and Regulations are also available on-line, but these are very complex and it can be hard to identify all the matters relevant to a particular DA. The applicant’s required “Statement Against Criteria” can be helpful (if done well) but cannot always be relied on. The Territory Plan needs to be simplified and a property-based information system for zonings and relevant provisions should be introduced.

Requirements for DA documentation

The applicant only has to signify they have carried out pre-DA community consultation in accordance with the guidelines. This is insufficient. A succinct report should be submitted by the developer detailing neighbour and community comments and how the design has responded to these. This report needs to be regarded as an important part of DA documentation and be subject to rejection at the DA check stage if inadequate.

The development assessment track system According to the EPSDD website, very few DAs are now considered under the ‘Code’ track, as many Code compliant DAs (including for single dwellings) are now able to be Exempted (by private certifiers) or have an “Exemption Declaration” issued by ACTPLA if there are “minor departures” from some Rules (eg. building envelope, dimensions of required minimum open space). This would seem to suggest the ‘Code’ track could be dispensed with, to assist in simplifying the system.

However, there is a particular problem with new dwellings replacing existing dwellings, where the impacts on streetscape and neighbours’ amenity are often not adequately considered. All such DAs (ie. the redevelopment of blocks for one or more dwellings) should be in the ‘Merit’ track and subject to at least neighbour notification.

Retrospective DAs

Permitting developers to lodge a ‘retrospective’ DA, usually to rectify unapproved work, should be discouraged by penalties and applications should go to the back of the queue. Retrospective approvals can be used to by-pass normal requirements (such as pre-DA community consultation) and this puts undue pressure on the assessment process to approve substandard design and building work.

Reconsideration and appeal processes

It is not clear why there should be an opportunity for reconsideration after a decision is made on a DA. Pressure should be on the applicants to get their DAs ‘right’ and for the planning authority to make well based decisions. On the other hand appeal processes have become very legalistic and expensive and a return to the earlier specialist planning and land tribunal would be welcome. Independent decision-making panels are another alternative worth considering.

Heritage, Tree Protection and Environmental assessments It seems to be too easy for the planning authority to ignore expert input on these matters and for non-executive officers to make decisions that heritage requirements listed as ‘mandatory’ are not important. Any decision to overrule a mandatory requirement in legislation should be exceptional and should be considered by a senior executive and reasons for the decision should be given in writing. A mandatory requirement in legislation surely means that the requirement must be complied with.

If the planning authority does not accept entity advice it should be required to provide a detailed and convincing reason for it. It is not good enough to say the Act allows the minister to override the advice - there should be a good reason for it. Nor should entity advice which arrives outside the “statutory timeframe” be able to be simply ignored.

As for the on-going “ACT Planning System Review and Reform project”, well that’s another story!

Richard Johnston B.Architecture, Dip. T&C Planning, Dip. Environ. Studies Life Fellow Planning Institute of Australia


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