Speech: The ACT Greens approach to the planning review. Feat. Jo Clay MLA


I’d like to speak about next steps on the Planning Review, now that we have seen the ACT Government response. I am speaking in my capacity as ACT Greens spokesperson for Planning.

The ACT Planning Review and Reform Project has been running for a long time. It began formally in 2019 but it came on the heels of several years of feedback from the community and from industry and reform work from government. It’s been on all of our agendas for a while. And there has been a high level of engagement from many. Hundreds of people have dedicated a huge amount of volunteer work to discuss issues that require detailed consideration, are technical and can be dry in nature. It is an incredibly generous donation of time and expertise from stakeholders and from our community. The Greens are grateful to every single person who has contributed.

Why have so many people who have dedicated their evenings and weekends to a planning review?

This system will shape Canberra for decades to come. It will help us to deal with some of the biggest problems that we are facing, along with every other city in the world. It will help us tackle climate change, homelessness, housing affordability and the ongoing destruction of our habitat. We need to get this right.

Different people come into this review with a different focus and that’s partly why we have such a wide range of views about the problems and the solutions.

There are those who want an affordable place to live, close to current services. They are worried about Canberrans who are homeless. They are worried about those who can’t afford rent, let alone afford to buy a home. They are worried about those who struggle to afford rising fuel costs to drive to work and the shops and appointments and the park.

There are those that ask for more medium density development in our suburbs. The missing middle campaign has highlighted one of Canberra’s long-running issues, a lack of duplexes, town houses and low-rise apartments. Other cities around the world have this kind of development but Canberra is dominated by big houses on large blocks for our increasingly small families, and high-rise apartments. We have very little in between. Geographically, our city is the size of Sydney, but our population is only a fraction of Sydney’s. That’s because we’ve grown up without medium and high-quality density, and it is causing major problems. Some people can’t afford to live here, and some who are already here would like to downsize but can’t do it in their suburbs. Businesses are struggling to find workers. It’s causing problems.

Many are concerned about the impacts of climate change. We need to make changes to ensure Canberra remains liveable as our climate becomes hotter and drier. We know we will experience more extremes with climate. We know increased concrete and hard building surfaces make that worse. The Greens have been working on this problem and it is possible to develop well without increasing urban heat, but it requires careful choices and rigorous implementation.

Many people prioritise access to public transport and active travel. This is particularly so for younger people, who are less likely to want to own a car and who may not even hold a licence. But any city with a growing population needs good active and public transport. Canberra’s congestion is growing three times faster than any other mainland Australian capital. If we don’t get our mass and active transport right, we will all be stuck in traffic, all the time.

Many people want our suburbs to be built with adequate schools, community facilities, public services and public transport. Unfortunately in Canberra, we’ve seen residential development roll out without this. Molonglo has no group centre. People moved into Whitlam and Lawson before the buses did. Belconnen town centre is approaching 10,000 people including 400 children, but no school.

Canberrans also care deeply about our environment. Many don’t want unending urban sprawl. They see the ongoing destruction of our biodiversity. They know every greenfields development is on ecologically sensitive habitat. They see more species on the brink of extinction, like the Canberra Earless Dragon, the Greater Glider, the Matchstick Grasshopper and the Golden Sun Moth and they don’t want to lose these for their children. They follow the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommendations. The IPCC says we need better infill development, close to transport corridors and public services. Many see how big Canberra is, how spread out we are already, and they don’t want to see more sprawl.

Developers have also been calling for a review. They want an easier system to work with and, where that leads to high-quality development that addresses our big problems like climate change and housing affordability, the Greens agree. But we do not agree with the set point for industry which is to develop with maximum yield at minimum cost. We need to build what Canberra needs, not what makes profits for industry.

And there are also many homeowners and landlords who want to ensure their property values remain the same or increase.

No individual or group has just one interest. All arguments are nuanced. We need to engage with what we’re told and we also need to hear the fears and hopes people are expressing that lie behind their ideas. Planning can be divisive, but we need to avoid this divisiveness as much as possible. We should not set one side of the community against another. We cannot deal with the challenges we are facing if we play politics instead of looking after our people and our planet.

The Greens want to ensure that we bring in a good planning system that meets the needs of our community now and for generations to come. This doesn’t just mean ensuring a steady supply of housing. This also means that we live in an environment – a natural environment and a built environment – that can stand the test of time.

We need a Planning Bill that reflects the values and the outcomes that we want to see. The current Bill is not yet ready to pass. The Greens said this late last year when it was tabled and we left Cabinet so we could work on it. I am briefing amendments to improve it.

Our Planning Bill needs to provide space for genuine community consultation on planning decisions. This means ensuring there is sufficient time for people to contribute, early enough in the process for it to make a difference. The consultation must be run in accordance with good principles of consultation that are embedded in the legislation.

We need the objects of the Act and the principles of good planning to be part of decision-making. There is no point having these good frameworks if decision makers aren’t required to take them into account.

Planners sometimes have to balance competing interests and views. This means they will sometimes need to depart from entity advice, such as that from the Conservator or the Environment Protection Agency. But where they do this, it should be clear and considered and transparent. They should publish the reasons. Transparency lets us learn and understand how decisions are made and lets us test them. It’s a key part of trust.

We want a review into how this new system is functioning within 2-3 years. That’s important for any major reform.

We want to restore the right for people to lodge a controlled activity order. These are very rarely used. Only three were lodged in the last financial year and 4 the financial year beforehand.

But this important tool lets Canberrans take action against non-compliant development. Controlled activity orders are sometimes the only way for people to ensure their complaint is followed through. Why would we remove this democratic and sensible option?

We need much better references to climate change and resilience. This is more than talking about “net zero”. Net zero means you look at the ongoing energy use of a building, and use offsets if you need to. But a genuine understanding of our changing climate means you look at embedded emissions and transport emissions. It means you look at resilience and adaptation. At how we deal with heat and floods and hail. At how we make a just transition for those who will suffer most from these extremes.

We need a better understanding of biodiversity in our legislation. We are in an extinction crisis. We need to act like it.

Our planning system also needs to prioritise housing affordability. This does not just mean enough housing. It means affordable housing, public housing, social and community housing.

This system introduces Territory Priority Projects. Once declared, a Territory Priority Project cannot be appealed. We understand the occasional need for these but we must strengthen the laws around them. There must be sufficient community consultation. They must meet this and the other 3 public interest tests. Declarations should have political accountability. The members in here should be accountable for such major city-shaping decisions.

We need a proper definition of Ecologically Sustainable Development. It should reflect international norms of Ecologically Sustainable Development. This concept is defined internationally and we should follow that. We should not make up our own definition, and we should not prioritise “the achievement of economic growth”. Instead, to live sustainably, we need to integrate economic, social and environmental considerations.

We need ACT-listed species to be considered in any strategic assessment that is required under Commonwealth legislation. These have traditionally occurred when land is developed for new suburbs, and it is imperative that we sufficiently consider the impacts on ACT species, not just Commonwealth Matters of National Environmental Significance.

We need proper references to cumulative environmental impacts and proper links to our environmental legislation.

We should not exempt greenfield development from merits appeal.
And we need to see the detail that has been promised but has not yet been released, such as the practical examples of how decisions will be made under this new system.

This is a long list of changes. I’m really looking forward to working with my colleagues in the Canberra Liberals and ACT Labor to get it right. And we have to get the details right, because this system will have an enormous impact on Canberra now and in the future. We need to address climate change and housing affordability. And we must look after our most vulnerable people and protect our environment as we go.

Now, the Planning Bill can’t possibly deliver all of these things. But the ACT Planning Review and Reform Project as a package can deliver a good chunk of it.

As well as amending the bill, we need a clear commitment to a governance review. This should have been done as part of the Planning Review but the opportunity was missed. The Planning Review looked at many of the important aspects of the planning system except this one. We must look at governance now. Planning and development decisions are major decisions in Canberra. Our land is our largest natural resource, and once we have sold it or developed it, we cannot undo this. We must have confidence in the system. Within 12 months of passage of the bill, we need an expert who is independent of government to review the governance arrangements.

The Planning Bill is supported by the new Territory Plan, new District Strategies, design guides and technical specifications. Government has consulted on these but has not yet released the results. We need to see those.

We also need to make sure we do not lose the progress we have made. One of the biggest concerns I’ve heard from people who speak to me about planning in the last 4 months is confusion about how variation 369 will be implemented through the new system. Variation 369 placed minimum requirements for tree canopy, increased the proportion of permeable surfaces, and put limits on site footprints on residential blocks. It was an important step in ensuring we meet our 30% tree canopy and permeable surfaces targets within our Living Infrastructure Plan. People are desperate to ensure trees and their cooling effects are protected in this new system. They understand the need for density, but they also understand the need to avoid urban heat island effect. This is something the Greens will be paying particular attention to. We need effective integration to retain and grow our canopy cover and to make sure we have enough permeable surfaces.

This review has delivered some good results. We are pleased that the Government has committed to developing a training package to assist staff to undertake their duties under the new legislation – this will be critical to ensuring good planning decisions are made.

We are pleased that the public will have more access to information on DAs.

We welcome inclusion of key threatening processes as a trigger for environmental impact statements.

There are some good things in the review and the response so far – but we still have work to do.

This is a complex system. It will not be perfect the day it begins. The Greens are working hard to improve it and we will not pass it unless it is good enough to pass. That is why we have left Cabinet to work on this Bill.

But we also understand that any large and complex system will need ongoing review and accountability.

We will need a governance review within 12 months.

We will need to ensure that variation 369 is implemented not just on residential blocks, but that similar provisions exist within estate development plans and other zoning types, We need to ensure we are protecting trees and green space by using really good LIDAR data.

We need parliamentary accountability on some key decisions, like the declaration of a Territory Priority Project.

We need a review of the interim Territory Plan.

We need a comprehensive review of the new Act and system within 5 years.

Good or bad, planning affects everyone and everything in Canberra. It is a difficult and detailed conversation but a really important one. I look forward to the start of the debate in June.


The speech was first delivered to the Legislative Assembly on 9 May 2023