LDA restructure an unmissable opportunity to secure sustainable and inclusive Canberra

In May, the ACT Legislative Assembly will debate the Government’s legislation to split the Land Development Agency (LDA) into the City Renewal Authority (CRA) and the Suburban Land Agency (SLA). The Greens applaud this move, as it will better enable the government to focus on the very different roles of suburban development compared to infill development in the city and light rail corridor. 

This is also an unmissable opportunity to get Canberra’s planning and development system on the right track, and for the ACT Government to address the key issues of environmental sustainability, affordable and social housing targets, and genuine community consultation. The Greens believe that progressing these policies is essential if Canberra is to become the inclusive and sustainable city it promises to be. We also want to see this restructure address the governance and accountability issues that have been plaguing the LDA.

Canberra has grown by almost 38,000 over the past 6 years—more than the population of Woden Valley. How we now respond to the challenge of planning and developing our city and its suburbs to accommodate this growth will determine whether Canberra realises its vision of becoming one of the most liveable green cities in the world. The alternative is that we start to resemble the traffic-choked city of Sydney, with its huge social inequality, air pollution, property development-associated corruption and towering high-rise apartments.

Poor planning and development carry serious risks: they can lock in decades of energy inefficiency through poorly-designed buildings; they can expose us to avoidable health and environmental damage from streetscapes that haven’t been designed to accommodate extreme temperatures and that contribute to urban heat islands; they can aggravate the housing affordability crisis by increasing housing prices while public and community housing supply remains inadequate; and they can reduce community participation through the removal of designated community spaces and public amenities.

The new legislation will drive the way land development is carried out in Canberra over the coming decades. If we do not build explicit responsibilities for the new bodies into the legislation, we are at risk of perpetuating the LDA’s business-as-usual approach and habit of dragging its feet on government policies that support best-practice green development. We could end up with two new LDAs empowered to prioritise commercial returns and new developments that fail to apply the ACT’s existing policies on carbon neutrality, housing affordability and community engagement.

The Greens believe it is essential that environmentally sustainable development is addressed in the legislation. The new CRA and SLA must deliver development that supports the ACT’s legislated requirement of carbon neutrality by 2050.

The Labor-Greens Parliamentary Agreement commits the Government to “set affordable housing targets across greenfield and urban renewal development projects”. In line with this, the Greens would like to see these targets legislated to secure affordable housing, community-owned housing and public housing stock as part of any new major development of land.

This legislation addresses some of the LDA’s governance issues. These include clear conflict of interest provisions for CEOs and board members, and a requirement that the CRA details how it will implement ministerial directions for city renewal precincts. This provision should avoid a repeat of the City to the Lake controversy criticised in the Auditor-General’s 2016 report into LDA land acquisitions.

This is why the Parliamentary Agreement also requires the boards to include independent members with skills from the social and affordable housing sector. We want to see these new agencies deliver best practice sustainable development, not just commercial returns to the Government. The bill proposes boards of five members for each agency, but the Greens believe that an increase to seven would provide more opportunity for the board to cover all the needed skills while fitting within the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ recommendations on the size of boards, especially noting the many potential conflicts of interest that may arise given that Canberra is only a small city.

It is important that the new structure maintains an independent role for the Planning and Land Authority’s planning assessors, the Conservator for Flora and Fauna and heritage assessments and that they are separate to the development arm of government. It is also important that there is greater accountability to deliver strategic planning and that it overarches all government development, to ensure the new bodies don’t improperly influence planning policy to serve commercial imperatives at the expense of good planning. 

In line with our commitment to put the community first, the Greens will push for genuine community consultation to be an explicit requirement of the CRA and the SLA for all urban renewal and suburban land development. This means incorporating community concerns into development proposals and consulting community members at the earliest opportunity.

The Greens will be working with the Government to ensure that these principles are included in the legislation and that Canberra gets the world-class planning system it deserves – one that prioritises the long-term well-being and sustainability of the community.