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Reassurance needed on Northbourne corridor

Andrew Barr's enthusiasm for Canberra's urban renewal and future growth (and his version of it, in particular) needs little introduction, and it was to the fore again on Thursday when he read his "Building the Future" statement to the Assembly. In it, the Chief Minister reiterated his belief that "no other city has quite our opportunity to get the balance right between a dynamic city centre and flourishing suburbs … we will honour the heritage of the bush capital and the spirit of Griffin's vision for the ideal city … our challenge, however, is not to let ourselves become a museum of the early 20th century's conception of city life – as was the case when Canberra was conceived – but to aspire to be the showcase of how the people of this century want to live and work".

This was not just another serve of "the vision thing", however. Mr Barr reported that work to transform the Land Development Agency into two specialist entities – one focusing on Civic and the Northbourne Avenue corridor and the other on developing "vibrant new suburbs" was well underway. And he announced that the entity overseeing the future development of the city and Northbourne corridor would be guided by the creation of a "defined precinct" to ensure "absolute clarity of purpose, role and authority, as well as accountability and responsibility".

The LDA's restructuring, which was triggered by an Auditor-General's report criticising the agency's management practices and its involvement in contentious land deals, is a welcome development. Expectations of a clean slate may need to be kept in check however, for Mr Barr was explicit in stating the government expected the "new entity [would] operate commercially and deliver social policy and sustainability goals".

If the LDA could not combine improving housing affordability and maximising land sale profits – the objectives laid down for it by the government – then how will Mr Barr ensure the new entity does not prioritise commercial goals over the objective of delivering "quality buildings, places and landscapes"?

If past conduct is a good predictor of future behaviour, then Barr's fervent declaration that good design "matters" is likely to honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Canberra has had some interesting additions to its architectural skyline in recent years, but they have been eclipsed in number and impact by Kingston Foreshore-type developments.

Mr Barr's reference to the "successful" developments of Southbank in Brisbane and East Perth does not augur well for the prospects of Northbourne Avenue being reshaped as a notable and distinctive gateway. That's still possible if the government is true to its commitment of "genuine community engagement". But Labor's propensity for putting commercial considerations first is long-standing, with at least one attempt to fast track planning laws relating to the Northbourne corridor. This was abandoned only after a public outcry. Only by outlining fair and impartial planning rules will Mr Barr reassure those who fear his vision for Northbourne has dollar signs in front of it.