Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development director-general Dorte Ekelund set to leave

Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development director-general Dorte Ekelund set to leave

The head of planning in the ACT says it is her decision to walk away from the job and that she hasn't been pushed and isn't making a protest about the state of planning in the Territory.

Dorte Ekelund has been director-general of the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development for the past four years but has been involved with planning in the ACT for 18 years. She was also deputy chief planner in Western Australia.

Dorte Ekelund is leaving as director-general of the Environment and Planning Directorate.

Dorte Ekelund is leaving as director-general of the Environment and Planning Directorate. Credit:Elesa Kurtz

Her contract as head of planning in the ACT is up in mid-April and she has decided not to renew it as she seeks to "slow down" and take on smaller projects, travel, sit on boards and perhaps teach. But not work full-time again.

"I've worked full-time since I was 18, so that's 35 years, and did both degrees while I was working full-time and someone raised the concept of a 'grown-up gap year' with me and I thought, 'Wow, that sounds good'," she said.

Dorte Ekelund and husband Jeremy Lasek plan to stay in Canberra.

Dorte Ekelund and husband Jeremy Lasek plan to stay in Canberra.

"I've spent 18 years in the same jurisdiction and it's a full-on job. I love it - 540 staff and a $350 million budget - and to do the job well, requires a lot of time and effort and that usually means working in the morning before work and working into the night and working on weekends.

"I just think it's time to slow down a little bit but I'm not retiring per se."

In a wide-ranging interview, she told The Canberra Times on Wednesday that consultation on planning issues was not a fait accompli and people power could influence development decisions, that she was proud of her efforts to try to incorporate climate change considerations into planning and how she had lobbied for the kangaroo fertility trial as an alternative to culling.

Ms Ekelund was appointed to the top job in planning in March, 2013 by then Environment and Planning Minister Simon Corbell.

​ACT Public Service head Kathy Leigh recently told staff that Ms Ekelund had advised her she had decided to "pursue other interests, both inside and outside of work" and that Ms Leigh believed she had "made a significant contribution to the planning and environment portfolios".

One of the incendiary issues around planning is public consultation on development proposals and whether it makes any difference.

Ms Ekelund is adamant it can.

"We've got such a well-educated and engaged community and planning is an innately political thing, because it's about our democracy, it's about how change occurs in the environment and there is always going to be people who are for something and people who are against something," she said.

"The community knows a lot of stuff that our technical people might not be so close to, so consultation is really part of the planning process.

"I think we're constantly trying to get better at consulting our community and that includes improving technology."

With the Curtin shops masterplan the latest planning battleground, Ms Ekelund said the proposal, including a six-storey building, was still a draft and there was still a development application to consider.

"There's still a requirement to consider how the proposal fits into the context and how it contributes to the amenity and character of the area, so it's still a matter we need to consider," she said.

Ms Ekelund said a decision by planning authorities to initially knock back a development at the Dickson shops was proof it did listen.

"We refused the application and they went away and substantially changed their proposal and we believe addressed the concerns we had and a lot of concerns the community had. There were some residual concerns in the community but we, on balance,thought the development would deliver good outcomes for the community," she said.

But some residents are not convinced, appealing in the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal the decision to allow 140 units and Coles and Aldi supermarkets at Dickson. Hearings are due to resume in March.

Dickson Residents Group convenor Jane Goffman did not believe community consultation worked.

"It takes a frightful amount of work for the community to jump up and down and say, 'We don't think you are doing the right thing'," she said.

Ms Ekelund, meanwhile, said she had tried to mesh the environment and planning portfolios including accounting for climate change in planning.

"Over the last few days we've really appreciated how hot it can get. So it's about getting though to the planning side, including ministers and my staff and people generally, we need to be planning cities to protect people from the heat," she said.

There had also been planning around the light rail to consider.

"So that's creating an environment where we have a relatively dense, accessible city with different housing and lifestyle choices inside a suburban city. So it's not an either/or. We believe we can do both," she said.

Ms Ekelund was also proud of being a hands-on boss who still offered technical advice.

"When I was interviewed for this job I said, 'Don't expect a policy-free zone'. I'm still a town planner, I'm still a technician but I've also got a strong environmental background," she said.

Other achievements were "securing government support for 100 per cent renewable electricity" and Commonwealth funding for a healthy waterways project.

"It was also my work that pushed the kangaroo fertility project. If we can secure a means by which we control kangaroo numbers on our conservation reserves in a way that doesn't involve culling them, I think that would be fantastic," she said.

Ms Ekelund and her husband, Jeremy Lasek, head of media for the Australian Federal Police, plan to stay in Canberra but have also bought a property at North Wollongong beach. They lost their Chapman home in the 2003 bushfires and featured in the George Negus-presented After the Fires.

Megan Doherty is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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