Unlocking Canberra light rail's full potential

Unlocking Canberra light rail's full potential

When Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced during the 2016 ACT election campaign that the Land Development Agency would be split into two – one focusing on suburban development and a new authority to focus on urban renewal principally along the Northbourne corridor – he presented an opportunity, which if supported by government, community and industry, could provide an unprecedented economic boost to the ACT.

This year I accompanied Planning Minister Mick Gentleman and a number of ACT community and business leaders, on an urban renewal delegation to the United States and Canada. One of the key learnings from this trip was that the biggest benefit from investment in transport infrastructure (such as light rail) is the economic returns to the local community. Now that light rail construction has begun, the ACT needs to maximise the potential economic returns from government's investment. A new authority focused on urban renewal could help unlock this potential.

The idea of an urban renewal authority is not new. Across Australia there are numerous examples where agencies, in various forms, have successfully transformed precincts in south-east Queensland, Sydney, East Perth, Subiaco and South Australia. These agencies have already demonstrated that an urban renewal authority can achieve amazing outcomes. Lessons have already been learnt and solutions already identified.

Maybe the most important factor to be considered is the degree of political involvement. Broad political support is a must, but too much political oversight will bog the authority down with unnecessary bureaucracy. The Chief Minister, Gentleman and other key ministers need to find the appropriate balance between giving political support, without political interference.

Planning Minister Mick Gentleman and members of an ACT delegation learn about economic returns from  investment in transport infrastructure in Tuscon, Arizona.

Planning Minister Mick Gentleman and members of an ACT delegation learn about economic returns from investment in transport infrastructure in Tuscon, Arizona.

But political support is not enough. The vision for the city and Northbourne corridor must be clearly understood by all – senior ministers, MLAs from all parties, community members, builders, developers, investors and other stakeholders. The best urban renewal authority in the world will fail to deliver a vision that is not communicated, understood, tested and agreed by all stakeholders.

Next, the new authority requires a strong and fearless leader. This task is simple, we just need to clone the late Trevor Reddacliff, former chairman of Queensland's Urban Renewal Task Force. Appointed in 1991 to control the urban renewal of Brisbane's inner city waterfront, Reddacliff was legendary in his ability to convince politicians, government departments, community members and developers alike of his vision. His hands-on determination to see high quality building design and delivery was crucial to the success of the redevelopment of many riverside precincts in Brisbane.

Whether powers rest with the new authority or remain with the existing planning department, the critical factor will be issuing development approvals in a timely fashion, resolving disputes quickly, and providing maximum certainty for investors along the corridor. Provided development proposals fit with the Gateway and Northbourne vision, third party appeal rights should be removed, or severely diminished. After all, the ACT community had its say on the development of light rail and the Northbourne corridor at the ballot box on October 15.

Assuming the ACT's urban renewal authority succeeds in the city and Northbourne corridor, its authority should be extended to deal with other urban renewal precincts across Canberra including the Yarralumla Brickworks, Manuka Oval and the remainder of the Kingston Foreshore.

How the Legislative Assembly determines the final shape of the urban renewal authority remains to be seen. I remain optimistic, however, that the new authority is the key to unlocking the economic potential of light rail stage one.

Michael Hopkins is the deputy executive director of Master Builders ACT.

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