Emotions are running high in Weston Creek over proposed public housing developments. The ACT government should represent the interests of all Canberrans and weigh the concerns of the existing local community (and any potential harm to the environment) against the prospective benefits for new residents.
The fact that such developments would permanently alter the area places an extra responsibility on proponents to offer strong evidence in their favour. To date, none has been forthcoming.
In response to the government's refusal to consult meaningfully, I spoke face-to-face with about 250 Chapman and Rivett residents. It was an enlightening 10 days.
This corner of Weston Creek is socially diverse, boasting a multicultural community spanning six generations, 20-plus nationalities, and a mix of public and private housing. Opinions varied, but 98 per cent were against the proposed development of Chapman's "Darwinia Park" (two "in favour"; 35 "oppose"; 210 "strongly oppose"; three "don't know"). There was no clear correlation with age, gender, type of housing tenure, or even distance from the site.
The government has tried to dismiss all opposition as "nimbyism". Overlooking the fact that no sites were selected in the constituencies of relevant ministers, no one I spoke to resented their rates being used to ensure that every Canberran has somewhere decent to live. Perhaps the government should acknowledge that such strong emotional reactions are a good thing: it means Canberrans care about their city, communities and green spaces.
Canberrans are fortunate to have inherited numerous reserves, parks and ovals, but the suburbs' informal green spaces are equally important. The health benefits are well established. Green spaces must be preserved for future generations, especially if our city continues its remorseless growth. The Chapman site is one of the last remnants of native bushland in Weston Creek.
I do not claim to be an expert on housing policy, but even a cursory reading of the relevant literature reveals that the "salt-and-pepper" approach is outmoded and ineffective. Made in America, this policy was designed to achieve three objectives: facilitate employment and social engagement; reduce stigmatisation; and improve access to services and infrastructure. Yet, as the independent Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute reported back in 2003, it has proved to be a "simplistic and deterministic solution to the problem of entrenched poverty without ever attempting to overcome its fundamental drivers".
I do not pretend there are easy solutions to the ACT's housing crisis. Yet the government appears wedded to a mid-20th century vision of a grand Northbourne boulevard, lined with towers of glass and steel, penetrated by a slick tram, and cleansed of its dilapidated public housing units and their tenants.
More logical, according to another of the institute's reports published in 2015, would be inner-city redevelopment using the "variable tenure" model: building high-quality, indistinguishable public and private units based on community-led design. With good management, this would allow existing residents to remain in familiar surroundings, close to job opportunities, excellent public transport, and the amenities and services they currently use.
A second-best option might be to redevelop available "Mr Fluffy" sites for dual-occupancy social housing – although this might involve sacrificing some federal government funding. The current proposal, termed "silo developments" or "mini-estates", represents the least-sound choice. The advice from experts, including a 2015 Public Housing Watch study, is that available funds are better spent tackling the serious challenges faced by many public housing residents, with targeted job-creation schemes, training opportunities, and addiction and crime-rehabilitation programs, rather than simply shifting the problems to the suburbs and hoping for the best.
Belying its reputation as a Liberal stronghold, Chapman was split left-right almost evenly at the ACT election last October. Given the strength of community feeling, supporting the proposed developments could be a major "own goal" for politicians in the Murrumbidgee electorate. Should this public housing be built, subsequent "incidents" in the vicinity will serve as a constant reminder of the government's folly. The obvious beneficiaries would be the ACT Liberals but – in light of Brexit, Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson – the danger of an irrational, populist backlash cannot be discounted.
Did the public housing renewal taskforce play a game of "pin the tail on the Canberra donkey"? Unless one chose an island in Lake Burley Griffin, one would be hard pressed to find a less suitable site for the proposed development than "Darwinia Park" (and those in Wright and Holder are little better). The fear, disbelief, and anguish I have witnessed are genuine. Many local residents remain traumatised by the 2003 bushfires, when about 50 homes in the vicinity of the park were totally destroyed. The residents of Percy Crescent and Kathner Street – about 150 of them – are acutely aware that the park is their only escape route next time around.
The government should not deliberately endanger their lives or those of any potential new residents. It is not merely ignoring the community, but also disregarding the available scientific evidence and contradicting its own policies. More convenient, cheaper and safer sites exist.
Dr Chris Braddick is a Chapman resident and president of the Community Alliance Party. These are his personal views.