Chief Minister Katy Gallagher has intervened to withdraw the government’s controversial fast-track planning laws that provoked significant public opposition in their short life and sparked a bitter debate in the ACT Assembly this week.
The laws would have allowed the government to declare special precincts and major projects and bypass normal planning laws, instead bringing the decision-making into the hands of the Assembly.
Special projects would have been exempt from tree protection and heritage laws and there would have been no rights of appeal. The legislation was to be used to declare a special Northbourne Avenue precinct and allow the light rail to move ahead without delay and without the headache of Northbourne heritage delays.
But on Thursday, the government said it would withdraw the bill. Environment Minister Simon Corbell will go back to the drawing board on the idea, and meantime will bring forward legislation next week to push through the secure mental health facility at Symonston – the project the government has used to justify treating its planning laws urgently.
Mr Corbell said the backtrack was not Ms Gallagher’s exclusive decision, but was made by all ministers. They had taken account of the feedback and recognised there was more work to be done, he said.
The planning bill would return in a revised form, but would be released as an exposure draft for public comment and worked on over some months. The delay would not affect the rail project, since the government had not anticipated having to make a declaration along the corridor until some time in 2015, he said. It would be considered as part of a revised bill.
The delay will allow heritage protection to be placed over buildings on Northbourne Avenue, which are being considered for heritage status. The laws, if passed, would have put an end to work on those nominations.
But Mr Corbell took that in his stride, saying a heritage listing did not mean sites could not be developed and the government had always intended to take account of heritage values. He confirmed the heritage and tree protection aspects of the legislation would be the target of revision.
“This is a government committed to responding to concerns that are raised,” he said “Given the range and depth of concerns that have been expressed we are going to take the time to speak with the people.”
As for the mental health facility, Mr Corbell said next week’s project-specific bill would put beyond doubt any issue around land zoning at the Symonston site, and put beyond doubt the validity of any decision to approve the project.
The Assembly had already agreed in principal to the now abandoned planning laws, which Mr Corbell introduced at the end of March and had hoped to push through in April.
They had the support of Greens minister Shane Rattenbury, despite the blow to tree protection and heritage. But Mr Rattenbury said the government hadn’t expected the level of disquiet it confronted over the legislation. He had assessed the bill as improving transparency but it was clear others hadn’t shared the viewpoint, he said.
Asked whether a commitment to projects such as light rail was blinding ministers to the likely reaction to laws such as this, Mr Rattenbury insisted the government was taking the right approach on Capital Metro and working through the complex project.
Rejecting the process as a sham and the laws as dodgy, Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson said Simon Corbell had “egg all over his face”.
“I welcome the fact that they have now withdrawn these laws – they are an absolute debacle,” he said. “What he'stried to do here is circumvent planning laws for one of the biggest decisions that we’re going to see in the territory.”
- with Henry Belot