I was let in on a secret just over five years ago when I moved with my family to Canberra from Melbourne. It's a secret all Canberrans know well, while the rest of the country raises an eyebrow at the penchant for roundabouts and the antics of Parliament.
It's what a special place they live in.
We've heard the catch phrase of "big city perks mixed with country-style living", but it doesn't quite capture the luxury of being so connected to the world when you want to be and so disconnected when you don't. It's a fascinating place for me to enter the property sector, because people are so passionate about progress yet also about preservation. The combination of the ACT's distinct governance structure, the planned foundations of the city and its particularly engaged community present unique challenges for those in the sector, but also opportunities.
Holding us back is an inability to have an informed and sophisticated conversation about how we want the built environment of Canberra to evolve and what it will take to get us there. We seem to have reached a stalemate whereby any new project is met with such fear and scepticism that it is hindering our progress. Understandably, recent issues concerning the building of apartments around the country have fuelled the distrust.
I want to take some steps towards repairing this relationship between the property sector and the community to get us moving forward again. While everyone has their part to play, as a developer, we can lift the shroud of mystery surrounding planning and process and start to engage a wider cross-section of the community. This involves sharing the market insights and regulatory constraints that influence the master planning of a site and informing the wider community about how the development cycle works, so we can correct some common misconceptions.
Misconception 1: Developers determine the zoning of a site
The phases sit within the long-term strategic governance surrounding land supply, land use and zoning.
While developers can have some influence on the future of our cities and these fundamental principles through industry advocacy, they are ultimately a responsibility of government and an evolving picture based on the long-term plan for the city and its projected growth.
Misconception 2: The sector is building smaller homes that no one wants
Before buying a site, a lot of investment is made into assessing its potential and researching what potential buyers are looking for. One area where the sector could be more transparent is in sharing the findings from this initial research. Often, the desires of buyers and those of the surrounding community do not align, which can lead to development disputes.
The mandatory focus and timing of consultation can be impractical and counterproductive regardless of intentions.
By sharing this information, we can start to reconcile the differences between how we live now and how we will live in the future. People throughout their housing careers are asking for a greater housing mix to meet their budget, household and lifestyle. While challenging, we have a lot to gain from being open to industry innovation and higher density in terms of diversity, liveliness and added amenity.
Misconception 3: Community consultation is not genuine
Community consultation is imperative in trying to ensure a connected and vibrant community. However, the mandatory focus and timing of consultation can be impractical and counterproductive regardless of intentions. By focus, I mean we only consult with residents, businesses and groups living near the site and not those who will end up living there. By timing, I mean the sequence of steps in the approvals process that can lead to confusion and conflict.
In the ACT, a full design concept with visuals must be presented to the community before submitting a development application. Once the plans are adapted to incorporate community feedback, they are then reviewed by the government. This process is not open to the public and can result in significant changes to the plans. The result, which the government puts on public display, can be a surprise to the community. So, despite a genuine consultation process with community and government, the developer is exposed to legal hurdles at the last minute.
The ultimate goal needs to be a process that enables all relevant parties to add lasting value to a development. I think we can get there with better information sharing, an open mind and a collective desire to build a strong foundation for our city.
- Travis Doherty is chief executive of Village Building Company